How Kanye is battling and embracing his bipolar disorder
The music icon is trying to "change the stigma of 'crazy.'" Will it work?
Kanye West has never been shy about letting everyone know exactly how he's feeling.
After an erratic and tiring six weeks of faux-introspective philosophical tweets, loudly declared support for the 45th president of the United States, and off-the-rails appearances on gossip TV shows, the lead-up to the Chicago-born artist's eighth studio album has finally come to a close with Friday's release of ye. Within the confines of that album's succinct seven-track, 23-minute running time, Kanye directly addresses his own mental state, even including album art depicting a common novelty shop shop phrase: "I hate being bipolar it's awesome."
ye is far from the first time that Kanye has addressed his mental health — on his last release, 2016's The Life Of Pablo, he included a direct reference to his medication on "FML": "See, before I let you go / One last thing I need to let you know / You ain't never seen nothing crazier than / This ni--a when he off his Lexapro," referring to the commonly prescribed antidepressant. He also gave a nod to the medication in the Vic Mensa assisted "U Mad": "That Lexapro got me drowsy, then a heart attack." However, ye is the first time he's publicly revealed his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and the depth, brevity, and openness with which he discusses his experience charts new ground in a genre that has been slow to encourage sharing about mental illness.
As any Kanye album does, ye transports us, Being John Malkovich-style, into his mind. For instance, "Yikes," the album's second track, feels unstable and manic — and that's the point.
The already frenzied "Yikes" kicks into an even higher gear at certain points of the song, as the rapping and singing that Kanye bounces between quickly progresses into a pointed, intense fit of shouting that still manages to fit alongside his pristine production. This is most evident in the closing moments of the song:
You see? You see? / That's what I'm talkin' 'bout / That's why I f--k with Ye / That's my third person / That's my bipolar sh-t, n--ga what? / That's my superpower, n--ga ain't no disability / I'm a superhero! I'm a superhero! / Agghhhh! [Kanye West]
Kanye's openness about, and apparent pride in, his mental health status is consistent with his comments last month in an interview with Charlamagne Tha God, in which he said that he planned to "change the stigma of 'crazy.'" This is an important pronouncement, considering that some of hip-hop's biggest names recently used mental health issues as diss track fuel.
It's also important to note the background regarding mental health and its perception in the communities in which Kanye exists. One in every five adults suffers from mental illness, and 2.6 percent of adults are bipolar, according to the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness. African Americans are more likely to suffer from serious mental illnesses, but only use mental health services at half the rate of white Americans. Perhaps Kanye's visibility could be used as a starting point to jumpstart discussions around stigma surrounding psychiatric diseases and disparities in mental health care.
While some others in the hip-hop community have already used their platforms to raise awareness around mental health — including Kanye's buddy Kid Cudi, with whom he'll be releasing a collaborative album next week under the name Kids See Ghost — none carry the same "everyone-drops-everything" quality that the release of a new Kanye West album does. Kanye's direct and transparent addressing of an often underplayed diagnosis is a big deal.
That transparency, in fact, can sometimes be a bit jarring — on opening track "I Thought About Killing You," we're immediately immersed in Kanye's head, talking to himself in different tones. He dictates a spoken word verse where he headfirst jumps into thoughts of both violent misdeeds — "premeditated murder," he repeats — and brutal self-harm — "And I think about killing myself, and I love myself way more than I love you, so …" he says. But interspersed between this dysphoria lies an explanation of sorts:
People say, "Don't say this, don't say that" / Just say it out loud, just to see how it feels [Kanye West]
It's a lot to deal with. Kanye has always been a provocative, polarizing figure, but now he's doubling down on those two descriptors, embracing a president whom many of his fans hate, and taking his inflammatory remarks to infuriating new heights. But at the same time, the music put to record continues to blaze trails. The openness with which ye touches on these undeniably important threads, from someone with this level of fame, is rare. Kanye not only admits to having bipolar disorder, he peels back the curtain and takes us through a manic-depressive cycle that is both jarring and illuminating. Time will tell if the embrace of his diagnosis manages to reduce any stigma toward mental illness — both within rap, and well beyond.