Earlier this month hip-hop lost one of its most talented emcees, Mac Miller. Miller, who was only 26, died at his apartment from an apparent drug overdose only a month after releasing his latest album ‘Swimming’. The rapper had always been vocal about his battle with addiction and depression in the past. But, the severity of his disabilities were not realised by many until his untimely death. His death reignited a debate over the surging problem of addiction and mental illness in America and the rest of the world. The subject was also at the centre of this year’s most popular rap albums. Artists who had conveniently eschewed the debate until now began embracing the issue and addressing it head on. But, did this sudden change as a result of earnest intention or a deliberate attempt to sound woke is a question worth asking.
The first album in this catalogue of conscious albums was Kanye West’s self-titled album ‘Ye’. The album famously dealt with the Chicago born rapper’s much discussed bipolar disorder. The album art for his album, a hilly landscape with “ i hate being bi-polar, it’s awesome” painted over became a matter fervent discussion amongst his fans. But, apart from the cover, a laconic reference embracing his medications, and describing his mental illness as a superpower Kanye failed to give an open call to the millions who suffer from his bipolar disorder on his 24 minute album.
But, Kanye returned for salvation with another album on the subject titled “Kids See Ghosts”. The co-creator of this album, Kid-Cudi has been rapping about depression, anxiety and addiction since 2009. But, even ‘Kids See Ghosts’, a acid-laced trip into bohemian spiritualism, only loosely dealt with the subject and didn’t do enough to restore Kanye’s plummeting popularity. There were moments of redemption though, most notably on the title track where Kid Cudi croons- reaching out, huntin’ for the truth / i’m guessing i’m just sick of running / all this time searching hard for something..” Cudi’s self-aware lyrics perfectly resonated with kids suffering from PSTD, depression, and anxiety who turn to soul-searching through drugs and alcohol to cure their disabilities. This idea though reflected better in another hip hop album from this year that dealt with mental illness and addiction- J.Cole’s KOD.
J.Cole’s KOD deals with addiction more extensively and organically than any other rapper in the industry. Cole raps about several forms of addiction in his 12 track magnum opus. In ‘photograph’ he deals with addiction to social media by rapping about a man that falls in love with a beautiful woman on Instagram, on ATM he warns of pursuing money too adroitly by delivering a succinct and catchy hook over a triplet beat, and on ‘the cut off’ he illustrates the harm a single person’s using can inflict on everyone around them.
J.Cole’s album is a thoughtful meditation on addiction that these times demand. The album is musically refreshing and socially woke at the same time. Cole’s connection to addiction and depression is also personal, but so is Kanye’s connection with bipolar disorder. Yet the latter uses his illness to morph weighty subjects into headnodders and deflect the narrative from his careless statements, while the former uses it to educate people on the ills of these problems.
The album cover for the record depicts a gloomy-eyed king who hides children smoking pot and sniffing cocaine under his fur coat. This king might be the new face of hip-hop which, spearheaded by soundcloud rappers like Lil Pump, carelessly glorify sniffing cocaine and sipping lean in its music. Or it could be the modern society which normalises drug abuse and ridicules mental illness. The course of hip hop in times ahead may define the way our society will be leading. Whether it will be lead by men like J.Cole or Kanye and Lil Pump, only time will tell.