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Reading Rap Between the Lines: Addiction and Mental Health

Author: Justin Mckibben

Hip Hop is much more than a genre of music, it is a culture that evolved from a street mentality subculture of various art forms in urban areas into a global diversity of people who have been able to identify and express to each other some of their most vulnerable and intricate feelings and experiences. Hip hop has been described as a simultaneously new and old phenomenon, and rap music is an element of hip hop that speaks to people with chanted rhymes on complex instrumentals.

When looking at a rap artist and their lyrics it is obvious that the music, and the culture are used as a method to express and raise awareness about issues in the community. We examine the works of rap artists to evaluate the message, and when we look close enough at some of the greatest and most celebrated hip hop artists, we can see some clear depictions of struggles with addiction and mental health.

Kendrick Lamar on Alcoholism

Kendrick Lamar is a rapper whose major-label debut album good kid m.A.A.d. city released in October of 2012 includes compelling stories that speak to mental health themes, including:

  • Addiction
  • Depression
  • Stress resilience

Tracks like ‘Swimming Pools’ address addiction and/or alcohol abuse in a way that is very powerful. From the very beginning the artists talks about growing up around people who have “lived their life in bottles”, even referencing his grandfather’s own drinking patterns. This relates to how exposure to alcohol use and abuse in one’s family and early life are genetic and environmental factors that can impact a person’s drinking habits.

In the song, Kendrick paints a picture of the reasons people drink or abuse alcohol, and some common themes such as:

  • Fitting in
  • Killing their sorrow
  • The way it feels
  • Peer pressure

Lamar’s latest album To Pimp A Butterfly, released in March 2015 gets even more detailed with issues like depression, stress and resilience. Specifically there are 2 interesting titles- ‘u’ and ‘i’.

In the song ‘u’, Lamar gives off the essence of a character in a drinking fit. Through this track there is the direct reference to depression, and Lamar’s character describes hopeless and suicidal thoughts.

Then the song ‘i’ comes from another angle, and speaks of overcoming stress and persevering through circumstances, as well as a resolution to love himself regardless of life’s trials.

Was Tupac Shakur Bipolar?

With mental health in mind we are now able to look at writers who were not “diagnosed” with bipolar disorder and by analyzing their work and threading similarities from previous artists, we imply the possibility that some pieces of Hip Hop’s artistic expression grow from a manic depressive brain, and the late Tupac Amur Shakur has an amazingly artistic and incredibly inspiring legacy, that some believe to have grown from a manic depressive mind.

Prior to his music career, Shakur was a published poet, and at 18 years old he published over a 100 poems in The Rose that Grew from the Concrete. Now Tupac Shakur’s “bipolar artistic expressiveness” does not mean Shakur is clinically bipolar. That being said, a look at his material opens the door to the “possibility” of him having been undiagnosed bipolar.

One poem was:


How can there be peace

A young heart with an old soul

How can I be in the depths of solitude

When there are two inside of me

This duo within me causes the perfect opportunity

To learn and live twice as fast

As those who accepts simplicity….

Shakur acknowledges a duality inside that can sit in solitude but can also take action and rise above the others that live in simplicity. He distinguishes himself from others, and acknowledges his dual personalities in a way that shows he means to explore them.

Shakur was infamously an artist who tested the limitations of social conformism and race relations in culture. He had angry lyrics, a sharp tongue, and sensitive poems. And he exposed his sadness as being ingrained in isolation and honest loneliness. Look at titles like:

  • Me Against the World
  • Trapped
  • So Many Tears
  • Only God Can Judge Me

Pac always delivers ideas reminiscent of depression and oppression with such heart, and you can’t help but feel the internal struggle in his voice. Shakur offended his audience, but he welcomed that rejection, and represented himself as a man who regretted nothing about his feelings. The bipolar theme of ego and confidence are present throughout his albums, mangled in with his feelings of distrust, loneliness and contempt for the injustice of the world he sees himself living in. I say this not to question his mental health, but just to point out that even someone as passionate and expressive as Tupac can be struggling with a disorder.

Eminem and Dual Diagnosis

Eminem, real name Marshall Mathers is a household name that lives in infamy in the Hip Hop community, and is probably the perfect example of dual diagnosis, which is when one has two co-occurring disorders. In his case it was an addiction to Vicodin (and other substances) in combination with what he himself often referred to as Bipolar Disorder, and possibly clinically-diagnosable depression.

Eminem was well-known for aggressive lyrics that dealt with mental health and drug addiction, and made references to his own intimate relationship with both. In his book The Way I Am he described his emotional reaction to the murder of Proof, a long time band-mate and best friend back in 2006, and talks about the pain it caused him and the strain it put on his career and how it impacted his drug abuse.

Like Marshall Mathers, millions of people are diagnosed with a mental illness and a substance abuse or dependence disorder, and do not get the correct dual diagnosis treatment they need. From all his prescription drug use, Marshall’s organs started shutting down and he nearly died, but he has now been clean for several years and has talked openly about his recovery.

When we take just these few examples into consideration we can see that rap music and hip hop culture are a living breathing expression of struggle, resolution, self-discovery and obsession. Rap has its own addictions and multiple personalities, from hardcore and underground to religious and progressive. These artists have found a way not just to express themselves, but to inspire others for generations to be aware of their own emotional state, risk behaviors and addictions, and some believe hip hop can actually help save lives. Hip hop has the power to teach us about ourselves, and at the same time it has the power to heal us if we can seek the truth in the words we hear.

(Drops the mic)

Music is just one way we share our feelings and find ourselves, and it is true drug use and addiction are closely involved with hip hop. But it is also true that we can chose to give a different power to the pieces of our lives, and it all begins with a step away from addiction toward recovery. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135

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