The most harrowing aspect of depression is how it moves in silence. Depression is an hour-by-hour illness, where one moment you’re firing on all cylinders and the next you feel as if you’re falling out of the world. You’re watching a shadow of yourself hunker around, as everything dims and collapses without warning.
Everyone has their one needle point of light to guide them through a depressive episode. Mine, of course, is music. For all the songs, mixtapes, and albums that have been dedicated to mental health awareness and the ills of depression, the best, most impactful way for an artist to capture this mental sucker punch is a leveling one-liner.
I’ve never felt closer to J. Cole than when he opened 4 Your Eyez Only with the sobering question, “Do I wanna die? I don’t know, I don’t know.” It was the way he belted out his uncertainty, then repeated himself, taken aback by the admission. This is the reality of living with depression and coping with suicidal thoughts: a constant warring with yourself. In that one bar on “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” Cole sounds as scared of his own feelings as I am of mine. Laying in my bed with my headphones on, I replayed the track four or five times, letting myself fill in the blanks.
Cole drew the perfect picture of suicidal ideation, and he allowed me to color it in.
The older we get, the more we're taught to sweep intrusive thoughts under the rug and carry on—you know, as if there’s an age restriction on mental illness. This stigma only adds to the devastation. When an artist can weave in a line about their own struggles with depression, it mirrors the fleeting wallops of sadness or emptiness faced by those who suffer from the illness. At the same time, one-liners can also validate those struggles, reminding us that depression is not a dirty word.
The first time I heard Vince Staples’ Prima Donna EP standout, “Smile,” I was doing office work in a blue shack in the woods. Seriously, it was the dream gig: no air conditioning, no one else in the building. Just me and two blown-out computer speakers in the dead of summer. The song’s tape recorder outro came across as a grainy warble. Vince’s chanting, “Sometimes I feel like giving up” ad nauseam was terrifyingly spellbinding. The repetition built a space for me to reflect and cautiously nod along.
Like Cole, Vince’s use of a single line left a lot of space for me to plot and connect my own dots. I allowed myself to imagine him following the bar with an unspoken ...and that’s okay. Whether or not he intended I go there is beside the point: what matters is I made it. I left the song on repeat for the rest of the work day. There were at least two dead rats in the ceiling, and one scurrying in a tight circle around them. We all felt like giving up.
When things become that dire, the most attractive option becomes a piece of music squarely focused on depression. Even still, in that flood of heavy emotion, single lines remain the most powerful. Take Atmosphere’s seminal God Loves Ugly—not a very happy album. Take the guttural—if not rageful— “Fuck You Lucy,” where every bar builds on the devastation of the last. The most humanizing moment on that song, if not the entire album, is when Slug takes a step back to declare, “Fuck the what happened, I got stuck.” Angry, honest, and punchy, this line embodies the frustration of not being able to intellectualize your emotions.
As much as I like to imagine that I can talk through anything, sometimes the best I can do is gasp for air while I choke on my tongue. What Slug and Vince accomplish with their lines is to remind you of, and help you survive through, the stagnancy of depression. The power-through mentality we see online obscures the days lost in your own ego death spiral. They remind me that rock bottom is just as much a part of the healing process as taking a yoga class or eating some kale.
I was taking the last train out of Penn Station when I heard Isaiah Rashad’s “Dressed Like Rappers” for the first time. Found on The Sun’s Tirade, an album meant to bathe listeners in sunlight so powerful it becomes oppressive, the record is a superb case study of mood and the dangers of indulgence. It was nearly three in the morning on the quiet car when Zay—who has been public about his own battles with addiction—recited my favorite bar of 2016: “I can’t admit, I been depressed, I hit a wall. Ouch.” Eyes stinging and heavy, I squinted at my iPod, looping the track back to make sure I caught that right.
Succinct and deadening, Zay captures everything from the unexpected crush to the self-imposed shame of a depressive episode. The truth can be simple, and by not dressing up his struggles with overwritten details, Zay validates every listener who might feel that since their sadness doesn’t stack up to the next man, it’s not as important.
Realize that the magic of the one-liner is multiple: it’s a catch-all, it’s a comfort, and it’s an apt portrait of a condition otherwise abstract and slippery.
From now on, when people ask me what my depression feels like, I won’t struggle to find the right words. I’ll just refer back to Isaiah Rashad and truthfully tell them: “Ouch.”