A treasure trove of psychological wisdom

Mandeep Singh and Niamh Doody on ‘conscious rap’.

Rap music for many brings to mind themes such as exorbitant boasting, greed, gang-violence, sex, drug-use and money. However, as an evolving and varied entity, rap is possibly one of the most emotionally forthcoming, painfully honest and psychologically insightful genres of contemporary music.

A politically charged subgenre of rap – known as ‘conscious rap’ – has been increasingly influential in recent mainstream artists. The genesis of this subgenre lies in Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’, from way back in 1982. The song’s iconic lyrics see the lyricist plead for peace of mind; ‘Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head.’ Subsequent artists – usually underground – have adapted Flash’s psychologically-informed approach, which has allowed for a narrative of deep self-examination, vulnerability and wisdom within digestible, musically cutting-edge forms.

A key popular proponent of such an approach has been Kid Cudi, whose raw lyrics have delved deep into his depression and suicidal thoughts. In one of his most famous works, ‘Soundtrack 2 My Life’, Cudi lays bare the isolation he feels despite being surrounded by friends and family. Cudi juxtaposes the perception of fame with the reality that mental illnesses is universal and all too personal to him:
I live in a cocoon opposite of Cancún / Where it is never sunny, the dark side of the moon / So it’s more than right, I try and shed some light on a man / Not many people of this planet understand...

These startling confessions of mental suffering are not unique. Other artists are brutally honest about their experience with therapy. Kanye West raps ‘My psychiatrist got kids that I inspire’ on ‘No More Parties in LA’ featuring Kendrick Lamar. This line is saturated with West’s bravado, while at the same time highlighting his need for psychiatric help. In contrast to West’s blasé attitude to his psychiatrist, Noname Gypsy (pictured above) has a problematic relationship with hers, whom she portrays as over-reliant on medical intervention, as the cure to lasting happiness: ‘I wanna stop seeing my psychiatrist / She said “pill pop, baby girl ‘cause I promise you, you tweaked / The empty bottled loneliness, this happiness you seek”.’

What might be the effect of such confessions? We know from personal experience how connected we feel to our favourite artists, rap or otherwise. However in rap especially, the narrative nature of the music means you can truly feel you ‘get to know’ the artist. Thus, when they speak on their issues and make explicit their willingness to seek help, might this encourage others to do the same?

Some evidence seems to suggest so. In contrast to Cudi’s intention to ‘shed some light on’ the issue of depression and suicide, rapper Logic used his song ‘1-800-2738255’ featuring Alessia Cara and Khalid as a way to place vulnerable individuals in direct contact with mental health services. The title of the song is the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Helpline in the United States. The lyrics are astonishingly honest – the rapper speaks on contemplating suicide and the total despair felt by those in such a state of mind. It was reported by various news sources in the US that the day the song was released the helpline received 4,573 calls, and after a performance on the MTV Video Music Awards, the helpline logged over 5,000 calls. The 450,000,000 views on YouTube alone offer a stark reminder of the power of popular culture to reach audiences beyond academia and the remit of mental health services.

Apart from projects which explicitly tackle mental health issues, there is a vast catalogue of rap which explores the psyche with a sensitivity and depth reminiscent of the most influential 20th century literature. Simple mechanics underpin this. The sheer volume of words and linguistic command required in writing a rap verse means it’s a more literary genre than most music. Furthermore, a need for brevity, narrative clarity, and the broad life experiences encountered on the road to becoming a successful rapper add to the richness of the artforms psychological explorations.

Kendrick Lamar’s psychodynamically charged track ‘FEAR’, from the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning album DAMN., explores the artist’s experience of fear at a different age in each of the song’s three verses. Verse one is rapped from the perspective of his mother, angrily disciplining her 7-year-old son amidst pressures to survive financially in a deprived Los Angeles neighbourhood: ‘You know my patience running thin / I got beaucoup payments to make / County-buildings on my [back] / Trying to take my food stamps away’. The second verse transports forward a decade to age 17 where a deflated, hopeless vocal cadence prophesises ‘I’ll probably die anonymous / I’ll probably die with promises / I’ll probably die walking back home from the candy store / I’ll probably die because these colours are standing out’. Thus we are immersed into a life we would never otherwise know, but with themes we can recognise. To ‘die with promises’ is ambiguous enough to mean dying with unlived dreams, half-formed friendships, financial debts, and more. Are ‘these colours’ that invite death shades of skin, colours of gang affiliation, or are they the blue of his mood? Such meaningful ambiguity is the hallmark of poetry as opposed to mere entertainment. Contrary to the gold-chains, dancing women and bravado that colours hip-hops public persona, such sensitivity and depth is readily found within its mainstream.

The brutally honest third verse best exemplifies this depth, as the rapper reveals his struggles at age 27 whilst adjusting to the responsibility of his ‘saviour’ status. ‘How they look at me reflect on myself, my family, my City / What they say ‘bout me reveal if my generation would miss me / What they see from would trickle down generations in time / What they hear from me would make them highlight my simplest lines / I’m talking fear’.

As with any honest portrayal of another’s psyche – be it fictional or not – the reader/listener will connect uniquely to the song. For one of us (Mandeep), this song spoke to my own fear of the weight of words, most potently in clinical encounters. It also made explicit the tendency to place creative vocations on a pedestal, whilst at the same time making clear the struggles of a creative leader. Hip-hop has the capacity to affect and teach us, as can a great play, a sprawling canvas or an absorbing novel. The varied psychologies and stories it contains help make it the dominant popular music format for this generation.

It is tempting to draw a conclusion espousing the utility of rap. Despite rapid progress in arts in health research, we still do not why or how art helps us. We do, however, know that we cannot imagine our lives without it. We know that we tend to consume those things we think will be valuable. And we also know that there is a disconnect between how rap is widely perceived, and the extent of value, insight and humanity contained in its catalogues. If popular culture is a mirror for the psychology of the society which produces it, then hip-hop – with its intricate verbal exploration of everything from the grandiose to the despairing – offers a rich window into ourselves. We can all benefit from peering through it.

- Mandeep Singh is a medical student at King’s College London, a rap artist and researcher of the arts in healthcare. Find him @mandeepthemc and listen to his track ‘Two sides of a man’ – describing a session of psychotherapy – via www.theintima.org/twosidesofaman

- Niamh Doody holds a BSc in Psychology and an MSc in Clinical Neurodevelopmental Sciences from King’s College London. She is hoping to pursue training in Clinical Psychology.

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