‘KOD’ & Hip Hop’s Contribution to the Mental Health Conversation

This is not a new concept that has been unearthed by Jermaine Cole; let’s get that in the clear just in case people may have been confused. The conversation that surrounds mental health and how it pertains to the Black community specifically, has been a long bridge that has steadily and slowly gotten shorter in distance to where the comfort level of those conversations happening in safe Black spaces worldwide are more common. Hip Hop the movement, and Rap, the genre, have been tools in which artists, professional & amateur alike, have used in order to express themselves in ways that are therapeutic, since the practice of psychotherapy itself is one that has been frowned upon, sort of like an unwritten rule in Black life. This is why Rap, no matter how it sounds sonically, is a form of therapy for a lot of people out there. It can be melodic, it can be angry, it can be hopeful, or it can be very emotional in how the lyrics & songs themselves are expressed, and there are countless examples from Rap’s birth to its current Global-influenced status as to how artists of the genre have distinctly expressed themselves in unique ways.

The reason why KOD may appear to come out of left field, especially the subject matter as it pertains to J. Cole, is because there’s more of an acceptance into the expression that it’s okay to talk about Mental Health, self-care, and the importance of how the it’s firmly linked to the everyday trauma that Black people face. Rappers like Scarface, DMX, Styles P, and Joe Budden have been vocal about their experiences, which have certainly had a trickle-down effect on today’s rappers being freer to express themselves in ways that in the past haven’t been widely accepted. Kendrick Lamar demonstrated that poignantly with To Pimp A Butterfly, most noticeably the songs u & i, as the former discussed battling the inner demons of oneself and living with heavy guilt, and the other about conquering said demons to blurt out that you love yourself. If you want to take a step back even to good kid, m.A.A.d city, Swimming Pools talks about alcohol addiction on a generational level. That message wasn’t grasped by many at first because it was constructed to sound like a Top 40 song and the hook made everyone turn up, and I can’t say that I blame them. DAMN. continued the messaging by contrasting the ways in which humans live based on choices they’ve made and the dualities we face daily: Love, Lust, Fear, Pride, Humility, etc.

Where J. Cole made a significant contribution with KOD, was addressing addictions head on without coming off as preachy. What I took from the album was that this was a collection of experiences, whether his own and/or experiences from those close to him, and how substance abuse was their remedy, and in some cases, their demise. This was clearly highlighted at the end of the title song, so there wasn’t any need to think of many alternative meanings that could have been presented.

“Power, greed
Money, Molly, weed
Percs, Xannys, lean, fame
And the strongest drug of them all
Love”

From addiction to Social Media and how people view potential partners and the ways in which they interact with them (Photograph), to the addiction of chasing money, and people doing everything and anything they can to have more, because they’ve always been used to having less, there are everyday addictions that everyone battles with, and there shouldn’t be any shame in that. People are addicted to looking good, because they are keen on looking good in the public’s eye. People are addicted to attention and will give people everything they want just to be kept within the conversation. People are addicted to substances because it releases them from the pains in which they experience daily, but haven’t discovered any other means to cope. It isn’t rocket science, it’s human nature. Indulgence is as second nature as going to the bathroom. The thing is that, because we (living in a North American society or any major metropolis worldwide) are exposed to more options, opportunities, temptations, and the desires increase exponentially. It’s as though we have to train ourselves to remember what it’s like to live within our means and not having to stretch ourselves thin. It’s the addiction to more. The addiction to things we want to attain, but aren’t necessities.

“Gimme drink, gimme smoke
Get me high, let me float
I’m a cloud, comin’ down
Put me down, gentle now
Gimme drink, gimme dope
Bottom line, I can’t cope
If I die, I don’t know”

This album is consistent in its approach, and it was interesting to hear how Cole took a modern approach to his flows to compliment with production (ATM & Motiv8 being the most notable examples). And it was more upbeat than the usual mellow vibes that come with Cole’s production, which have coined him as the Nyquil rapper amongst many. But I feel like that change in pace, sonically also did more to speak to a younger audience in order to establish more of a connection. He’s made a career in telling stories that relate to those in their teens-early 20s, and that’s also been a knock on him by general fans of Rap across the board, but if the message hits the intended audience, then the goal has been reached.

“There’s all sorts of trauma from drama that children see
Type of shit that normally would call for therapy
But you know just how it go in our community
Keep that shit inside it don’t matter how hard it be
Fast forward, them kids is grown and they blowing trees
And popping pills due to chronic anxiety
I been saw the problem but stay silent ’cause I ain’t Jesus
This ain’t no trial if you desire go higher please”

FRIENDS & BRACKETS are two of my favourites on the album, not to mention the heart-wrenching tale on the Once An Addict Interlude that puts us in the perspective of Cole dealing with a parent who had drug abuse issues. The former (Friends) hit me hard, because when you do feel like you’re the only one of your people to ‘make it’ (which isn’t true in my circumstance, but some themes still apply), you wonder how come they’ve been stuck in their situations in which they haven’t been able to overcome. There are a lot of things that factor into why people feel stuck, but some common denominators are a lack of effort, understanding or motivation to get better, and placing blame on exterior factors being the reasons why they can’t get over. The bars that I highlighted in particular stood out, because having been a child & young adult who lived in a low-income neighbourhood, the escape that kids yearn for does start at an early age. Whether it’s due to peer pressure (which it mostly is), or trying to escape the stresses of living, I’ve witnessed firsthand how the need to vent or healthily discuss mental issues was dismissed, and it felt as though no one would listen. I didn’t know it at the time, but I understood why it was important for me to be a listener, more than an agitator or enabler. These kids feel like no one will hear them, and if you’ve been born to parents who don’t look at mental issues as anything but things that can be resolved by getting a job, or drinking tea, then you’re not going to be able to properly express what you feel – and therapy is expensive, so that’s already out of the question.

Bell Let’s Talk is an initiative that once a year actively encourages discussions to be brought to life so that mental health awareness is brought to the forefront as well as assisting programs that specialize in helping tear down the stigma that mental health has been known for. It has been widely criticized by former Bell employees and mental health experts alike, but where I will give credit to the act, is that it brings people to discuss things they probably wouldn’t have shared to everyday strangers, never mind on an online platform. Black Twitter has had trending topics dedicated to connecting and opening up the dialogue for all genders about their struggles, and there’s a sense of community comes into fruition. The slow progression has been positive for those who have always felt like there’s never been an outlet for them to feel a little more at ease with their dysfunction, and time will only tell just how far the practice of open expression, when it pertains to mental health, will go. What I will give credit to, is music, for being a vessel to help bring these conversations to more people who probably wouldn’t have known where else to look, or for someone to simply say “it’s okay to feel how you feel, because I feel that or I’ve felt that.” Being able to relate to someone in your situation is half the battle, KOD is just adding to the rolodex of albums that have given more people reassurance that not only does their mental health matter, but themselves as individuals matter as well.

That’s My Word & It STiXX

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