Keeping it real: Rappers adding more messages about their mental health in songs

New study shows how the most prominent names in rap music, such as Drake, Jay-Z, and Kanye West, aren’t shying away from personal lyrics about their emotional and psychological states.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Music doesn’t just have the power to brighten your day, certain lyrics can have a profound impact on a listener’s emotional state. As mental health becomes a less taboo subject in American society, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill say pop culture is adding those messages to the soundtrack of a younger generation. Their study finds rap music is increasingly adding in mental health messages into the most popular songs of the day.

“These artists are considered the ‘coolest’ people on earth right now,” says lead study author Alex Kresovich in a university release. “The fact that they are talking about mental health could have huge implications for how young people perceive mental health or how they look at themselves if they struggle with mental health, which we know millions and millions of young people do.”

The study finds the amount of rap songs which reference mental health have more than doubled between 1998 and 2018. Researchers note 2018 is the same year rap moved ahead of country music to become the best-selling genre in music.

Kresovich and his team suggest this growing popularity gives the genre the ability to shape the conversation about mental health with young listeners. They add these are also the most likely people to be at risk for experiencing mental health issues.

Rap music touching on anxiety, depression

Psychological stress among young adults between 18 and 25 is at record levels. The study says suicide rates among Black teens and other U.S. youths — who make up a large portion of the rap audience — continue to climb.

Kresovich says rap can be a powerful tool in combating mental health issues because of the wide diversity in listeners. The genre’s growing audience consists of people from all genders, races, and economic backgrounds. On top of this, the message is also coming from a peer. The average age of the artists creating the 125 songs researchers analyzed in the report is 28.

The study examined lyrics from the 25 most popular rap songs in America in 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013, and 2018. Overall, most of the lead artists are Black men. Nearly a third of the hits reference anxiety, 22 percent talk about depression, and six percent reference suicide.

Given rap’s autobiographical style, study authors suggest that some artists may be reflecting on their own troubles and mental distress.

‘Using metaphors may be a safe way to avoid being judged’

Researchers say the key to their study is properly understanding the metaphors artists use when addressing mental health topics. Phrases like “pushed to the edge” and “fighting my demons” may touch on anxiety without explicitly bringing up the subject.

“Using metaphors may be a safe way to avoid being judged,” Kresovich explains. “For men, especially men of color, mental health is still stigmatized. Artists are treading lightly and aren’t going to say, ‘I’m depressed.’ But what they will do is describe feelings in a way that others with depression can understand and relate to.”

Krescovich says times have certainly changed in the musical world, especially among rappers. While the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” may have been a one-off about emotions in 1991, today’s biggest chart-toppers by Drake, Post Malone, Juice Wrld, Eminem, Lil’ Wayne, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and others tend to all focus on laying out their emotional state for the fans.

In the songs chosen by the UNC team, the most common mental health stressors are love and environmental issues. Researchers define the latter subject as issues popping up in the artist’s day-to-day life, such as living conditions, crime, or even racism.

One challenge the study faced is interpreting what an artist actually meant by certain lyrics. The analyze also could not determine if every listener will consider these messages as positive or negative.

The study appears in the JAMA Pediatrics.