The co-founders of Hip-Hop Psych, a new UK-based initiative tackling mental health issues through the music of hip-hop, have penned an article for Lancet Psychiatry assessing how mental health issues are addressed in the lyrics of rap megastar Kendrick Lamar.

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Kendrick Lamar has had a sensational effect not only within hip-hop but on the global music scene overall.
Image credit: Dan Prackopcyk/The Hell Gate/Corbis

Kendrick Lamar is a rapper from Compton, CA, who, since 2011, has released three full-length albums. His most recent album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” was released in March of this year and has had a sensational effect not only within hip-hop but on the global music scene overall. The album is currently rated as the number one album of 2015 so far on the music review aggregators Metacritic and Rate Your Music.

Hip-Hop Psych describe their initiative as “the interface that links hip-hop music and culture with mental health.”

“Our medical credibility and authentic passion for hip-hop enables us to bridge this gap,” claims the description on the organization’s website. “We understand the culture and speak the language. We want to share our knowledge in order to cultivate awareness, empower others and remove stigma surrounding mental health and hip-hop…”

“Hip-hop lyrics go far beyond the swearing, the rapping about money and exploitation of women,” argue Hip-Hop Psych. They assert:

“Hip-hop music is rich with mental health references related to addiction, psychosis, conduct disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and so on, as well as multiple environmental risk factors (e.g., urbanicity, poor nutrition, destructive parental influences resulting in childhood maltreatment in the absence of positive role models) and predisposing genetic and epigenetic risk factors.”

In their article for Lancet Psychiatry, Hip-Hop Psych co-founders Akeem Sule and Becky Inkster analyze Kendrick Lamar lyrics that explore themes of alcohol misuse and its relationship to depression.

According to Sule and Inkster, “Swimming Pools” – inspired by Lamar’s heavy-drinking grandfather – examines the genetic and environmental risk factors that can increase risk for alcohol addiction.

“For example,” write Sule and Inkster, “the reported association between a genetic variant of the μ-opioid receptor gene (OPRM1) and early-onset alcohol misuse seems to be partly moderated by the degree of parental monitoring of alcohol intake; another study examined the relationship between alcohol misuse in adolescence, family conflict, and a gene variant in the serotonin system.”

In the song “u,” which describes Kendrick’s character drowning his sorrows while talking to himself in the mirror, Sule and Inkster diagnose Kendrick as having “a hyperactive and hyperconnected default mode network, and increased functional connectivity between the default mode network and his subgenual prefrontal cortex.”

Sule and Inkster explain the neuroscience for this diagnosis:

We speculate that Kendrick’s character is having increased activation of low-frequency brain oscillations in his brain’s default mode network, which is a network of brain regions including the medial temporal lobe, medial prefrontal cortex, and posterior cingulate cortex that is activated when an individual is not engaging with the outside world (e.g., during daydreaming, perspective reflection, or introspective thinking). The default mode network has been studied in patients with major depressive disorder.”

The song “i,” meanwhile, which addresses Lamar’s belief in God and how this has aided him in overcoming personal traumatic experiences, is compared in the article with a study of African-American adults that had experienced trauma, which reported that a higher frequency of attendance of religious services was a protective factor against psychiatric morbidity among this group.

“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,” concludes Sule, who is also honorary consultant psychiatrist at South Essex Partnership Trust, and an honorary visiting research associate at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, UK.