Depression in Hip Hop: “When not keeping it real goes wrong”

Hip-hop as with most art has always had a fundamental contradiction. Really if you think about it, most people are contradictions. No one is perfect and we are all hypocrites to some degree. I think the goal is to try as much as possible to not be a big one.

As a whole, the genre of hip hop champions “realness” as one of its core commandments. In my opinion it stems from the close connection that Hip Hop culture shares with the underworld and so called criminal element present in most economically depressed areas. Hip-hop developed out of a young, masculine culture, with an aggressive new desire to give the streets and society a voice. It also spawned from a culture where mental illness, and therapy in particular, was usually condemned and cast aside. In the underworld there is a code that has to be followed and it deals mostly with the authenticity of your word and how that fits with your actions. It’s simple “do what you say you will do, or pay the price”. You must remain strong at all times and it must be known to everyone else in the underworld circle you move in that you will back up your words with your life. It’s where hip hop gets terms like “keep it real” or “word is bond,” it’s why ghostwriting is a cardinal sin, it’s why cultural appropriation is a sensitive issue for so many. Authenticity is paramount.

But what about emotional realness? What about anxiety? What about depression? What about the times where all that bravado and machismo wasn’t really how the artist was feeling? Do you think your favorite rapper is who he portrays in song 24hrs a day? Even your “conscience or positive rapper” is not a saint 24/7 that’s unrealistic. Why does the public even conceive this? We are all human.

Until recently, hip-hop has turned a blind eye to depression and mental illness in general. While it’s obvious that mental illness plagues rappers just as much as anyone else, it’s not the kind of topic that complements the tough guy role that so much hip-hop boasts. I mean think about it, it makes sense when you look at the circumstances most of these artists grew up in. It would stand to reason that there may be some mental issues like PTSD, depression etc. Then you take them and thrust fame upon them and expect it to be smooth sailing? Fame is not as sweet and easy as it looks from the outside, we all know that fame and money bring problems along with it and can change people.


Recently we’ve seen the release of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, both mainstream, widely received and critically acclaimed albums that openly deal with each artists’ experiences with depression. But this is not the first time the subject has been explored; the title of Notorious B.I.G’s first album “Ready to Die” explore the other side of the hustle. On 1994’s “Suicidal Behaviour”, the Notorious B.I.G laments, “I can’t believe suicide is on my fucking mind, I wanna leave, I swear to god, I feel like fucking death is calling me.” songs like “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” by the Geto Boys and “Diamonds and Wood” by UGK give the view of the southern hustler with lyrics like:

“I’m flippin through P.A I’m tryin to see some good

But everythang is still the same up in my neighborhood

Niggas frown when you up and smile when you down

And when you change for the betta shife fools stop comin around

I see the jealousy and hating in the wicked ways

We all lost children, praising paper, smoking our lives away

Got to the point where I could not decipher day from night

She say say love me but all we do now is fuckin’ fight

My conscience fuck with me so much that I can’t eat or sleep

The other side is sellin dope and out there running the streets

And even though I’m gaining street fame coming from this rap game

Lustful thinkin and compulsive drinkin is a normal thang

Some get erased and misplaced tryin to win the race

Some try to hold on to their place by smoking with lace

But see drugs and plastic thugs ain’t gone change the hood

I’m smokin skunk and poppin trunks to make me feel good”


These lyrics tell the deep dark story of the street cat, those thoughts that come late at night before you sleep, the paranoia of thinking that folks are out to get you because of what you have. Those conversations you have with your elders that make you think differently about what you are doing wrong. There is guilt that goes with the game also.

 Tupac was very  open (for the early ‘90s) about his own mental anguish, Tupac was quoted as saying “I once contemplated suicide, and woulda tried,” he tells on his single “Thugz Mansion”. “But when I held that 9, all I could see was my mama’s eyes.” Tupac’s understanding and almost fascination with death and how it would come is well documented, it bordered paranoia. Pac was a good dude with a huge heart but as we know this life and this world have a way of destroying the good in people or at least the propensity to show the good.

Rapper Kid Cudi detailed his experiences with antidepressants, depression and therapy. “After the WZRD song “Dr. Pill” everyone thought I was talking about molly or ecstasy. But I’m talking about prescription meds. I had just gotten a shrink. I was having an emotional breakdown,” he revealed. “A year ago I wouldn’t even go to a therapist or psychiatrist. But I gave it a shot.”

To truly understand the problem with depression in hip hop we must look at cause and effect. As any psychologist might tell you, in order to solve an internal problem, you need to identify the root cause.

Hip-hop’s history and culture was steeped in YOUTH, along with the machismo it was about peace, love, unity and having fun; it was loud, proud and celebratory certainly not self-loathing, or simply not wanting to get out of bed in the morning.

It’s not just the artist that are depressed, in some cases popular execs also feel the pressure as in the untimely death of Chris Lighty by suicide. Lighty’s death sent shock waves through hip hop, as Lighty seemed to have it all.

The exposing and acceptance of depression in hip hop is not only found in today’s artists, however, but the listeners too. Emotionally conscious rap naturally spawns emotionally conscious rap fans. The growing number of rappers that are willing to express their concerns is a reflection of the state of the audience as well. Remember hip hop “keeps it real” and depression, anger and fear are really what’s going on with the population.

Drake, a mainstream rapper with emotional sensitivity is one of the most popular artist today and is often joked about as being so emotional and forward about it. Could drake have come out and been in popular in say 94 – 95 during the height of Gangsta Rap?


It’s now okay for rappers to let their guard down, and now it is natural for then to be open and more honest. One by one, artists are peeling back new layers, bringing light into the dark, secretive corners of their minds.

Hip-hop has a long way to go in breaking down the stigma surrounding depression and mental health as a whole. Hip-hop is an immense resource. We learnt about the realness of an entire culture and community from its songs; perhaps we can now learn about emotional realness too.


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