Cover: Rapper Dominique Larue battles death and depression on the road to making her career-best album

Andy Downing
[Photo by Meghan Ralston]

In the past, when Dominique Larue felt depression creeping up, she would allow it to take hold, occasionally spending days at a time in bed until the storm clouds passed.

But after living through a deep depression that culminated in multiple suicide attempts and an extended, self-imposed July 2017 hospital stay, the rapper doesn't have the same luxury these days. Instead, she takes a more active approach to managing these all-consuming feelings, hoping to ward off the darkness before it can settle in.

“I don't want to spiral back into that dark place where I wanted to kill myself and attempted to do just that,” Larue said in an early September interview. “I had a bad day Wednesday — I was super-sad girl — but I got up yesterday, cleaned up, and opened up the blinds. … The same rules always apply: Be active. Get out of the house. Be around loved ones. Go to the gym. Drink some fucking water.”

Collectively, this approach has fueled Larue's gradual recovery from the June 2017 passing of friend, fellow rapper and romantic partner Sheron “Nes Wordz” Colbert, who died in an early morning fall outside of Larue's apartment, leaving a deep chasm in the city, as well as within Larue.

“It's not something you're ever going to get over, so you just learn to live with it,” said Larue. “But I'm finally getting to a point in my life where it doesn't constantly feel like there's nothing there. The void is getting smaller.”

Larue directly addresses Colbert's death on “Sunny,” the standout track offEverything Is Fine, her collaborative EP with producer Jack “Tha Audio Unit” Burton, from June. (Paired with the just-released full-length,I'm Smiling Because I Hate Everything, also helmed by Burton, the recordings serve as a public reintroduction for Larue following a long, needed absence.) On the track, atop a sped-up sample of Marvin Gaye's “Sunny,” which Larue selected because its joyous vibe reminded her of Colbert's beaming smile, the rapper lays bare the painful events of the last year:

And, see, I lost my best friend/Yeah, it left me blinded

And never mind that in its wake/I left a mess of my own

PTSD with super powers/ Jessica Jones

Even the theft of my phone/See I was dead to the bone

But somehow still here

The song also includes a line born of a difficult conversation Larue shared with her 13-year-old son following her release from a hospital stay at Columbus Springs East: “These scars mean I'm strong.”

“The day I stepped out the hospital, I told him, ‘Look, I tried to kill myself. I failed. But that's good. I'm here,'” said Larue, who, dressed in a T-shirt, makes no effort to conceal the deep scars visible on her forearms. “He was distraught. He didn't cry. But I let him know, ‘Listen, I'm not going to do this again. I'm going to get myself together.' And he's been there every step of the way. He told me my scars make me look strong, like I'm a warrior. It lets people know I survived something.”

Larue wanted to be a rapper from the moment her brother introduced her to artists like Wu-Tang Clan, Redman and A Tribe Called Quest when she was 7 years old. But following Colbert's death, Larue, 33, said it felt as if “the vessel had been severed,” and for the first time in her adult life she started making plans that didn't involve music. Instead, she enrolled in courses at Columbus State Community College, intent on pursuing a degree in business management. She also shelved myriad, in-progress musical projects, includingI'm Smiling Because I Hate Everything, which she and Burton completed in May 2017, just weeks before Nes made his final onstage appearance at ComFest.

The timing of the record is oddly prophetic, considering its content. Many of the album's tracks sound as though they were composed in the wake of Colbert's passing, with Larue detailing bouts of depression, anxiety, self-destruction and self-medication — often in harrowing detail. Witness “Escape,” on which Larue mixes antidepressants with alcohol, rhyming atop a tense, claustrophobic beat that will likely have some listeners scanning the room in search of an exit. Larue described the beat as “what anxiety sounds like.”

“When I wrote these songs, I was just talking about my feelings. But some of this, it's almost like I foreshadowed shit,” said Larue, who will perform at a release show for the album at the Basement on Friday, Sept. 21. “On ‘Strippers at My Funeral,' I say, ‘I'm deadly when I cut,' and I was like (pointing to her scars), ‘Oh, shit.'”

“When you listen to the album, it sounds like she was getting ready for something traumatic to happen,” said Burton, who reconnected with Larue in January after losing touch following Colbert's death.

In March, the pair resuscitated the long-incubatingI'm Smiling Because…, reworking some songs and cutting the album from 13 tracks to eight — trimming a handful of lighter tunes that didn't fit the darker vibe, as well as one that featured a guest turn from Nes Wordz, determining it too potentially polarizing in light of events.

Colbert, whose death was attributed to traumatic brain injury, was discovered by Larue at the base of the staircase outside her apartment; she was later interviewed by the Columbus Division of Police, with Detective Ronda Siniff tellingAlive in 2017: “This is not a homicide investigation. … As of this point, I would say [the case] is closed.” Regardless, in the aftermath some in the community questioned Larue's involvement. “A lot of people turned their backs on her and were saying horrible things,” said friend Jessica Morgan.

In the weeks that followed Colbert's death, Larue largely dropped off the radar. Morgan said Larue was unreachable by cell (“Even the theft of my phone”), and the couple of times friend Laddan Shoar did manage to speak with the rapper, Larue appeared “untethered,” Shoar said. “She did not sound good, and every time I talked to her I asked, ‘Have you talked to your parents yet? You need to reach out to them.'”

On July 5, according to Larue, she texted a friend, presenting him with a dire warning: “If you don't come pick me up right now I'm going to succeed in killing myself. I've been trying to kill myself all day. … My body is physically tired of trying to stay alive.”

Following a stop for pizza, Larue checked herself in to Columbus Springs East, a 24-7 facility that assists those dealing with substance abuse, depression and mental health issues, eventually staying for nine days of a seven-to-10-day program. During the first 48 hours, nothing took, and Larue said she spent much of her time daydreaming of different means by which she might end her life following her release. But on the third day, Larue received a visit from her son's grandmother, her “Nana,” and a switch flipped.

“After that, Jessica and Laddan came to the hospital, and I was so overwhelmed with joy,” Larue said. “That's when I had that spark, like, ‘I'm going to live.'”

“When we have grief and hardship in our lives, I think sometimes the anguish is expressed in similar ways, but everybody's process of recovery is different,” Shoar said. “Out of my love and respect for her being, it was important she knew that I support her. … But I was relieved that she checked herself in. To me, that meant she was still in it. She was still fighting for herself.”

After leaving the hospital, Larue started the slow process of rebuilding. She took a six-month leave of absence from work and spent myriad nights at her Nana's house, taking extra care to keep friends and family close at all times. “It was hard to get back into the swing of things,” Larue said. “I had to remember how to do my job. ‘Wait, what was my job again?'”

“She really started to do some soul searching and had some heart-to-heart conversations,” Morgan said. “She did some traveling, cut some weeds, dropped some people and some baggage from her life.”

One thing Larue didn't do, however, was write or record music, fully believing it was a part of her past that would remain there.

“I didn't feel creative at all,” Larue said. “I'd make plans and then sit back like, ‘Damn, I just made all of these plans and none of it involves music.”

And then she discovered mushrooms.

The first time Larue took shrooms, she felt a twinge in her gut she compared with the onset of anxiety. This feeling passed quickly, however, replaced by sensations Larue had difficulty describing. Essentially, the mushrooms managed to mute darker energies like anxiety and depression while simultaneously brightening colors and amping up her general amusement level. “On shrooms, everything is funny,” she said.

Better yet, Larue found that some of these symptoms, particularly the tamping down of depression and anxiety, lingered for days after the high subsided. (In clinical trials conducted over the last decade, psychedelics, particularly psilocybin, a psychoactive compound that occurs naturally in “magic” mushrooms, have shown promising results in the treatment of depression.) And as long as she employed the drug in moderation — the rapper did admit to “seeing the universe” after taking shrooms five consecutive days — its effects remained on the milder side.

Plus, mushrooms didn't leave her feeling as emotionally numb as the antidepressants prescribed by doctors, which Larue no longer takes. Recalling the first time she cried on antidepressants, the rapper said she managed to squeeze out “maybe one tear,” an experience that left her stressed and exhausted. “I was like, ‘I want to go to bednow,'” she said.

During this experimental stretch, Larue would often wind up at Pete “Copywrite” Nelson's Franklinton home — the two are longtime friends; Larue even taught Nelson how to drive a stick shift some years back — where the pair would talk and listen to album deep cuts into the wee hours of the morning. Over time, Larue gradually started to feel that familiar musical pull, particularly when Nelson and fellow rapper Metro would freestyle.

Then one day in December 2017, Larue was on the South Side with Metro when it hit her like a bolt: She wanted to rap again. “I was like, ‘Yo, put on a beat,'” Larue said, proceeding to mimic the excited manner with which Metro fumbled at his phone in attempt to queue up some music.

“I've dealt with a lot of death — family and friends — and it knocks you off your game, especially when it's your partner,” said Metro, who added he was less concerned with Dominique Larue the rapper than Dominique his friend as she worked her way through grief. “It's easy for someone to get consumed by hopelessness and depression, and I don't judge anyone who does. Ain't no shame; life is hard. But I'm proud of her for being the stronger person. … It made me feel good to see my friend overcoming and getting back to her natural self.”

According to Nelson, that initial spark quickly ignited a fire, and the trio would often spend the better part of 45 minutes to an hour sitting in the car and freestyling anytime they drove anywhere, rapping over top of whatever happened to be playing on the radio.

“It was like she had been holding back, and in her soul she couldn't wait to rap. There was no rust whatsoever. She started back like she had taken some type of rap steroids,” Nelson said. “The light and fun that would shine when she was rhyming, it was like it was coming from somebody who just saw an old friend they never thought they'd see again.”

Soon after, Larue was back in the studio with producer Jack Burton, beginning work on a new EP (Everything Is Fine) and putting the finishing touches on the once-shelved album (I'm Smiling Because I Hate Everything).

According to everyone interviewed, there was never a doubt Larue would address everything from Nes' death to her depression, suicide attempts and hospitalization on record. The rapper's music has long served as a form of therapy, with songs recounting everything from her standing as a domestic abuse survivor to the meager means afforded those attempting to make a living in the arts (2017 EPHelp Me, I'm Poor).

“Her music is a narration of where her head is and her heart's at,” said Shoar, who urged Larue to keep a journal during her hospital stay. (Larue heeded this advice and said she's considering turning the results into a book somewhere down the road.) “It's how she processes things. It's almost a compulsion. She has to create.”

“It's always been her therapy, whether going through depression, those average, run-of-the-mill problems that everyone has, or even Nes passing,” Morgan said. “I knew she'd have to make music to get through that. And that's what Nes would have wanted. He would never have wanted her to stop.”

Now, there's a real sense that no one can cease Larue's momentum. In recent times, she's resumed working with Burton to record tracks to place on television and in film, having previously landed songs on numerous shows, including series aired on BET, HBO, Oxygen and MTV. Larue is also putting the finishing touches on a collaborative EP with Metro, which the pair hopes to release before the end of the year.

Unlike the recent one-two punch of the Burton-produced EP and full-length, Larue plans to keep the heavier feelings at bay on the tag-team effort with Metro, aiming to recreate the knotty wordplay and carefree spirit of her earliest songs, when hip-hop music felt alive with possibility.

It's a shifting mindset reflected in the tracks that bookendI'm Smiling Because I Hate Everything: the opening “Hello,” on which Larue pushes everyone away, and the album-closing “Goodbye,” a more inviting cut that serves less as a hard stop than the start of the next, unwritten chapter. “I just want to get away/To happiness and better days,” Larue raps.

“I can write about anything, but I'm not in the space to write about depression, to be honest, even though I'm still going through it. It almost feels triggering, in a sense,” Larue said. “I'm just really on some rap now, and making it fun again. Don't forget, I can rap good. You're talking about the best spitters in the city? Let's get it. If I'm not in the mix, then what are we even talking about?”

8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21

391 Neil Ave., Arena District

The Basement