Lost and Beat Up: Kanye West, Depression, You, and Me
Kanye West's simultaneous dedication to being relatable yet unknowable is what makes Kanye such a challenging and compelling artist.
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I rarely get surprised when I listen to pop music, but I was genuinely taken aback when Kanye West rapped about being crazy when he’s “off his Lexapro” during The Life of Pablo’s “F.M.L.” It’s the second time he’s mentioned the drug—he also rapped about it on Vic Mensa’s “U Mad”—but the specificity of the reference laid me flat on my back. I’ve been on and off antidepressants since I was 18 (including Kanye’s problematic fave, Lexapro), and I think everybody who’s been on them knows the unique shittiness of realizing you’ve missed a dose, that “Oh damn it, here we go again” feeling like you’re about to get on the world’s most uncomfortable carnival ride. Even worse is being out of refills and not having the time to hit the doctor’s and renew your prescription. Or deciding you’re over your meds and trying to drop them, cold turkey, something I do every few months to disastrous results, despite being at the point that I know that I should know better.
Hearing Kanye talk about Lexapro so openly feels revelatory in a very real way. Because Kanye West is Kanye West, pretty much anything he does or talks about will be scrutinized and talked about within an inch of its life. When he wears a jacket from the cover of an American Nightmare album, Google searches for the band spike. Same with Arthur Russell, after Kanye repurposed a loop from his track “Answers Me” for his track “30 Hours.” So, maybe him talking about taking Lexapro will expand pop culture’s understanding of depression as this taboo subject or a weird, meme-y badge of honor to a more enlightened position of, “Oh shit, antidepressants are totally normal and OK things to take.”
Stuff like this is what’s cool about Kanye, and it’s why he’s an important figure in society. He acts as a bridge between the mainstream and the underground, the spoken and unspoken, advancing the complicated, intertwined conversations surrounding topics such as race, faith, commerce, art, fashion, sex, relationships education, access, music, taste, and art. Certainly, he’s not the only public figure doing this, and I don’t think even he would say that he always does a good job at it, but it’s rare that you find superstars stunting the way Ye does on this particular jumbotron. It’s hard to imagine, for example, Kanye’s buddy Jay Z rap about how his marriage might be in jeopardy a la Pablo’s “F.M.L.” Or the anti-caustic, apolitical Drake end a track by rapping, “Hands up, we just doing what the cops taught us / Hands up, hands up, then the cops shot us,” like Kanye does on “Feedback.” Such moves run counter to our basic understandings of who these guys are as artists. They have personas, and everything they do is in conversation with those personas. This is why it’s hilarious when Drake spoofs his own self-spoof “Hotline Bling” video for a cell phone commercial, and it’s the same reason that Jay Z has become sort of boring and safe in his old age. Both are in their own ways calculating commercial entities, and because of that they can feel limited as artists.
Kanye, meanwhile, constantly works to expand what it means to be Kanye West, to the point where he’s almost become one of those abstract concepts that we need paragraphs to explain but the Germans have an extremely specific word for. Kanye announces he’s running for President? Extremely Kanye. Kanye pauses from essentially creating his album in public to claim he’s $53 million in debt and then asks Mark Zuckerberg for a billion dollar loan? That’s some Kanye West-ass shit. BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!? I’m not even gonna touch that one, but trust and believe it’s Kanye as fuck. Kanye announces he’ll debut said album in a live fashion show and then plays the thing off a fucking aux cord? Wow, yes, many Kanye. And as much as people like to call Kanye crazy or say that they miss the old Kanye or whatever, he really does work in his music to give the listener the totality of the human experience—contentment in “Ultra Light Beam,” ecstasy in the first half of “Father Stretch My Hands,” greed and pettiness in “Famous,” jealousy in “30 Hours,” invincibility in “Feedback,” ecstasy in “Waves,” paranoia in “Wolves.” Not to mention his ability to cut the tension with a dad joke, like the sandwich line in “Wolves” and the “Imma have the last laugh in the end / ‘Cause I’m from a tribe called Check-A-Hoe” thing in “F.M.L.” And don’t even get me started on the “no-pussy-gettin’ bloggers” line in “Feedback,” which as a blogger myself, is just ::flame emoji::. But it’s this simultaneous dedication to being relatable yet unknowable that makes Kanye such a uniquely challenging and compelling artist.
Now, far be it from me to sit here and tell you that Kanye West actually takes antidepressants, or even assemble a bunch of evidence to support some claim that anything Kanye’s done is a result of him suffering from depression and/or anxiety. I don’t know the guy, and I’m certainly not a medical professional. Hell, for all I know Yeezy might be to clinical depression what Rick Ross is to being a drug lord. That’s immaterial, though, because whether or not Kanye West is discussing his lived experiences with depression has no bearing on the impact of Kanye West is talking about depression in a way that feels real to those who have lived it.
Even though I understand taking medication for anxiety and depression is totally not a big deal, there’s something in the back of my brain that keeps me from talking about it too much. It feels like an admission of personal failure, like I’m saying I couldn’t jump over some hurdles without putting springs in my shoes. This is obviously silly—depression and anxiety aren’t obstacles to be overcome, and antidepressants are not steroids for unhappiness. Taking them is just a thing that I do, right between waking up and brushing my teeth. So hearing Yeezy talk about this thing I’m sort of terrified to talk about in this super frank way felt brave, and in a sense, it made me feel brave too.
For all the noise surrounding his personal life and his out-there public statements, Kanye’s music is at its best when it encapsulates these moments, using his status as a monolithic pop star to let us know we’re not alone. By things like the Lexapro line—which jarred loose extremely specific feelings in me (as well as others), Kanye’s actively exploring what it means to be alive. Sure, sometimes Yeezy totally misses the mark or comes off like a total fucking asshole, but you can’t say he’s not trying. Antics fade, great music doesn’t, and as the dust of The Life of Pablo’s madcap rollout and PR shitstorms settle, maybe we’ll all realize that the old Kanye, the chop-up-the-soul Kanye, the Kanye who was just a guy trying to get by, has been here all along.
Drew Millard is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.