listening to musicThe lyrics of rapper Kendrick Lamar could help those affected by mental health issues and practitioners working in the field, according to the founders of a new initiative.

In an online article in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, the co-founders of Hip-Hop Psych explain how Lamar’s lyrics could give insights into mental health issues for practitioners, and also help young people consider their own mental health in a way that is relevant to them.

“As Kendrick Lamar’s music paints a picture of how his characters are affected by and cope with mental health issues, we believe it might help mental health practitioners and other professionals to understand the day-to-day internal and external struggles of their patients,” says Akeem Sule, honorary consultant psychiatrist at South Essex Partnership Trust, and an honorary visiting research associate at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge.

Becky Inkster from the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, added: “The lyrics could provide a valuable way for young people to understand and consider their own vulnerability and life choices, but in a way that is relevant and accessible. With this information to hand, they can start to look at their own situation and environment in order to make more informed and empowered choices.” 

For instance, the songs ‘u’ and ‘i’ on Lamar’s latest album To Pimp A Butterfly, released in March, explore issues of alcohol dependency and also touch on themes of depression, vulnerability, stress, depression and resilience.

In ‘u’, Lamar’s character appears to be drowning his sorrows, enhanced by the sound effects of clinking bottles. The setting for this track involves Lamar’s character, a successful hip-hop artist, who is alone in his hotel room, intoxicated with alcohol, and talking to himself in the mirror. He might be suffering with clinical depression, say the authors, and certainly describes key symptoms of low self-confidence and low mood: “The world don’t need you… I know depression is restin’ on your heart”.

As well as ruminating on his condition, Lamar’s character describes hopeless and suicidal thoughts. There is also evidence of distortions in his thinking patters – he has a tendency to magnify his failures – in this case, his absence at his dying friend’s bedside, and minimise his successes (“You preached in front of 100,000 but never reached her”).

The opposite of ‘u’ comes through the song ‘i’. His character displays evidence of resilience factors against stress, for example optimism – “One day at a time, sun gone shine” – and translating stressful, negative, and depressing thoughts into more positive and beneficial alternatives, as well as a resolution to love himself irrespective of life’s challenges. Lamar’s character reveals his belief in God has helped him overcome his personal traumatic experiences: “Trials, tribulations, but I know God”.

“Kendrick Lamar’s rich narratives take his listeners on a complex journey, entrenched with conflict and social pressure, describing what life is like growing up as an inner city youth,” say the authors. “His character’s powerful ability to navigate his mind, body, and spirit through life’s obstacles to overcome environmental factors stacked up against his innocence has and will continue to inspire a generation.”


Sule A & Inkster B. Kendrick Lamar, street poet of mental health. Lancet Psychiatry; 30 April 2015.