The Rise of the Sad Boy Rappers

How “emo” rap can be harmful to impressionable listeners

by Andrew Millman

Executive Editor

Recently, a phenomenon has emerged where the phrase and concept “mental health” has become a popular method to gain clout for both celebrities and wannabe celebrities. As society has become a slightly more accepting place for people struggling with their mental health, rappers and singers, as well as TV and film, have tried to use this heightened societal focus for clout.

Rappers are probably more guilty of this phenomenon than anyone. The reason for this is largely structural. Rappers, more than most artists, need an origin story. In the earlier days of rap, that origin story has been that of a drug dealer (think Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, etc.), which was itself a product of rap originating around the same time as the peak of the crack epidemic.

Now, very few rappers have started off as drug dealers and most had fairly unremarkable pre-fame lives (Drake, Travis Scott, Chance the Rapper, etc.). This creates an incentive for self-proclaimed rappers to invent a more interesting story for themselves to make their art more interesting. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. No singer does everything they say they do in their songs. Beyonce wrote a quintessential breakup song, “Irreplaceable,” while happily in a relationship.

These inventions become a problem when rappers or other celebrities exploit others’ real mental health struggles for attention and, in their ignorance, perpetuate stereotypes or give out potentially harmful information to their young and often vulnerable fans, many of whom likely do have mental health challenges and look to these celebrities as role models. And, often, these people use mental health to excuse objectively shitty behavior and misogyny.

Kid Cudi brought discussions of mental health (which are needed) to the forefront of rap back in 2009 with Man on the Moon, in songs like “Soundtrack to My Life.” A generation of rappers, the ones that are just becoming famous now, grew up on Cudi’s music, saw the effect it had on people, and wanted to replicate that effect with their own music. The result is music that is transparent attempts at replicating Cudi’s appeal, but without his artistic talent or depth.

Rappers use mental health as a way of infusing their music with an undeserved sense of importance. Instead of simply making fun music for people to vibe to at parties, they’re making music “for the kids” to help them through their adolescent struggles. This higher calling gives the perception of being consequential, rather than just a fun song people listen to sometimes.

Often, the solutions provided by these rappers are being really shitty to their romantic interests and abusing prescription drugs. Neither of these things help anyone’s mental health, but can definitely exacerbate the problem and hurt other people. Juice Wrld (rip), who did struggle with mental health issues during his life, is an example of this. He frequently rapped about drug abuse in ways that an impressionable audience could receive as glorification and songs like “All Girls Are the Same” express views of women that are incredibly harmful.

Lil Uzi Vert’s new song “That Way” features the line “they laugh at me because I’m emo (yeah), I killed my girlfriend, that’s why I’m single.” This conflating of mental health with misogyny gives the appearance of mental health giving an excuse for shitty and borderline (if not outright) abusive behavior. This exploitation has grown so pervasive that it has spawned an entire subgenre called emo rap, which has become increasingly predominant in rap.

The exploitation of mental health goes beyond rap. Shows like 13 Reasons Why claim to be inspiring positive conversations around mental health in young people, but brutally mishandle portraying the subject. If your intended audience is people who are going through the struggles depicted, it probably isn’t the best strategy to depict these struggles so graphically that it will trigger people in harmful ways.

Instagram influencers, frequently responsible for perpetuating false images that can have harmful effects for many, have recently begun discussing mental health, often in a way that’s shallow and monetized. Corrinna Kopf has sold merch that says “my anxieties have anxieties” with the Wikipedia definition of anxiety on the back. Such performance and obvious capitalization of these issues doesn’t help anyone.

The reasons for these harmful depictions are almost never explicitly malicious, but usually arise out of an ignorance of the issues themselves. Anyone with a platform that allows them to reach thousands if not millions of people bears a responsibility to make sure the messages they are putting out aren’t harmful to their audiences, especially if that audience is comprised of some of the most vulnerable people in society. People deserve positive discussions of mental health that aren’t transparently exploitative, but currently that’s mostly what we’re getting.

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