October is Mental Health Awareness Month.
Mental health is one of the most prominent subjects that dominates our public discourse today. The national conversation surrounding mental wellness — online and offline — has aided in the stigma of mental illness being removed, slowly but surely.
Though society has recently developed the language and perspective to expand our understanding of it, through data and first-hand accounts on where marginalized communities stand in the scope of it all, the current conversation surrounding wellness and mental health isn’t quite new; it’s been subtly channeled through music through time. And historically, rap music has always served as a medium for artists to share their struggles.
The late Prodigy once said, “hip-hop is our therapy.” But the conversation around mental health is constantly evolving beyond that notion— beyond the catharsis of making and consuming music. Hip-hop artists has delved deeper into discussing the reality of mental wellness and how it affects their personal and professional lives. From being vocal about getting therapy, to substance abuse, to coping through self-care. All these states of transparency in their music help to promote a fuller understanding of mental health.
So, in honor of Mental Awareness Month, here’s a roundup of 10 memorable hip-hop songs from the past and present that address mental illness and wellness.
My Mind Playing Tricks on Me, The Geto Boys (1991)
In their classic “My Mind is Playing Tricks on Me” from their debut album We Can’t Be Stopped, The Geto Boys captured the reality of Post Traumatic Syndrome within urban communities. Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill vividly describe the various mental states of paranoia, schizophrenia, and depression. “My Mind Playing Tricks On” Me” was a reflection of Scarface’s own inner turmoil, at the time struggling as a manic-depressive and Bushwick Bill, who had just attempted suicide. Even today, Scarface openly talks about his battle with depression. The truth behind the song gives at an authenticity that is still felt almost 30 years later. “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” was a forerunner on how rap artists dealt with mental issues through their music.
At night I can’t sleep, I toss and turn/Candlesticks in the dark, visions of bodies being burned/Four walls just staring at a n***a/I’m paranoid, sleeping with my finger on the trigger/My mother’s always stressin’ I ain’t living right/But I ain’t going out without a fight
“Suicidal Thoughts” by The Notorious B.I.G (1994)
The theme that runs through the music of the Notorious BIG is his fascination with death. Death was a common theme in Biggie’s music and never is it more apparent than on “Suicidal Thoughts.” Produced by the legendary Lord Finesse, “Suicidal Thoughts” was arguably one of the most exceptional rap songs on the late rapper’s debut album Ready to Die.
In a severely depressed state, “Suicidal Thoughts” is a suicide note that finds Big conflicted about the hand that life had dealt him, and he calls Puff Daddy to explain the decision that he has already come to terms with.
The song ends in tragedy with a single gunshot, followed by the phone left off the hook. “Suicidal Thoughts” is the essence of metal despair captured in the form of rap music.
The stress is buildin’ up, I can’t,/(Yo, I’m on my way over there, man)/I can’t believe suicide is on my fuckin’ mind/I wanna leave, I swear to God I feel like death is fuckin’ callin’ me/But no you wouldn’t understand
“Slippin” by DMX (1998)
Over the course of his career, DMX has had his fair share of battles. Often fighting his demons in the public eye and in his music, X has struggled with drug addiction, alcoholism, paranoia, and manic depression.
“Slippin,” from Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, is an exorcism of sorts. The song finds X reminiscing about all the traumatic events of his life and how they shaped him, for better or for worse. In the opening refrain, X with piercing insight says, “This life shit, this life shit is like is like bugged the fuck out, son, for real. See, to live is to suffer. But to survive…Well, that’s to find meaning in the suffering.”
Used to get high, just to get by/Used to have to puff my L in the morning before I could fly/Ate somethin’, a couple of forties made me hate somethin’/I did some coke, now I’m ready to take somethin’/Three years later showin’ signs of stress/Didn’t keep my hair cut or give a fuck how I dressed/I’m possessed by the darker side, livin’ the cruddy life
“Losing My Mind” by Pharoahe Monch (2014)
Pharoahe Monch’s reputation as a legendary lyricist is etched in stone. Ever since his days as a member of Organized Konfusion, Monch has probed deep into his own metal issues through his music.
On his conceptual album Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Monch’s creates every track around some form of PTSD. During the recording process, Monch was struggling with depression and trying to maintain his sobriety. PSTD was not metaphorical but a mirror into his experiences.
“Losing My Mind,” is Monch’s attempt to add to the collective conversation of the need for therapy in the African American community. Maneuvering through the darkness of depression, he skillfully depicts the internal struggle when one is suffering from faltering mental illness.
Out cries tears “Dear God, where are we?”/That’s what I scream towards the skyline but probably/No one can hear a word of what I was saying/Insurgents surged in the temple where I was praying/Now flashbacks wake me abruptly when police pass by/Lights flash, if I could only put the past on a flashdrive I’d/For peace of mind, install an external drive/So I’d be more driven internally to survive
“Only Human” by Joe Budden (2015)
Before he became a media star, Joe Budden was a formidable and highly respected MC in hip-hop. Always an open book, he bore his soul on “Only Human.” From his Some Love Lost EP, “Only Human,” recorded the day after he was released from jail, details his struggle with his mental state. It also chronicles his thoughts regarding suicide and depression.
“Only Human” is a standout track that speaks to how MCs are coping with the frailty of their mental states. Budden takes the risk by revealing his lowest moments to shed light on the darkness of mental illness.
Can’t be depression, couldn’t have it this long/So many secrets I only told through a glass of Patron, my nigga/Speaking of secrets, that’s when I got the Kaylin text/Read it and cried, couldn’t believe what she was saying next/She said “you’re going through a lot/I’m hoping you ain’t in the grave and dead/Cause not too many people know your brain’s a mess”/Who knew that she was keeping track of it all?/I wrote back “lol” but wasn’t laughing at all/I ain’t tell her just the other day that that gun was in my lap/Pen and pad in my hand, and I was writing a note
“Wounds” by Kid Cudi (2016)
Kid Cudi has become one of the faces of mental illness in hip-hop. In 2013, he suffered from an emotional breakdown that after ending a relationship. In 2016, he announced on social media that he checked himself into a rehab because of his struggles with prescription medications, anxiety, depression, and suicidal urges. Cudi’s music is often colored with his metal battles.
On “Wounds,” from the Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin album, Cudi moves through the various mental states and the effects that they cause. “Wounds” is an authentic portrayal of an artist that’s fighting for their mental life.
We all have times when we weep/It’s a troubled life, traumatized psychologically/I pray, in the shadows when I’m speakin’ to no one/Myself, did everything right, didn’t I?/So why aren’t I whole?/You know you better dig deeper/Don’t lie to you/You better dig deep, deep
“Mad” by Solange and Lil Wayne (2016)
On her magnum opus, A Seat at the Table, Solange addresses a multiplicity of topics with provocative clarity. “Mad” featuring Lil Wayne is an exploration into black emotional vulnerability. She questions the very notion that African Americans have to justify their anger in the face of American oppression.
Lil Wayne, in one of his most transparent verses, addresses many of things that makes him mad, but he also talks about his suicide attempt at a young age. Weezy has mentioned the shooting before but this is the first time that he reveals it was an actual suicide attempt.
And when I attempted suicide, I didn’t die / I remember how mad I was on that day / Man, you gotta let it go before it get up in the way / Let it go, let it go
“1-800-273-8255” by Logic featuring Alessia Cara and Khalid (2017)
On “1-800-273-8255,” Logic tackles the issue of suicide head one. The song’s name is the phone number for the American National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL). Logic addresses homophobia and bullying on the song, two common occurrences that often lead to suicide.
Because of “1-800-273-8255” contribution to discourse around suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline that it has seen record numbers in call volume and social media engagement.
All this other shit I’m talkin’ ’bout they think they know it/I’ve been praying for somebody to save me, no one’s heroic/And my life don’t even matter/I know it I know it I know I’m hurting deep down but can’t show it/I never had a place to call my own/I never had a home/Ain’t nobody callin’ my phone/Where you been? Where you at? What’s on your mind?/They say every life precious but nobody cares about mine
XO Tour Llif3 by Lil Uzi Vert (2017)
The eccentric Lil Uzi Vert adroitly grapples with relationship problems, suicidal thoughts, and acts of betrayal on “XO Tour Llif3.” The song details the extremely emotional experiences of being trapped in unhealthy relationships and how the use of substances becomes a mechanism for escape. Vert copes with loss, disappointment, and its effect upon the human spirit.
Navigating through the rugged terrain of depression, self-medicating, and suicidality, Vert explores the problem we have of identifying mental struggles of those who are around and how innocuous we can be to those whom we love. “XO Tour Llif3” is Vert’s way of uncovering the complexities of mental illness.
She said I’m insane yeah/I might blow my brain out/Xanny numb the pain yeah/Please, Xanny make it go away/I’m committed, not addicted but it keeps controlling me/All that pain now I can’t feel it, I swear that it’s slowing me
Smile by Jay-Z (2017)
For years Jay-Z has been consistently stoic in his persona. He has shared his past personal experiences through his music, but he kept his listening audience at somewhat of a distance as he guarded himself. But after a very public near-end to his marriage to Beyoncé because of his infidelities, Hov learned the art of baring one’s soul through artistic expression, as he does throughout the 4:44 LP.
Jay-Z exposes himself in ways that we’ve rarely experienced in his career. On “Smile,” he reveals that his mother, Gloria Carter, is gay, and he cried tears of joy when she met her partner. Also, he talks about how beneficial therapy has been as he attempted to rebuild his marriage that was on the brink of collapse.
Now, Jay-Z is an advocate for the benefits of therapy because of how it helped him heal emotionally.
Blood diamonds drippin’, we cute/I still ain’t trippin’, that’s life, winners and losers/Drug dealers and abusers, America likes me ruthless/My therapist said I relapsed/I said, “Prehaps I Freudian slipped in European whips”/God sent me to break the chain/I’m the true and livin God in the flesh, the rest of these niggas is vain