WSJ: A RAPPER SENDS A SUICIDE LIFELINE
A Rapper Sends a Suicide Lifeline
The rapper Logic’s anthem titled ‘1-800-273-8255’ drives calls to a suicide hotline—while fueling the artist’s breakthrough on the hit-music charts.
A song that began with the working title “Suicide” has brought a new burst of life to the career of a rapper who is hammering a message of “peace, love and positivity.”
Logic, 27 years old, has used that mantra and a tour de force rap flow to transcend outsider status and build a groundswell of fan loyalty. Now he has earned an unlikely breakthrough with an anthem that he named for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: “1-800-273-8255.”
“Most people don’t usually give a sh-t about songs like this,” he says of his first commercial hit. On the radio and the streaming music charts, it’s the odd tune out, surrounded by songs about seduction, self-congratulation and nightlife adventure.
It’s not a one-off for Logic. His third album, “Everybody” (which made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart in the spring) is a front-to-back exploration of thorny human problems, and includes a running dialogue with God (voiced by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson). Logic burrows into personal issues: a rough upbringing in Gaithersburg, Md., and struggles as a biracial rapper in a no-man’s-land of hip-hop, where identity is strictly policed. After nearly a decade of trying to show off his rap prowess, he says, he shifted his priority: “How about just trying to send the biggest message I can?”
“1-800-273-8255” is written from the perspective of someone who reaches out for help and the operator who answers the call. The chorus shifts from “I don’t wanna be alive” to “I want you to be alive.” It has 167 million streams on Spotify and 46 million views for official versions on YouTube, including a seven-minute music video featuring actor Don Cheadle and a story about a gay teen who fights through his desperation.
Logic performed the song on Sunday night at the MTV Video Music Awards, where he and the singers featured on the track, Alessia Cara and Khalid, were joined on stage by suicide-attempt survivors wearing white T-shirts. Separately, the award show paid tribute to two rock singers who committed suicide this year, Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington.
Since the release of “1-800,” call volume is 33% higher than the same period last yearfor the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is on track to field 1.8 million calls this year, director John Draper says. Unlike other portrayals of suicide in entertainment, such as the recent Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” he says “1-800” is the rare example that sends a message of prevention, noting that the increase in calls doesn’t take into account the people who heard the song and “just felt more hopeful” without needing to call.
A couple of weeks before the song’s release, the organization gave approval to use its phone number, but didn’t hear the track until the day it was released. Dr. Draper recalls his first listen and his relief that it didn’t include any F-words in its lyrics. “After all, [the hotline] is funded by the government,” he says. Staff members have taken to shouting out one of the song’s signature lines to each other at the office: “Who can relate?”
Logic’s birth name is Sir Robert Bryson Hall II and he is known to friends as Bobby. On the song “Take It Back,” he describes a childhood with a black father and white mother “addicted to crack cocaine, alcohol and various other drugs. Though he grew up poor and identifying as black, people often assumed he was white—and thus more privileged—based on his appearance, a cultural split that would carry over into his music career. The “Everybody” album is his most public effort to reconcile his past and both sides of himself, a sometimes uneasy peace.
On the title track, he raps: “Everybody talkin’ ‘bout race this, race that. I wish I could erase that, face facts.” On another verse, he says, “In my blood is the slave and the master. It’s like the devil playin’ spades with the pastor.”
With a tightknit group of collaborators, including a manager his age, Chris Zarou, Logic built a big grass-roots following by touring and releasing a series of underground mixtapes. After signing to the Def Jam label in 2013, he released two albums that got little mainstream notice, setting the stage for the more personal and ambitious “Everybody.”
“I always wanted a hit record. I always wanted to be on the radio. I always wanted love and respect on a mainstream level. I never got it,” Logic says. “When I said, ‘Screw it, I’m going to make this album for me,’ that’s when all that mainstream success started happening.”
In a genre where decadence and toughness is the norm, Logic’s image is proudly nerdy. In Chicago last week, the last stop on a summer tour, he started the show by urging audience members to stay hydrated and to say hi to the fellow fans standing next to them.
Wearing glasses, jeans and loosely laced Nikes, he paused the show to take on members of his crew in a game of Nintendo Mario Kart, with the race shown on the venue’s giant video screens. He closed out the concert by asking audience members their names and inviting a 17-year-old girl on stage to rap along with him at breakneck pace.
Though he built a career on rap skills, he’s planning to expand his style, starting with the song he now performs at a piano during his shows. “I’m done with rapping all the time,” he says. “I want to sing and play ballads. I want to give you something like Queen meets James Brown with a positive message. That’s where my mind is going from here.”