Music

Harlem Rapper Charles Hamilton Battles His Demons and Stages a Comeback

by

On the first day of December at Harlem Shake, a retro diner on 124th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, Charles Hamilton is reminiscing about hip-hop and how he’s used it to get himself out of difficult situations. “My first freestyle was in fourth grade,” he says. “I had gotten in trouble with my teacher, Ms. Claire, and she said that the only way I could get out of trouble was if I write a poem. And I ain’t write no poem, so I freestyled it.” Hamilton got out of trouble — and found his calling. “After I did that, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s ill. I want to do that forever.’ ”

Two decades later — having already laid claim to one of the most compelling and fragmentary careers in recent hip-hop history — Hamilton is still trying to use rap to get out of trouble, and to make sense of a life marked by trauma, gifted with talent, blessed with success, and plagued by misfortune. A new Fred Scott–directed documentary, Faultlines, paints an alternately devastating and hopeful portrait of Hamilton’s struggles; a new album, Hamilton, Charles, heralds his return. For years he was out of the spotlight, under the influence, and in the minds of listeners and industry peers alike. Both the film and the album seek to answer the same question: What happened to Charles Hamilton?

The start of his career was more than promising. He grew up in the thick of Harlem’s rich musical legacy, surrounded by like-minded hip-hop obsessives and nurtured by his late mother, Talise Moorer, a former entertainment journalist who filled her young son’s life with music. Hamilton’s path was clear. In 2008, the Los Angeles Times hailed him “one of the most important new rappers to emerge in years.” He scored a million-dollar record deal with Interscope, had hip-hop heavyweights like Pharrell and Eminem working by his side, and won a coveted spot on 2009’s XXL Freshman Class cover — the annual who’s-who that’s helped push new acts such as Kendrick Lamar, Future, and Chance the Rapper out of the underground and into the mainstream.

“I was part of that team that got signed to Interscope,” says Hamilton’s longtime friend and former engineer Sha-Leik Martin. “I think a lot of it was overwhelming. Giving nineteen-, twenty-year-olds a lot of money, I just think there was a lot of pressure.”

Hamilton lost it all in one of the most spectacular flameouts in rap history. Within a year, he was dropped from Interscope and fell from the graces of social media — the arena where he’d earned his fan base. A clip of his then-girlfriend punching him in the face transformed him from a pioneer in web stardom into an internet laughingstock. A bout of erratic behavior, escalating drug use, embarrassing public appearances, and legal controversies followed him. In 2010, Hamilton was arrested for punching an officer and institutionalized at a series of psychiatric wards. The drugs (heroin, pills, psychedelics); the mental breakdowns; the talk of suicide, all of it was symptomatic of a longstanding battle with what would later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. He disappeared.

“I got very reckless,” he says of his years in the wilderness. “I lashed out at a lot of artists. Just straight-up ‘F you’s ’cause they chose the business over the potential friendship we could’ve developed. I may have bit the lion’s tongue when my head was in its mouth. Thankfully, the lion was forgiving.”

Today, music is once again his top priority. “I want to be the Harlem Dr. Dre,” says Hamilton, his signature oversize headphones hanging around his neck. “If I can make a living for myself doing what I love to do, I’ll be happy. The feasibility of that seems to be getting shorter and shorter. But I pray, and I think there’ll be a way made for me.”

Hamilton, Charles opens with a dreamy beat and a familiar voice saying, “For the record…it’s Charles Hamilton.” Throughout, there’s a strange juxtaposition of carefully crafted instrumentals and loosely freestyled verses. Hamilton doesn’t pen rhymes anymore. Instead, he marries extemporaneous, stream-of-consciousness flows to his signature soul beats. Super-simplified lyrics atop J Dilla–inspired backing tracks. No features, just Charles and his demons.

There’s certainly a history of hip-hop artists grappling with these issues — from Scarface’s unbridled dejection throughout the majority of his two-decade-plus career to DMX’s dark, prayer-laden lyrics and public battle with bipolar disorder to Lil Wayne rapping about his failed suicide attempt on Solange’s A Seat at the Table this year. Similarly, Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples have both rapped about being alone in a hotel room, contemplating suicide. And some artists’ afflictions have gone beyond their lyrics. In 2012, Pro Era rapper Capital Steez jumped off the top of his record label’s building, taking his life at nineteen. Twenty-year-old newcomer Kehlani was hospitalized earlier this year following her own attempt at suicide; she survived, only to be met with the online masses’ ridiculing and mocking her experience. In October, Kid Cudi penned an open letter to fans announcing his decision to enter rehab, writing, “My anxiety and depression have ruled my life for as long as I can remember.”

Generally, artists have presented their internal struggles in hushed tones or through hard verses. But Hamilton’s voice never wavered. He’s spoken candidly on the ills of the nation’s mental health system — from flawed facilities to misdiagnoses and dangerous overmedicating. He is one of the few artists to tackle mental health so publicly, and with such transparency.

When artists suffer from addiction and other mental disorders, fans either pray for their recovery or prey on the prospects for “good,” “raw” art. In 2011, when Cudi announced his transition to sobriety, fans wondered whether the change would alter the art that connected them to the self-proclaimed lonely stoner. When Gucci Mane came back to the scene after years in prison, he transitioned into what he calls “a sober, more conscious Gucci.” “People probably ain’t used to it,” he told the Fader. “I guess that people ain’t used to me being healthy and taking care of myself and being happy.”

“A lot of artists mask their suicidal tendencies,” says Hamilton

For Hamilton, music is “the quintessential element of life,” and he’s steadfast in using his music as a tool for self-healing. “No song was easy to write,” Hamilton says. “It was almost like carving. I used to love carving my arm. And to find peace of mind without [self-mutilation] was a very difficult task. So I started mutilating myself musically. Very self-deprecative records.” Faultlines sees him discussing the abuse he sustained as a kid and attempting to cope, through music, with the death of his mother. But to Hamilton, the medium through which that music might reach the masses doesn’t always help. Record labels are failing at developing their artists’ careers and well-being. For major labels in a cutthroat industry, the mental health of their artists is not a priority. And since disenfranchised groups face greater mental health risks than the general population, this affects Black artists directly.

“I think there should be more grooming of each artist as they enter the game,” Hamilton says. “At the same time, if you’re killing everyone on your record, doing every drug, spending up your entire budget on every drug and every other weapon, male or female — though I understand it, that doesn’t make it acceptable — the label’s gonna figure you know how to hold your own. [They should] interview the artist. Have a questionnaire to see where their mental standpoint is. Also, they can stop investing in what’s hot and start investing in what’s real. There’s a lot of artists out there who mask their suicidal tendencies with the trap game. Shout-outs to A$AP Ferg. He’s not exactly a happy individual, but he’s hustling and he’s making his money. He’s also from Harlem. We ain’t happy out here.”

Le’Roy Benros, vice president of a&r at First Access Entertainment and Hamilton’s first manager, doesn’t place the onus on record labels. “As sad as it sounds, it’s not really the job of the labels to be concerned,” he says. “To some people, it’s a job; they clock in, they clock out. For some people, it’s a passion project where they care about the well-being of the artist. Every team is different.”

“I’ve been in communication with Pharrell and my management team,” Hamilton says. “They instruct me to go to bed at a certain hour so I don’t stay up late making beats. They don’t want me associating with certain people. I’ve stopped taking hard drugs. But no. No one’s really reached out. No one’s been able to find me. Numbers change, address change.”

Clinical psychologist and Touched With Fire author Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison says that environmental influences like lack of sleep and high-energy lifestyles can trigger manic episodes in bipolar patients, and that forging support systems in response can be a daunting task. “It’s terribly difficult to support,” she says. “I think there’s a tendency to get very judgmental around how supportive people should be or are or are capable of being, or [to] get very judgmental over when someone gets manic, when in fact, people don’t have control over what they’re doing, often. So it’s an illness that is not only complicated, but it brings out very complicated reactions in other people and society.”

Last month, Kanye West was hospitalized for exhaustion and deviation from prescription medication. What some have deemed a public mental breakdown onstage has been followed by confusion as West recovers in the public eye and onlookers try to decode his every word and action, whether they’re related to his current mental state or not, like his recent meeting with Donald Trump. But he’s still received an outpouring of support from fans and industry peers like 9th Wonder, who tweeted, “Mental healing is a serious thing, no matter what.”

There’s a pervasive habit critics and fans practice when an artist’s actions, behavior, or voiced thoughts begin to stray from their norm: The public projects a diagnosis. Dr. Jamison says armchair psychiatry is common. “Some people have more experience clinically than others. But even so, you don’t have medical records in the room. We all want to make sense out of patterns and out of really interesting and intriguing and brilliant people, but it doesn’t really necessarily make it a great thing to do.” Common mental disorders are colloquialized into crutches for artists, who are then pegged as “crazy,” “psycho,” or bipolar, oftentimes before an official diagnosis has been made, or before there’s anything to diagnose at all. It’s a habit that can be grounded in the sincere intent to sympathize with troubled artists, but it can derail accountability for those whose motives aren’t so noble.

“Around the time I got back in the mainstream, Empire was showing a character who suffered from bipolar [disorder],” Hamilton says. “It softened the blow a little bit, but it also kind of was a catalyst for another excuse for Black men. In 2008, the excuse was the recession. Now the excuse is mental health.”

This is the result of a misinformed public, for most of whom mental health continues to represent terra incognita. There is no easy fix to the laissez-faire culture of the music industry, but Hamilton urges record labels to do more.

“Doctors need to know that yes, it’s a horrible illness and it’s destructive and ruins your life, but there is this part of it that, in some people, can be of enormous emotional, psychological, and creative impact,” says Jamison. “It’s going to be hard, but when you come to the other side of that, you can use it: to help people, to have compassion, to use it in your creative work, your intellectual work, scientific work. There’s these great things that you can do with it.”

“Charles was doing a lot better when he first got the new deal and he was with his mother,” says Martin. “She helped him a lot with keeping negative people from around him and keeping him focused on what he had to do. And since she’s passed…every now and then you’ll see him stray….He believes in magic, still. He’s still a little different.”

The struggle, of course, is ongoing. A day before his new album’s release, Hamilton was nowhere to be found. He’d missed two photo shoots for this story, with no word to his management. But if he can keep his demons in check, his presence on the scene could mean more than a mere shot at vindication. For Benros, the rapper still has something to offer.

“Charles is definitely a genius,” Benros says. “He was one of the most talented musicians — artists — that I’ve ever met. An authentic voice. He’s not someone who’s just trying to make music just to make a pop hit. He makes music because that’s his best way of expressing himself. He needs to make music. Music can always use someone like that.”