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  1. Culture
11 May 2015updated 27 Sep 2015 3:52am

What do Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics tell us about mental health and addiction?

Street poet of mental health.

By Tosin Thompson

When considering the cathartic influence of music on people, hip hop doesn’t immediately spring to mind.

The themes associated with hip hop music – such as female degradation, gang violence, and boastful claims of wealth – have skewed the perception of the genre, and has overridden the positive impact is has on its listeners.

HIP HOP PSYCH co-founders Dr Akeem Sule and Dr Becky Inkster have set up a unique project which aims to use the lyrics and music of artists such as Nas and Tupac to help tackle issues surrounding mental health. In a recent article in Lancet Psychiatry, Sule and Inkster explain how Kendrick Lamar’s major-label debut album good kid m.A.A.d city (2012) provides profound narratives relating to mental health themes, such as addiction, depression and psychological resilience.

“Listening to Kendrick Lamar might help mental-health practitioners and other professionals to understand the day-to-day internal and external struggles of their patients,” the authors write. “Hip-hop might also be a way for young people to understand and consider their own vulnerability, resilience, and life choices in a culturally relevant and easily accessible manner.” 

One of the exemplary tracks is Swimming Poolswhere Kendrick unmasks issues surrounding addiction. In the music video, there are shots of Kendrick’s character hurtling into an abyss (eventually falling into a pool of water). We also see the dropping of glass bottles and Kendrick’s character at a party. From the very outset, Kendrick uses the word “drank” repeatedly after every episodic phase in an alcohol-induced haze (“…pass out, drank, wake up, drank, faded, drank, faded, drank”). His character describes the reasons people drink alcohol – because they like “the way it feels”, and in order “to kill their sorrows” or to “fit in with the popular”.

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The song portrays Kendrick’s character as one whose desperation for mental “numbness” and social approval is leading him to a path of alcohol dependence. Or in contrast, one whose prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for controlling our behaviour – is fighting against alcohol dependence (“if you do not hear me then you will be history, Kendrick”.)

The song also talks about how genetic and environmental factors, such as early life exposure to alcohol and the degree of parental supervision, can affect a person’s risk of developing an alcohol addiction. This is through a reference to a family history of alcohol abuse, more specifically his grandfather who had “the golden flask”.

The album cover of good kid m.A.A.d city shows the young Kendrick with his grandfather and uncles, noticeably inches away from not just his baby bottle, and his grandfather’s gang sign, but a 40 ounce bottle of malt liquor. In a Fuse interview, Kendrick says the album is “a self-portrait […] I feel I need to make this album so I can move on with my life and not have these negative vibes and demons haunt me”.

In the article, Sule and Inkster also study the diametrically-opposed songs u and i on Lamar’s latest album To Pimp A Butterfly (2015). In the very theatrical u, Kendrick’s character, a successful hip-hop artist, drowns his sorrows with alcohol in a hotel room (enhanced by the clicking sounds of bottles). Quite evidently suffering from depression and low confidence, the character proceeds to talk to himself in the mirror saying: “The world don’t need you…I know depression is restin’ on your heart”.

Kendrick’s character descends into a series of suicidal thoughts. There is evidence of distortions in his thinking patterns, which is also manifested in the distorted sound. He fixates on his failures, blowing it out of proportion – in this case, not being a bigger influence on his sister’s life – and minimise his successes (“You preached in front of 100,000 but never reached her”).

In i, Kendrick’s character displays evidence of optimism (“One day at a time, sun gone shine”) and translating negative and depressing thoughts into more positive and beneficial alternatives, as well as a resolution to love himself irrespective of life’s challenges.

The character attributes his faith in God as a motivator of his recovery (“Trials, tribulations, but I know God”) and hopes he doesn’t lose his faith (“I pray that the holy water don’t go dry”). In a study involving African American adults who had experienced trauma showed that a higher frequency of religious service attendance was a protective factor against mental illness.

“Kendrick Lamar’s rich narratives take his listeners on a complex journey, entrenched with conflict and social pressure, describing what life is like growing up as an inner city youth,” the authors write. “His character’s powerful ability to navigate his mind, body, and spirit through life’s obstacles to overcome environmental factors stacked up against his innocence has and will continue to inspire a generation.” 

Original article found on University of Cambridge Research News. Additions and changes were made. 

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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