While tweeting about an interview last March, Nicki Minaj seemed to confess that she has ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
“I have a difficult time getting out what I have to say,” the rapper wrote. “Honestly, I think it’s one of the many embarrassing signs of ADHD,” she added. “Not diagnosing, just thinking out loud. You’re asked 1 question & go off on a tangent about 5 diff things b4 you answer the 1st question.”
Minaj’s tweet, to 25 million followers, can be seen as yet another dot in ADHD’s long and winding history in hip-hop — the four letters forming a kind of through line in the music over the years. Yet until recently ADHD, and other mental health struggles, were considered too shameful to talk about.
Americans’ mental health struggles have become more pressing since the pandemic. There are signs, however, that the nation, music industry and artists are responding, including the recent launch of a nationwide 9-8-8 crisis line, a Hip-Hop & Mental Health panel at the GRAMMY Museum, and a new mental health partnership between LL Cool J and Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child.
Despite lists of rap songs that address mental health, the popularity of the genre and the prevalence of ADHD, little media attention has been paid to hip-hop and ADHD. While estimates vary and good data can be years old, the best numbers suggest that 6.1 million children (about 9.4 percent) plus 10.5 million adults (about 4.4 percent) have ADHD in the United States alone.
Hip-hop stars who have reckoned with ADHD — whether creatively, IRL or both — are legion. This includes the first rapper to win a GRAMMY, Will Smith, and a beloved track on Kendrick Lamar’s debut album. “I suffer from ADHD,” Tyler, the Creator spits on “Odd Toddlers.” “I should win a f— award for being me.” Will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas, describes his tunes as the “most ADHD songs ever.”
The rapper and mogul Diddy opened up about struggling to focus in a 2018 Instagram video: “Sometimes my brain can go in different directions,” hesaid. “I may have to sit here and read this book five times.” Singer Tyrese Gibson responded, “Champ that’s called ADD or ADHD most creatives have it bad….. Me too! Lol.”
Chance the Rapper is said to have had Attention Deficit Disorder (now considered the “inattentive” subtype of ADHD). Russell Simmons’ All Def Digital launched a short-lived ad agency called ADHD. A now-deleted 2018 interview links Young Thug to the diagnosis, while Wale named his major label debut album Attention Deficit and Kodak Black raps that “they say I’m ADHD.”
Lesser-known stars whose work has touched on the diagnosis include Houston’s Sad Frosty, whose 2018 breakout single was “ADHD Freestyle,” Boston’s Michael Christmas, and British punk rapper slowthai, who has a 2021 track called “ADHD.”
While some public admissions of ADHD are controversial, others seek to turn lemons into lemonade. Brit rapper Loyle Carner has made it a focus, founding an “ADHD Cookery School” called “Chilli con Carner.”
ADHD has been overdiagnosed in the past, and its potentially risky, stimulant-heavy medications overprescribed. Yet Black Americans have been historically underdiagnosed and therapeutic supports undermined by racial bias. (This is likely even more true of Black girls and women, some studies and articles suggest.) Like Minaj, some Black female artists are now opening up about their experiences with ADHD — one of several conditions including dyslexia and autism sometimes referred to as “neurodivergent.”
Doja Cat recently revealed struggles with ADHD in a Rolling Stone story, which led her to drop out of high school amidst “a period of artistic awakening” when she found her longtime producer, Yeti Beats. Solange Knowles has been diagnosed with ADHD twice. The first time, she told Black Doctor, she “didn’t believe” it, thinking “ADHD was just something they invented to make you pay for medicine.”
While struggles with trauma and “so much trouble on my mind” — to quote LL Cool J — have been on tape all along for countless rappers, Black artists have not been given the same latitude as white ones like Eminem.
Joyner Lucas titled his 2020 debut album and a song on it, “ADHD.” “I feel like I’m dying inside / Why do I seem crazy? / Someone save me / You can’t blame me / It’s my ADHD,” Lucas sings on “ADHD With Revenge Intro.” In the video, he wears a Bob Dylan T-shirt — Dylan, who famously wrote the lines “like a rolling stone / no direction home,” is reputed to have had ADHD-like behaviors. It’s filled with images of white people pushing prescription medications that Lucas refuses — until the end, when he takes a pill and goes to sleep.
On the album, Lucas pays tribute to Will Smith, while on “ISIS” he partners with Logic, whose 2017 song about suicide “1-800-273-8255” (the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, now 988) made a splash. Lucas tells GRAMMY.com he’s used music to flip the script on ADHD.
“All my life, I’ve been an underdog and underestimated because of my ADHD,” Lucas writes. “Instead of the condition being a weakness, I made ADHD into my strength and channeled my creativity into music. ADHD helps breed creativity and it’s allowed me to tap into my talent to create every song and visual.”
Lucas is not alone in claiming ADHD as a creative strength. Will.i.am (William Adams) told ADDitude Magazine that while he often feels like he can’t stop or slow down, “those traits work well for me when I’m in the studio.”
Stephan Pennington, a critical musicologist at Tufts University, sees such moments as part of a sea change in ADHD, which he posits is evolving from a condition to an identity: “It becomes not that you did it despite it; it becomes this is who you are.”
“There’s a lane for it now,” agrees San Francisco State University Africana Studies professor Dave “Davey D” Cook. The industry, Davey D adds, has been “forced to accommodate.” The rise of social media and other platforms for artist-fan engagement, coupled with the growth of online communities of people who identify as having ADHD, makes this possible.
There’s no solid proof of a link between ADHD and creativity, though some studies — and a mountain of fantastic music — suggest one. Author Lara Honos-Webb writes that one way of conceptualizing kids with ADHD is as “orchid children,” “fragile, delicate and over-excitable creatures” who can “grow into startling, colorful successes” under the right conditions, but lacking those, can be “easily crushed.”
Salif Mahamane, a psychology professor who has ADHD, describes it in a TEDx talk as “like popping popcorn: one kernel goes off, and then they all take off. … Parts of having ADHD in this world really, really suck,” he says, then adds slyly, “but I quickly get distracted from them.”
“If it’s a superpower, [ADHD] is a pretty sucky superpower,” Pennington tells GRAMMY.com. He lists hyperfocus, burnout, inconsistency, time blindness, executive dysfunction, not finishing projects. “The thing is, if you have a condition you can’t change, it is quite natural to turn that into something positive,” he adds.
It’s something musical artists have been doing forever.
Hip-hop and mental health have different languages and histories, but they’ve often overlapped in our contentious, multiracial, musical nation.
Rappers have been talking about “getting their mentals right” since “day one,” Davey D says. “Pick an artist and you’ll probably see it being addressed.” Back when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 hit “The Message” — its legendary chorus a warning: “Don’t push me / ‘Cause I’m close to the edge/ I’m tryin’ not to lose my head” — was released, rap was not even considered “music” by some. But emceeing, Davey D says, “is a form of healing, for many people. Let me get this cypher, and let me express whatever angst and anger that I have.”
ADHD has had its own long, strange trip in psychiatry. Its roots.) go back to Scotland in 1798, when it was called “hyperkinetic disease.” Hyperkinetic was still the term when it was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s manual in 1968; in 1980, it was renamed “Attention Deficit Disorder,” but in 1987, ADD became the “inattentive” subtype of ADHD. In 1994, ADHD was redefined to have three subtypes, inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive and combined, which were redefined in 2013 as “presentations.”
While Americans have begun speaking more openly about mental health, the music industry has been changing, too. For decades, it pushed “that gangsta s— … that Black anger,” denying rappers multi-dimensional personas and emotional breadth, Davey D says. If a star came for an interview and the host “wanted to broach something a little deeper … somebody would step in and be like, ‘Let’s keep it moving.'”
Now, we are seeing more of what Davey D calls “real conversation” about the music. It’s as if the blinders are coming off and artists know “they’re probably going to have to have a more in-depth dialogue, and to a certain degree, that is now part of the job and part of their brand.”
As always, the music both reflects and pushes broader changes. So the rise in rappers spitting about or disclosing ADHD is also “about claiming this identity,” Pennington says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re not bad kids who are stupid or lazy. Actually, we have ADHD.‘“
Pitfalls and complications remain, both for individuals who have ADHD and in hip-hop’s treatment of the subject. Among them is hip-hop’s forever love affair with getting faded, and the self-medication which often pops up in the music along with ADHD. In his 2011 classic “A.D.H.D.” Kendrick Lamar raps in a raspy, lower-pitched voice about “eight doobies to the face,” “twelve bottles,” “two pills and a half” and “sippin’ cough syrup like it’s water.”
“F— that,” Lamar drawls, over Sounwave’s hypnotic suboceanic groove. “Got a high tolerance when your age don’t exist.” Other artists hit similar notes describing self-medication.
“Here go your prescription,” a typically bombastic Wale flows in “Prescription” on his debut album Attention Deficit. “I put Adderall in y’alls / Riddle them with Ritalin.” Slowthai’s 2021 song “ADHD” is darker, more somber: “Mind complexity be the death of me,” he raps. “Smoke weed only way I fall asleep / Same routine, drink ’til I can’t speak.”
Artists like Lucas and Logic, who are courageous enough to make art that is overtly about taboo topics like ADHD and suicide, may face the challenge of being “forever” associated with the subjects. “More importantly,” Davey D says, “will fans allow a particular artist to move off of a particular angle?”
Racism also continues to rear its ugly head in a country in which the power of metaphor, Pennington explains, has long been denied to Black musicians. Blues pioneer Robert Johnson, for example, was said to have literally sold his soul to the Devil, rather than have simply employed a metaphor. It would follow, then, that a flow about ADHD does not equate to a diagnosis.
Yet “Black people are [still] being arrested and put in prison because of rap lyrics,” Pennington notes, something the Washington Post finds is increasing. In May, Young Thug and Gunna were arrested in Atlanta; a grand jury indictment includes lyrics as evidence. “They rapped around having robbed someone, so then they get arrested, and that [song] is the ‘evidence,’ it’s a ‘confession,'” Pennington says, speaking generally, not about that specific case. By contrast, lyrics from country music’s murder ballads are not similiarly seen as fair game in legal settings.
All these changes, for better and for worse, bring us to Ye a.k.a. Kanye West’s very public struggles with mental health. “I give [Ye] more credit in terms of bringing this conversation to the forefront than anybody else,” Davey D notes, noting that Ye has always been “very emotive.”
Many interpreted Ye’s self-titled 2018 album as an admission to having bipolar disorder which, the National Alliance on Mental Illness notes, can co-occur with ADHD. Ye’s music has long referenced mental health; on that album, he raps “S— could get menacin’, frightenin’, find help… / That’s my bipolar s— / That’s my superpower….” Ye’s claimed his art is his therapy, inspiring Trevor Noah to respond “I do understand that art can be therapy … but I also understand that therapy can be therapy.” Recent reports suggest Ye may now be getting professional help, but what may be most salient about the saga is that it’s played out so publicly.
“Mental health now is much more of a mainstream conversation … because people who were sequestered to just one type of emotion have been able to express themselves in a variety of ways,” Davey D says. “You just can’t put anybody in a box any more.”
Ye’s supporters include Lucas, who in April dropped a song titled “Ye Not Crazy.” When he raps “How do you spell crazy? G-E-N-I-U-S,” Lucas joins an unproven, yet distinguished tradition linking insanity and creative brilliance that stretches back to van Gogh and Beethoven.
“I’m proud to use my platform to uplift those with ADHD and show how we can overcome the odds to become innovators,” Lucas says.
Get notified of exciting GRAMMY Award news and upcoming events!
Be the first to find out about GRAMMY nominees, winners, important news, and events