Let me start by saying, I'm not a doctor. I've been around kids with learning disabilities, autism and other special needs for my entire life, but that doesn't make me an expert. Additionally, it's unknown whether the rappers discussed herein actually have autism, or learning disabilities. This is written from a place of deep admiration and respect.
Despite the stigma that surrounds the development of those with autism, or learning disabilities, they're often highly functioning in other areas. It's akin to blind people developing an almost supernatural level of hearing or smell; without one sense, others develop tenfold.
I've also spent much of my life listening to rap music, and occasionally a rapper will especially stand out to me as sharing similar characteristics to the kids I grew up with.
One telltale sign is the difference between these musicians when they're rapping, or speaking in interviews. Their charisma in the former is off the charts, but in the latter, they seem distracted and uninterested. To someone who's only familiar with their music, it can be perceived as two different people.
Take Chief Keef, for example. His lyrics are universally panned (even though they're excellent), but what can't be argued is his elemental, eternal presence on tracks.
As a teen, he's the embodiment of detached violence. His music sent reverberations through the country and led to people actually noticing just how many kids were being killed annually in Chicago. In 2013, Chicago saw the fewest murders since 1965.
However, this interview, and many others like it, show Keef seemingly completely detached from a one-on-one encounter, totally unable to communicate the charisma heard in his music as himself. Rumors have swirled that Keef has Asperger syndrome, which puts him somewhere on the Autism spectrum.
People with Autism are characterized "by impaired social interaction and verbal and non-verbal communication, and by restricted, repetitive or stereotyped behavior," according to Wikipedia.
Articles, like the one linked above, paint Keef's "disorder" as something awful he had to overcome to get to where he is today. I'd argue that it helped him more than it hurt.
The insulting "idiot savant" term goes back to the 19th century and was perhaps most popularly portrayed in Dustin Hoffman's "Rain Man." In the film, Hoffman is an autistic man with unusual abilities: superb recall and peerless mental calculation.
For left-brained people, whose strengths are language, logic, numbers and reasoning, being on the spectrum can mean a special aptitude in one of these areas. But what about those whose natural predilection is for language, yet struggle with reading, writing and socializing?
Keef certainly seems to be an example of this, and it's made him focus all of his communication skills on rapping. A conversation may be daunting, but when he's focusing inward and releasing the words he hears in his head, he can do it effortlessly and with supreme results. Just look at his output.
Everyone's heard about how Jay Z doesn't write down his rhymes, instead recalling them from his mind, despite their length or intricacy.
He clearly doesn't have problems socializing, and certainly can read and write deftly, yet he chooses to do this because he's a master of his craft. Not everyone has the option.
Take Lil B, for example. The Berkeley rapper is capable of saying thousands of things that no one else could think of, from telling Nicki Minaj that he's "the finest b*tch out" to lines like "bullets in your back like butt cheeks."
Most of his songs are one-take freestyles, and he's spoken extensively about reaching a place where it doesn't feel like he's even rapping.
To B, he's just reaching another consciousness where he's a conduit to the words, so he doesn't need to conceive them until he speaks.
Calling his output prolific is a disservice. It's impossible to know just how many thousands of songs Lil B has recorded, and how many of them were achieved by channeling this rare aspect of his mind.
But in interviews, B will often go off on tangents that seem to have nothing to do with the questions asked.
In the two times I saw him live, he repeatedly antagonized and criticized security and the crowd. He demanded water furiously, allowed fans onstage, then kicked them off.
He was furious with security, and shouted about how he should get their pay for working the show. Overall, he seemed extremely wary and uninterested in interaction.
He signed autographs in the crowd after both shows, but prefaced his entry into it by saying in a very serious tone that everyone would have to be respectful and not touch.
Do I know that Keef, Lil B and others (Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane come to mind) are on the spectrum and that it's the source of their obsessive, innate ability to become their most communicable selves through rap? No. But their separation of skills and interactive behavior definitely suggests it to me.
The ability to pull billions of bars from your head isn't just remarkable; it's a sign of true genius in an era when genius is claimed constantly, but exhibited almost never.
Stand with me on the frontier of the rap psyche, and let's open this dialogue to the point that this phenomenon is studied.
Top Photo Courtesy: Instagram