The Heartbreak of Self-Doubt in the Age of Constant Criticism

By | Posted March 14, 2016
Wale, Lupe, even Jay Z, they've all felt the sting of self-doubt when a once adoring public turns against them.

“It's very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don't dig you” - Bob Dylan

Dylan knew what it felt like to stand onstage and play songs he didn’t want to play, sing songs he didn’t want to sing. He was a man that could please the audience, sell the records, but still struggle to find self-satisfaction. The mind of a conflicted artist is like a war zone: bombs in the brain, knives in the throat, machine guns in the nostrils, a silent chaos that eats from within. He told Playboy in 1966 that he considered quitting, leaving it all behind like a folk singing Dave Chappelle ready to flee from his personal Comedy Central. What kept him wasn’t money or fame but writing "Like a Rolling Stone," a song that he could simply dig. The myth says that it started off as a 10 or 20 page rant, venting all his pent-up frustrations to the page until he discovered an expression that wasn’t attuned with outside influence. 

During a time when songs that charted were short and sweet, the sales and marketing department of the label feared the six-minute long opus wouldn’t be received well, the sound was also more rock than folk. It was a complete step outside the norm, but Dylan believed and fought for the release. The gamble to be different was a success, “Like A Rolling Stone” would go on to be his biggest commercial hit on the charts.

You can read this story and see an artist who challenged the status quo and defied the odds, a man saved by his artistic integrity who reaped the benefits, but happy endings are for children and readers of Twilight novels. What grabbed me was the exhaustion that comes with being unhappy with your art despite outside praise. It’s the deeper level of self-belief that truly speaks of the artistic psyche. I know that mental space, it’s the one where good isn’t good enough, the best can be better, the strain of wanting to elevate but ramming into the ceiling. I feel it gnawing at me now while staring at every word with suspicion, knowing each sentence is replaceable, filled with the fear of falling short of my own expectations.

In the mirror is where you face your harshest critic. If I’m pleased then nothing else matters, or so I thought. There’s another side of the artistic psyche that is much deeper, darker, and more difficult to cope with. It’s knowing that once your art has been released and enters the world, it will be judged by eyes that aren’t yours, there’s no promise that they will see what you see. During a recent conversation with a friend, he spoke of a song that was in its fifth hour of being mixed. I could hear the excitement in his tone - after producing, recording, and mixing the song himself he believed the song was something worthwhile, a record stained by his blood, sweat, and tears that would showcase all that he has learned and has to offer. My heart sank into my shoes imagining what would happen if all this work and preparation lead to a less than ecstatic reaction - or worse, silence, just another song collecting dust on Soundcloud. How does that affect one’s mind? I started to wonder about his confidence and how much he could take. How hard it must be to create again after watching something you believe in fall flat. In rap, we talk about ego's but what about confidence? What happens when due to the outside world, you lose belief in yourself?

It happened to T-Pain, which seems weird since he’s highly successful on the metric scale of money, plaques and hits. We're talking about the forefather that brought Auto-Tune into modern hip-hop, using it as a tool that could birth so many hits he could rival the Octomom. Pain seemed unstoppable, everybody wanted the pony for his one trick, more than a few even taught themselves which turned mainstream rap into a horse stable of robotic voices. It’s hard to pinpoint the moment where it all collapsed, some say Jay Z’s “DOA” brought the death of T-Pain, or maybe it was new masters being born from his old form, but you looked up one day and he wasn’t on the radio, on the charts, or being featured on albums. T-Pain was gone with the wind. When he returned, the once prominent rapper turnt singer was singing in a tune that wasn’t Auto-Tuned but full of lost confidence and deep depression. Falling from the top crushed his spirits, for two years he was lost in a rhythm of drinking and sleeping. He told the press untold stories of being mocked, belittled, and embarrassed by Kanye during the 808’s and Heartbreak studio sessions. He became a joke, it did more than crush his ego, the ridicule destroyed his self esteem. Once an artist loses his confidence, there’s a long road to recovery.

In his 2014 interview with the New Yorker, T-Pain confessed that he couldn’t just brush the hate off, that money couldn’t fill the void of wanting to be liked, wanting to be accepted for his music. He mentions how he’s affected by people’s comments, that he isn’t motivated by his haters but consumed by them. At the time of the interview, he wanted to title his next album Stoicville:The Phoenix. Of course, the firebird symbolizes his rebirth but he further explained the theme of Stoicville. 

“Stoicville, is where everybody is stoic—where nobody has emotions. You don’t get shit from anybody in Stoicville. You don’t get people saying or doing fucked up shit to you. Everybody’s just stoic. Nobody has emotions and everybody minds their own fucking business. That’s the town for me. That’s where I want to live.” Even though T-Pain has returned with a fervor and is sounding great, his view on Stoicville proves that he is still scarred by the years behind him. Instead of embracing the pain, he'd rather run somewhere where there isn’t any. The emotionless town he envision is an escape from reality. It’s like a child who would rather be homeschooled than face his bullies. I can’t blame T, it’s traumatic trying to piece together your life in an industry that laughed when all you wanted was respect.

T-Pain is the story of having it and wanting more, but on the opposite spectrum you have Wale, who put in the work and feels that not enough acknowledgement has been given. He’s mocked for being sensitive, for entertaining trolls and negativity, but for Wale it’s natural. Like he said in his interview with Billboard, he always looked outside for recognition. Outside now happens to be the internet, where the wild things roam, a vast and loveless arena where the lions floss their teeth with your insecurities. I wish Brad Wete, the interviewer, pressed him more about his loss of confidence, dealing with depression and if he ever emerged from that dark space. Unlike T-Pain, he was drinking and not sleeping, consumed by escaping. It’s worth adding, it wasn’t just the lack of respect that was drowning Wale in sorrows. He was dealing with a miscarriage, Ross being in a shooting, regular life was still unfolding around him, being well known and relatively famous doesn’t absolve you of problems. They only add on to the stress, hoping that your album doesn’t flop, dealing with internet trolls, and licking the wounds that no one knows stack block on top of block that resembles a suffocating game of Tetris. I wonder where Wale is now mentally, when he sits down to write a song what’s on his mind? Is it the charts? Is it the critics? Is it the creative voice that roars from within? What keeps a man going when time and time again all he asks for is given to others?

"My confidence was shot, so I'd be taking whatever to keep me in a good mood, to get me in the right mood for an interview. I'm not going into the details as to what I was taking, but there's definitely something for that. Just like there's a fuckin' app for everything, there's a damn pill for everything. Or something you can pour in your glass. I was depressed not being where I wanna be in my career when I've put the work in. I wasn't sleeping. I was drinking all day and I didn't have anyone to go to. I couldn't fight it. Those are some of the demons I talk about on the album." - Wale 2014

It takes strength to carry such weight. Lupe carried the weight with Lasers. Lupe proved with his first two albums that he was in a different class by giving listeners a different tier of rap artistry. The label wanted more, they wanted popular Lupe. He brought them two songs and they rejected them. It’s not what they envisioned, so they went out and found the beats, found the choruses and the songwriters, they told him what to make. Lupe’s hate of Lasers comes from the process, from someone telling him that this isn’t good enough, that this is what you will make or else your album is never coming out. For two years he fought and compromised, dealing with a depression that comes from being artistically crushed. People boycotted for an album that really wasn’t his. People bought an album that he couldn’t completely stand behind. It wasn’t his best art but it’s commercially his most successful. Imagine if the album you were forced to make got the worst reviews but sold the most units and made the most money, wouldn’t that change you? You couldn’t beat them, so you joined them and it did exactly what they wanted.

"But when Fiasco submitted his first Lasers tracks two and a half years ago, his label, Atlantic, rejected them as not commercial enough, according to Darrale Jones, his A&R rep. "I don't know how to do what Kanye does," Fiasco says matter-of-factly. "I don't have that Midas touch." A creative clash ensued: Atlantic froze his production budget. Fiasco asked to be released from his contract. The label refused. By his own account, Fiasco descended into a deep funk. On "Beautiful Lasers," one of the album's standout songs, he raps over a reverberating gothic beat: "If you feel like you don't want to be alive, you feel just like I am." Did he really contemplate suicide? "To keep from killing somebody else," he says. "The creation of Lasers was a very painful, dark, fucked-up process." - Lupe 2011

I always thought it changed Lupe, that something broke during the two years it took to make Lasers and the year after when he faced such harsh criticism. It's almost as if he had to re-find himself after having so much taken from his creative process.

Mac Miller is one of the most interesting rappers because the reviews of Blue Slide Park actually hurt him. He took the scathing backlash to heart, in his case the pen was mightier than any sword. Especially when you’re 19, releasing your debut album and dealing with life on the road, more than your feelings can be hurt by some harsh words. Criticism didn’t kill Mac Miller, it might have been a reason for his early promethazine addiction, but it wasn’t the nail in his coffin. Mac wanted to be a great rapper more than any critic wanted him to stop being a rapper. It shows in his growth, it’s been five years since that album and he gets better with each project. He never sunk into the weariness, he never completely succumbed to the views from outside. It’s hard, when you feel that there’s more against you than for you, but he believed that he could be better so he was. Not for anyone else but himself.

Mac took the bad reviews to heart. They didn’t just piss him off; they sent him into a personal tailspin. His problems got worse once he started the Macadelic Tour in March 2012. For the first leg of the tour, he played nothing but colleges, venues that did nothing to dispel the perception that the young MC was nothing more than a “frat rapper.” Over six grueling months he played 53 shows, including 20 in Europe (“Going through customs every day is not fun,” said his entourage). To help manage the stress he started using Promethazine. Somewhere along the way he became addicted. - Mac Miller 2013

I always wondered when Jay ranked his albums a few years ago why he put Kingdom Come at the bottom. His reason, “First game back, don’t shoot me.” He defended BP3 from critics citing that it was good, Magna Carta has a list of songs defending its placement, every album he cites a reason for why it’s beloved except for Kingdom Come. Is it because that’s the Jay album where the public is pretty vocal about its distaste? Is he just going with popular opinion? Where is the confident Jay Z that would stand behind his every release? That’s what makes me think even legends can fall victim to outside influence. What if Kendrick secretly wishes he could have Billboard-topping singles like Drake? What if Drake wished he could create an album like TPAB that affects politics and culture? It doesn’t always come from a place of jealousy when we wish for things others are able to obtain. We spend so many days and hours just stuck in our minds, working out equations for problems that don’t exist, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed with feelings that the public will never know exist. I feel like every artist has a penetrable confidence.

Recently, I was sitting at a funeral when a rapper sent me his mixtape. He probably thought I just ignored him, or worse that I hated him, but the truth is I couldn’t read his DM through the stream of tears. The world doesn’t know what you don’t show or tell. What we hide is just as important as what we choose to share. Few choose to show the cracks in confidence, their selfies won’t reveal what lies underneath, that they really resemble Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness album cover.

All the promise and talent in the world doesn’t matter if you lack belief in yourself. Especially during this time, when it’s impossible to avoid the praise and critique. Critical and compassionate, it's a balance that the internet rarely displays. The writers, the rappers, any and all artists are under the same strain to keep from falling under the influence of other's thoughts. It takes more than talent, it takes a strong mind and soul or else you’ll wake up and not recognize who's staring back in the mirror - or worse, unable to look yourself in the eyes.

By Yoh, aka Yohbe Bryant, aka @Yoh31.

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