Muthafucka I’m Ill: Hip-hop as a medium for mental disorders

You all know how it’s been; Ever since Kanye “…so the world could feel his pain!” West blew up the rap scene in 2004 with his debut record The College Dropout, the conscious rap that the likes of Aceyalone, Common and Talib Kweli have been rapping over the last decade took on a whole new look, feel and level: now, not just conscious but self-conscious, much of popular rap has flipped its script and went introspective and retrospective. It’s gone from self-appraisal to self-abasement, from Diddy “Bad Boy for Life” to Drake “What Am I Doing?”.

Bar a few exceptions (e.g. Lil Wayne), even the most pompous of rappers now remember to keep their self-awareness in view – who would imagine Black Album-era Jay-Z, notwithstanding the Nirvana reference, calling himself “stupid and contagious”?

But where Kanye West has dealt with the god complex, newer off-radar rappers have taken the self-conscious rap ideology to a whole new different level, not just identifying but even embodying mental issues and disorders within their sound and image.

Driven by the near-inevitable rapper’s drug addiction, Danny Brown personifies his ailments into his music, flipping his voice from the deliriously high-pitched peak-outs to the painfully sober down-lows, as he raps between (in the former voice) literally shitting all over recording booths and (in the latter) trying to smoke his depression away. And as much as Childish Gambino may deny it, his Instagram letter antics, coupled with his Because the Internet album cover .gif, paint a picture of a comedian’s tragically ironic depression.

And they’re not even the best examples. The still-marginally-controversial Odd Future ring leader Tyler, the Creator, despite all his current wild successes and fame, started off as a spitefully maniacal teenager murderously angry at the world for… what, exactly? The answer is explicit in Tyler’s Wolf cut ‘Answer’ – his dad “not being there fire-started [Tyler’s] damn career”. Like Eminem before him, Tyler’s depression and frustration was cultivated by a troubled childhood. But much unlike Eminem, Tyler’s rage-fuelled stories delved into rape and (right after that) cannibalism.

Despite all the grotesque imagery (or because of it), misunderstood, antisocial teenagers from around the world found, perhaps, or hopefully, not relation, but understand where he’s coming from, and understand they could very well, harbouring at the deepest recesses of their fucked up minds, have such dark thoughts themselves.

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[spacer height=”10px”]Actually, psychologically, depression tends to lead to extreme tiredness, or not wanting do anything at all just about forever. Modern hipster-hop has got that covered too, in the 16-year-old white Swedish rapper Yung Lean, who, with producers Yung Sherman and Yung Gud, form Sad Boys. They try to pit a Main Attrakionz-esque flow with cloud / trill / trap beats and end up sounding like a not-so-wild-for-the-night A$AP Rocky.

In fact, even though they usually rap about getting bitches / doing drugs, Yung Lean’s not-even-trying delivery and the accompanying clouded beats come across as more passive-aggressively… sad. Yung Lean even says it himself on ‘Lightsaber // Saviour’: “I’m on the floor crying, crying / Why do I gotta be alive / I ain’t about that life / I ain’t about that life”.

That’s not to say they’re all lame – along with their vaporwave-influenced image, Sad Boys are at the forefront of what’s cool in the post-swag landscape, the next big are-you-serious thing in rap after Das Racist’s ‘Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell’, where the medium is the message and not much else at all. And what’s the message? Beats me, but they’re definitely reflecting a group of fashionably depressed Tumblr-core hipsters who constantly nod back to their childhood with 90’s cartoon .gif’s and Windows 98 screen-savers.

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[spacer height=”10px”]The most extreme and prominent example however, would be the Sacramento hip-hop (?) act Death Grips. While some claim that their brand of industrial-influenced rap has already been done by experimental hip-hoppers dälek, they miss the vital difference that really defines Death Grips, which is their schizophrenia-induced (or -inducing!) sound, cultivated mainly through, among the dissonant production, MC Ride’s mad pseudo-rap screams, which at times recall an unkempt homeless man’s incessant word salads.

In Death Grips’ lyrics (made accessible through the band’s uploading of accompanying lyrics in their YouTube video descriptions), we see lines like “Cobra spit over apocalyptic cult killer cauldron smoke”, or “World of dogs gone mad / Above the law in your ass / Fire trash meltdown I’m not here / I’m world of dogs infrared”.

Of course it could all be an act, and of course all those word mishmashes could provide some insight, but that doesn’t discount the image that Death Grips give off. It’s clearly disturbed music and a clear-cut case of mental disorders being channelled through the highly-malleable, highly-personalised medium of hip-hop.

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[spacer height=”10px”]Rap has always been the message of the masses, reflecting the social attitudes of the people themselves. So when personal issues become bigger, more worldly relatable problems than the political conflicts of Public Enemy or the oppressed rage of N.W.A., what more mental issues and debilitating sensations could we see becoming more prominent in the field? ADHD? Nausea? Insomnia? Or even, allegedly, Asperger’s syndrome?

Whatever way it is, these examples are evidence that hip-hop continues to evolve, even more so than other genres, into not just different sounds, but different psychological states of mind. That’s probably what makes hip-hop what it is today – relatable on all fronts, or, in Yung Lean’s words: “so real you can call me reality” – or perhaps, has it always been that way and not just today? Check out this list of rappers with mental disorders. Or this Wikipedia article on how mental disorders can lead to creativity. Even Lil Wayne insists, “Muthafucka I’m ill”. And in spite of the connotations of their lingo, maybe they all are indeed.

By BJ Lim

Childish Gambino – Because The Internet

Childish Gambino’s Because The Internet leaked online a week before its official release date. This, his second album, follows a string of mixtapes and his 2011 debut album Camp (which was absolutely savaged by Pitchfork: 1.6/10). Childish Gambino is Donald Glover, and vice versa: Glover has worked as a writer on 30 Rock and has starred in Community as Troy Barnes. 

Interestingly, the album was released with a screenplay — it was written by Glover and is intended to be read while listening to the album. There are also videos to watch while listening to the music. The story starts with a bunch of kids coming home from summer camp and being picked up by their parents. The screenplay is 76 pages long (you can read it online here), which sounds long, but because it’s a script you’ll get through it pretty quickly. He uses a good deal of colloquialisms and some amusing pop culture references (“my favourite flavour popsicle is DICK!”). Plus, he states that one character, Marcus, is to be played by Chance the Rapper, and it also features Jhené Aiko.

The screenplay isn’t total garbage, it is an interesting format and the idea doesn’t suck. It’s clear that Glover is trying hard and wanting desperately to be liked, to be cool, to be respected as a multi-disciplinary artist — and to be honest we kind of do like him. But we also feel pretty sorry for him. The whole experience is uncomfortable. Glover is a 30-year-old man who writes screenplays for himself to star in, which he also scores, and then hires somebody to direct. You know what those are called? Vanity projects. He’s made himself the central focus of this album and its surrounding material — and it’s a gross, solipsistic focus. If you ever forget who this album is about, just check the cover. To quote from Ian Cohen’s review of Camp for Pitchfork, this shit is “preposterously self-obsessed, but not the least bit self-aware.”

So, anyway: the album. Is it any good? Production-wise, Because the Internet is a step up from Camp’s angry nerd vibe. Details of the production are still emerging, but we do know that the majority of the album was recorded in Chris Bosh’s mansion in LA. Gambino has also been hanging out with beat god Flying Lotus: the combination of that influence and Gambino’s natural drift towards a more mature aesthetic has produced some pretty okay, contemporary beats ranging from trap to wholesale Drake-brand R&B.

Still, it is clear that Kanye West remains Gambino’s greatest influence and as a consequence of that there are a number of tracks (‘The Party’, ‘No Exit’) that limp along in the stylistic shadow of Yeezus. ‘The Worst Guys’ is Gambino’s third collaboration with Chance the Rapper — it’s a pretty jolly tune featuring 808s and a woozy beat which eventually devolves into a grating guitar riff. Gambino is no rap god, but there’s still something kind of appealing in what he’s doing. Rhyming ‘fuck’ with ‘fuck’ isn’t great, and it’s hard to hear a grown man use the word vag without wondering what’s wrong with him, but that candidness is sweet — we’ve never heard a rapper talk about dick problems before. The contrast of that big dick bravado with erectile dysfunction is pretty nice.

Despite having its moments, overall Gambino’s style hasn’t developed. The structure of his verses is still: set up joke, deliver punchline, change subject, repeat. His style is centred around references (anything from Ace Hood to toothpaste), but isn’t amusing or insightful in any real way. It’s just a reference that you either do or do not get. Overall, this is a pretty choppy album, oscillating between swagger, misery and really barf sentimentality, but some people might like that and might not think it’s barf so that’s fine.

Maybe you’ll relate to Because the Internet because it panders to pothead sad kids or because this guy gets lots of attention, maybe appreciating this album/screenplay wank combo makes you feel smart, maybe you like him because he’s cute, and you’ve seen him on TV, maybe you just think it’s good, or maybe you don’t. Whatever, just remember there’s loads of legitimately great, positive music out there so you don’t have to listen to this if you don’t want to.


Listen to: ‘The Worst Guys’, ‘Pink Toes’

The Worst Guys:
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By Katherine Pollock