For most of my life, I’ve felt empowered by rap music. Growing up just outside of Detroit, I was motivated by Michigan rappers like Eminem, Big Sean and NF, all hard-hitting lyricists. I idolized these people, aspiring to their work ethic. Nowadays, from time to time, they’ll hype me up for a ridiculous grind in which I’ll do nothing but work and listen to their music on repeat. But after one last stretch, I’ve come to seriously doubt what they’re saying.
I’d been working on a book, and I’d slowed down because of some major stressors in my life. In the melancholy state which resulted, my motivators started to make me feel guilty. Aggressive lyrics became condemnatory, replaying over and over in my head: “I don’t wanna hear excuses … say a little do a lot, no excuses!” I was seriously down and out but always getting encouragement to keep going: “I gotta make it or make it man, these are the options, these are the options!”
One day, these messages really got to me. I refused to let my sorrow be an obstacle. Thereafter, I went to work, came home and wrote late into the night. That was it. I barely slept, talked to no one and shouldered a ridiculous, crushing burden for months. But I rode it all out by hearing that my idols had too: “I done sacrificed my own time, I done sacrificed my own mind.”
Was it worth it? I certainly feel like I sacrificed my mind, though because a book is a long-term project, I can’t give you a straight answer. In fact, I don’t know if I’m supposed to be able to at this point. The artists promoting this behavior are telling you to risk everything, including your well-being, putting yourself into doubt.
Most people won’t follow this dangerous advice, enabling artists to keep giving it. But a certain flavor of person is especially susceptible to overworking themselves to death. These rappers, of that variety, appeal directly to the experience of those who have struggled mentally and offer them a very bad solution: wrestle despair into submission, whatever the cost.
This message, to give an example, is plain in the work of Big Sean. His early discography is marked by an obsession with success and taking big risks. This is clear in bars like, “told myself if I can’t live like this I’d rather die” and “nightmares of losing everything boost my adrenaline” (Guap / 10 2 10). A little extra, but nothing too out of the ordinary for modern rap. However, we find that this theme has developed insidiously over the course of his career.
On Sean’s 2017 album ‘I Decided,’ we find that he has taken these ideas to their logical conclusion. There, we find the song “Voices in my Head/Stick To The Plan” which details how Sean pushed past suicidal thoughts incurred by the grind so that he could end up on top:
“Voices in my head attacking what I’m thinking.
Bullet to the head might be the way to free it…
Feeling like I’m in the middle of the ocean.
You either drown or canoe through it.”
This is brazen admission that Sean put himself into a suicidal state by working all the time, and along with the “self-made” theme of the album, encouragement to do exactly that. It is mind-blowing to think that so major a cultural icon as Big Sean is telling people not only to put themselves into a suicidal state but also to grind their way out of it.
It’s even worse that this kind of rhetoric is normal. We find a similar trend in the work of Maryland rapper Logic. Though Logic isn’t one to flex mental health struggles, he is more than willing to define success against them. So he uses lines like “I can’t end up like my mama poppin’ antidepressants.” Whatever Logic was trying to say with this line, he clearly stigmatizes antidepressants as a sort of failure to control one’s mind (similar to what Sean does for suicide). This echoes the grind-obsessed, protestant line of thinking which assumes without evidence that mental suffering can always be fixed through sheer willpower.
We then combine this with his more general framing of all of life as a grind. He makes offhand accusatory statements such as “if you ain’t doing what you love it’s only you to blame” which is somehow supposed to be empowering. Yet, as with Sean, listeners are also encouraged to take enormous health risks to get to that point. Across his discography, Logic boasts about risks he’s taken which amount to a recipe for self-destruction. They include sleeping three to four hours a day and sacrificing his social life entirely.
Encouraging others to do that is irresponsible. There’s the obvious consequence of stigmatizing suffering which is cleanly achieved by flexing psychiatric risk (you can beat it if you really want). But there’s also something more targeted, which is that this music speaks directly to young men with an obsessive perfectionism stemming from past struggle.
Rappers know well the suffering they condone. Logic and Big Sean grew up without support, overcoming immense and potentially traumatizing adversity. Unfortunately, having been through that, they continue to advocate for a kind of success that requires no support.
Why is this unethical? Precisely because it encourages reckless risk-taking among those most at-risk. This is especially dangerous for men. We know that men struggle to differentiate depression from a lack of self-control, and that others fail to recognize illness in them. When they get depressed, they tend to become impulsive and angry. They don’t look like victims, they don’t feel like victims and if anyone tells them they’re not, they’ll easily accept the blame. This is the historical reason male depression went unrecognized for so long.
That was only 1997. Since then, the situation hasn’t gotten much better. Stewing in misery, drained and starting to lose their grip, men continue to try and muscle their way through difficulty. Rather than therapy, they work overtime, isolate themselves and burn out.
In the end, this doesn’t make them rich and famous. To the contrary, it can rob them of whatever they have left, a process which helps explain the downward spiral of male suicide. You’d be an abhorrent friend to recommend they keep doing it, and I’m at a loss as to why rappers continue to do so without consequence.
Contact Noah Louis-Ferdinand at nlouisfe ‘at’ stanford.edu.