There’s power in creating cathartic work that can make an artist feel invincible. Rappers who turn their trauma and turmoil into beats and bars deserve credit for conquering fears and channeling their pain into a productive outlet. Sometimes, though, that’s where the credit stops. Just ask Big Sean and Vic Mensa.
In late July, Mensa released his new single, “Three Years Sober.” On the surging punk rock song, the Roc Nation rapper announces he’s “three years sober” from substance abuse. The same week, Detroit veteran Big Sean returned from a yearlong hiatus with the release of “Overtime,” a confessional stream-of-consciousness cut where he admits, “I didn’t take a break, my n*gga, I broke” from depression and anxiety.
“For the first time in my life I 100% believe in myself, and that’s something I’m so happy I got to achieve in this lifetime,” Sean wrote on Twitter in lockstep with the song’s release.
Rather than congratulating Sean for his emotional mending, many on social media made fun of the rapper. “Big Sean lyrics hit different when you turn it off,” one user tweeted. In that same breath, Mensa’s “Three Years Sober” was criticized as yet another example of Vic abandoning the INNANETAPE aesthetic that won him his core fanbase in favor of experimentation.
Neither artist’s showing of vulnerability won them good will with those who weren’t already fans of their work. Artists aren’t graded on a catharsis curve, nor do they deserve to be. Cathartic work may protect artists from their demons, but it doesn’t protect them from critique.
Artists who overcome demons and create in a “glass half full” space must brace for critics to tell them their music isn’t good enough. Twitter has created an environment where the cruelest insult rules the day, rendering even the most delicately-cultivated artwork fodder for mockery. Getting a handle on your mental health doesn’t make the world any less corrosive.
I found the response on social media to both artists to be disheartening, as I identify with their lyrics. I’ve had to take the same mental health break Sean spoke of in his opening verse. Vic’s admission that he felt like a “loser gunnin’ for the end” in his worst moments hit close to home for me as well.
Once an artist releases their work to the public, it’s no longer their own. Consumers set the terms of their listening experience. Artists have to be ready for criticism, no matter how emotionally purifying it was to create their art. I learned this the hard way in 2013.
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Six years ago, I convinced myself I was on the path to reaching my goal of becoming a professional recording artist. Several of my songs covered deeply traumatic events I wasn’t ready to talk about outside of a rhyme, but I knew that I had to be honest in my artistry.
When I sent the songs to a friend, she complimented my production. In hindsight, my delivery was underdeveloped. Her “...” text response said more than any words could; as did the non-responses from other friends who likely didn’t want to speak badly about my work. I wasn’t getting a catharsis curve, either. Though I had poured a lot of traumatic life experiences into the music, my honesty didn’t make the music good.
The appeal in landmark works like 2Pac’s “Pain,” or JAY-Z, Scarface, and Beanie Sigel’s “Can’t Be Life,” or anyone’s favorite pensive plunge, isn’t merely in the decision to be earnest. These artists are beloved because they conveyed their struggles in a thrilling and awe-inspiring manner. They filtered deeply complex ideas into relatable, impactful bars, evoking more than any long-winded diary entry could.
It’s not enough for a poet to merely say “I feel blue” and garner sympathy. An artist must radiate the figurative spectrum of “blue.” It’s not a coincidence that artists who exemplify a high level of honesty and profundity tend to cultivate the most memorable confessional songs. When listeners feel like the latter is lacking, they will let it be known, as it’s their right to.
Big Sean’s “Overtime” isn’t solely a reflection of turmoil. Lines like, “Broke my heart, broke my soul, don’t cry for me though / If you don’t break nothing down then it’s no room to grow” are revelatory when absorbed alongside his recent admission. Instead of focusing on his sincerity, though, listeners fixate on love-it-or-hate-it lines like, “In this hot girl summer, I’m just trying to find a wife.” No matter how earnest Sean was on “Overtime,” his audacious, playful lines stood in the way of full-on appreciation.
Similarly, “Three Years Sober” was panned because of the crude way in which Vic addresses past gloom. Vic built his fan base on thoughtful lyricism and soulful soundscapes, but “Three Years Sober” is a sonic 180 of the most brazen variety. The seething, flying-elbow-to-the-face of a song is replete with lines like, “I used to eat pills, but now I just eat kale.” Not exactly a poetic flourish. In the past, Vic was refreshingly candid about feeling like an “alcoholic loser.” He sounded invigorated about his new creative path. Sadly, the underwhelmed masses don’t share his enthusiasm.
The failure to articulate in a profoundly personal work can be a severe blow for an artist, especially one who is as “sensitive about their shit” as Erykah Badu or who feels as lost as Big Sean admitted last year. It’s one thing to not stick the landing on an 808-laced banger, but to have your testimony rejected by the public is an anxiety-inducing prospect. Rejection sits at the root of fear, a feeling that often keeps talented people from ever putting their work out into the world.
Artists often internalize criticism—subsequently affecting their craft—which is why the most resolute realign their perspective. Negative feedback could be a mean-spirited barb, but it could also be an artistic challenge to dig deeper.
Big Sean has said that he’s creating from a place of joy, and feels like his new music is “the best it’s ever sounded.” Vic appears to be in a positive space, too. It’s possible the response to their latest works didn’t affect either artist. Both Vic and Sean have been around long enough to know they can’t completely control the narrative; they can only protect the embers of their internal flame.
Artists, especially those struggling with their mental health, are learning the hard way that catharsis doesn’t automatically engender universal love. There are no participation trophies in art. Sometimes, self-acceptance is the sole solace when the timeline is dragging your triumph.