Listening To Kanye [The Mental Health Files]

808′s and Heartbreak Album Cover.

 

Went through, deep depression when my momma passed/
Suicide, what kinda talk is that?/
But I been talking to God for so long/
And if you look at my life I guess he’s talking back- Kanye West, “Clique,” Cruel Summer

As often as Kanye West talks about the state of his mental health, one would think that we’d be having a national conversation on mental health–kind of like the way we had a wave of conversations about domestic violence in the wake of the Chris Brown-Rihanna incident. Yet, in the four years since Kanye began talking openly about the depression related to the death of his mother and the dissolution of his romantic relationship with longtime paramour Alexis Phifer, the conversations have continued to be one-sided.

A search for “Kanye West and Depression” brings up surprisingly few articles and discussions. There’s a sterile AP article describing his initial comments, Cord Jefferson advising Kanye to go to a therapist on The Root, an MTV news article on his path to recovery, and Tom Breihan in the Village Voice distilling 808′s and Heartbreak down to “emo bellyaching” and a “album-length tantrum at his ex.” While Bassey Ikpi later argued to have some compassion for Kanye, it was one small plea in a sea of indifference and condemnation.

After four years of being open about pain and vulnerability, I’m starting to wonder if society will ever really hear him.

Back in 2010, Renina Jarmon did some great analysis around 808′s and Heartbreak, trying to understand the backlash to the work. She wrote:

The more I listened to the album, the more I realized that this cat was in a lot of pain, and trying to articulate it.

To say that he “sounds like” T-Pain misses the point by looking at just the sound, but ignoring the content. T- Pain ain’t never said anything that made me think about nothing. Whereas, 808′s and Heartbreak, helped me with being in reflection mode last week. [...]

Listening to the album and hearing him describe those post-break up slug penetrate moments, I came to realize that he was being both vulnerable and in pain and in our culture that is a no-no for men and antithetical to Black manhood. That is if you believed what you saw in hip-hop.

It was then that I realized that the only acceptable emotion for Black men to publicly express and still retain their masculinity is rage.

Kill a hundred fools? Cool.
Murder, stab, rape? Fine.
Sad over losing our ex? Blasphemy.

It’s this same disinterested attitude toward mental health that leads us to swallow our tongues when comes to connecting the painful dots. As Joan Morgan wrote in When Chickenheads Come Home To Roost:

As a black woman and a feminist I listen to the music with a willingness to see past the machismo in order to be clear about what I’m really dealing with. What I hear frightens me. On booming track after booming track, I hear brothers talking about spending each day high as hell on malt liquor and chronic. Don’t sleep. What passes for “40 and a blunt” good times in most of hip-hop is really alcoholism, substance abuse, and chemical dependency. When brothers can talk so cavalierly about killing each other and then reveal that they have no expectation to see their twenty-first birthday, that is straight-up depression masquerading as machismo.

So what stops us from having the conversation?

Do you think I sacrificed real life/ For all the fame of flashing lights?/ Do you think I sacrifice a real life/ For all the fame of flashing lights?

There is no Gucci I can buy/ There is no Louis Vuitton to put on /There is no YSL that they could sell
To get my heart out of this hell/ And my mind out of this jail

There is no clothes that I could buy/ That could turn back the time /There is no vacation spot I could fly/ That could bring back a piece of real life/ Real life, what does it feel like?

I ask you tonight, I ask you tonight/ What does it feel like, I ask you tonight/ To live a real life
I just want to be a real boy

They always say Kanye, he keeps it real boy/
Pinocchio story is, I just want to be a real boy/
Pinocchio story is to be a real boy

– Kanye West, “Pinocchio Story,” 808′s and Heartbreak

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000709864513 Michelle Kirkwood

    Another rapper (who sadly passed away at a young age 3 years ago) who dealt with severe mental problems, and openly discussed them was Baatin, a member of Detroit’s own Slum Village, a rap group that also featured the late J Dilla:

    http://www.mlive.com/entertainment/detroit/index.ssf/2009/08/reports_baatin_of_detroits_slu.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000709864513 Michelle Kirkwood

    I didn’t think Kanye was all that great a rapper until I recently saw THE ART OF RAP, a film about old-school/new school rappers talking in detail about how they actually put their songs together (I actually have his first two CDs, mainly because I liked “Gold Digger” and that other beautiful song he did with the singer from Maroon 5. He busted out some pretty good rhymes in the film acapella, which impressed me just enough to realize that he actually CAN rap, unlike some of these young up-and-comers today. Cool to know that he’s actually talked about it,though. The only other rapper I can think of who has been open about his issues in dealing with mental illness/depression in the past is the talented Brad Jordan, aka Scarface, formerly of the Geto Boys—he’s even done raps about it, like their classic 1991 tune “My Mind’s Playing Tricks On Me”. Here’s some articles about Scarface talking about it:

    http://mentalhealthrealities.blogspot.com/2011/07/scarface-bipolar-rapper.html

    http://www.hiphopdx.com/index/news/id.14516/title.scarfaces-mental-health-issues-profiled-in-excerpt-from-new-book-on-southern-rap

    But yes, it’s sad how black men/men of color in particular have it banged into their head from birth that they can’t openly show ANY emotion or deal with certain situations other than anger/in anger,and how that’s covered up with drugs/alcohol, which does nothing but add to the illness.

    • k___bee

      “My Mind’s Playing Tricks On Me” – I was just going to mention that song.

      Thanks to Racialicious, this series is going to be great.

  • Shazza

    ’808′s and Heartbreak’ is still one of my favorite CDs. People get caught up in Kanye’s hubris and overlook his real talent. I was a Kanye fan from day 1, when I heard ‘Through the Wire’. Him rapping about his car accident? I think he tells really good stories through his raps. He’s one of the few whose CD I go right and get.

  • scott

    one connection that you beautifully pointed out in this piece was Joan Morgan’s quote that “that is straight up depression masquerading as machismo.” In the mental health professional there is a lot of literature on the connection between anger and depression. This connection is especially prevalent among males because we are not permitted by societal norms to be depressed. We are taught from an early age that anger is acceptable and we get a lot of practice at it. The result is that almost any intolerable emotion often comes out as our one acceptable emotion: rage. This is also why many men with anger issues are not properly diagnosed with depression.