“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.” —Robert Hughes
Exaggerated self-belief has always been worn by rappers as an impenetrable armor of confidence. It is the battery that fuels their bravado, what allows the ego to overstate hallucinatory greatness. Mediocrity has no self-awareness in hip-hop, even the worst rapper will proclaim on wax to being better than the rest as if the words held an ounce of validity.
As I type this article, someone who lacks Tupac’s magnetism, Biggie’s imagination and Rakim’s wizardry just mumbled a few bars declaring how he or she is the best to ever breath into a microphone. There's a good chance that “rapper” was Bhad Bhabie, the latest lack of talent to sign a record contract for being nothing more than a loud pimple on the face of a celebrity-obsessed society. There’s a reason why she is attempting to expand her dwindling 15 minutes in rap’s arena―it is the only accessible location where an inflated ego is enough to enter.
The first step to being a rapper is believing you can rap. There’s no gatekeeper to issue acceptance letters or a judge to impress before the next steps can be taken. You simply speak in the native tongue with the boldness of someone who belongs. Such a language has always been part of what made rap fascinating; validation wasn’t earned but declared. I liken it to how boxers didn’t speak as Ali spoke; the foundation of his poetry was being superior, prettier, and even more well-liked than any opponent entering the ring. He spoke of his greatness until people began to believe, and he wore it like a championship belt that wasn’t earned in a fight but acquired long before any bout.
While it’s natural to allow modesty to roll from the tongue, Ali, much like the rappers who followed, didn’t brag humbly. JAY-Z didn’t bring doubt into the studio, Puffy didn’t bring doubt onto the stage, and the list goes on. Some are louder than others, more bodacious with the bragging, but confidence has always been a prerequisite for artistic survival in hip-hop.
I've always admired a rapper’s unwavering pride, how greatness was a conviction they always carried. When I decided to become a writer, I came to the realization I would need to wear the same armor, or at least possess the confidence to shield in the form of Aegis or Pridwen. Being good wasn’t good enough, I had to be great, and I needed to display a strong self-belief for anyone else to ever believe in me.
For many years, my confidence fluctuated. It wasn’t impenetrable, but the cracks never led to the armor crumbling. It survived a disgruntled moon man, fervent trolls, and constant but constructive criticism. In many ways outside input made the armor stronger. And then one day I awoke after an exhausting week of writing without any armor, without a shield, a complete lack of belief in self.
It was a new kind of nakedness, like being robbed of a valuable, irreplaceable possession. Doubt began to eat at me in tiny bites like Pac Man slowly clearing a stage of Pac-Dots. Nothing was good enough, every sentence was less satisfying than the last. There was too much work to be done for any self-pity, writing through my own overwhelming feelings of falling short was an internal tug-of-war. The phone doesn’t stop ringing and the deadlines aren’t extended during a creative crisis. Excuses are unacceptable. I imagined how Jordan must have felt while playing with the flu, except the sickness was all in my head.
Music has always brought solace when emotions become overbearing. It’s soothing to hear another man or woman articulate what you’re going through, but I couldn’t find that voice in rap. Every song was another artist sounding certain, overflowing with a positive enthusiasm that the world could be conquered one rhyme at a time. It was like searching for an honest sinner in a church where every priest swore by their purity. Was it a facade? Was it possible to always feel as if God gifted you a divine talent? Maybe it was I who lacked conviction?
These are the questions I asked myself until Earl Sweatshirt’s Solace paid me a random visit and it was as if someone who was unafraid to drop the armor finally appeared.
In the second part of the 10-minute song, he raps:
"It's me and my nibbling conscience, nigga I'm fixin' to give up"
Our issues weren’t the same, but it’s funny how well Earl captured the feeling of being devoured by your own thoughts. It doesn’t just eat at you in huge vicious bites, but more like a soft nibbling that becomes difficult to ignore.
Wherever he was when he was recording Solace, Earl dug deep into the war being fought from within. “Trying to make some sense of all this shit in my brain, one foot stuck in a tar pit of my ways,” he raps, a flawless depiction of going through the motions without sugarcoating. This is the brutal self-examination that makes Solace one of rap’s most candid releases in recent memory. These are the verses a man can write only when diving into the swamp―his personal sewer―and taking pictures of the skeletons.
On the final verse that closes out Solace, Earl brings it all the way home, spewing an intense vomit from the soul. What struck me the hardest, though, was how it begins:
“I got my grandmama's hands, I start to cry when I see 'em / 'Cause they remind me of seein' her / These the times that I needed her most cause I feel defeated / And I buy nothin' but myself, my second thoughts / My hectic process of thinkin' / And all my doubts and I think / I know Nak in there sleepin', he on the couch, that's my brother / Give me a boost when my confidence need it / So I love him”
Hearing such a confession of self-defeat felt surreal coming from the mouth of a rapper. This is Earl's truth at its most harsh. This unpolished approach was meant to contain all the raw emotion. For Earl to be frank about how his mind is full of second thoughts, doubts, and a thought process that’s more hectic than simplistic was a rare confirmation that not everyone was cloaked by indestructible confidence. He acknowledges how Nak, a longtime friend, gives him a needed boost when the armor shatters. Even his grandmother―who he misses dearly―is remembered for being there to build him up when falling apart.
Not just as a creative or rapper, but as a black man, Earl showed me that every day isn’t easily seized. It’s not okay to wallow in self-pity but we have to allow ourselves room to just admit―with honest sincerity―that we can mentally be our biggest obstacle. It’s unrealistic to believe you’ll never struggle with self.
Solace proves that there was a time when Earl was simply trying to overcome who he saw in reflections and selfies. Not the critics, not the labels, not another rapper, it was only himself standing in the way. Far from the easiest confession to make, there’s nothing glorious about waking up and feeling the weight of your own self-loathing. No one wants to live within that tar pit of self-defeat.
Over the years, I've spoken with a lot of artists who wrestle with demons born in the brain, who have to push them out to move forward. It’s a gradual process of building the armor and sustaining confidence. Rap teaches you the importance of self-belief, but few artists talk about maintaining that confidence when the walls begin to close in. The unrealistic standards we set for ourselves create the incentive not to grow creatively stagnant, but the pressure should not be so heavy the soul is squashed.
The worst thing for an artist is to allow fear to cause their art to move in a crawl. Earl employed the microphone to confront some of his most private, personal thoughts, and in doing so has helped me combat my own.
I’ll be my harshest critic before being my biggest cheerleader, a problem worth recognizing. I’m not alone in this, I know others are dealing with the same pattern of utmost assurance and devouring doubt. It doesn’t help to ignore the wariness—we must confront our feelings.
Mental health is wealth and should be handled like it's worth more than gold. Most rappers may hide behind a suit of armor but most people are like Earl, minds that don’t allow to simply overlook the series of second thoughts and hectic thinking. It’s a dilemma that shouldn’t be seen as taboo but accepted as part of being a person and artist.
Anyone dealing with self-doubt should listen to Solace for a voice that understands that there will always be better tomorrow even if you don’t believe in yourself today.
Every day I’m trying to be just a bit better, no exaggeration.
By Yoh, aka Self Care Yoh, aka @Yoh31