Let´s get this out the way first, rapping about insecurities is not revolutionary. There have been many hip-hop acts from Atmosphere to Scarface and everybody in between who’ve rapped about their moments of doubt and pain. Hell, LL Cool J’s smash single “I Need Love” opened with the line “When I’m alone in my room sometimes I stare at the wall”. That was back in 1987. So yeah, “emo” moments in rap aren’t new. But it won’t come as a surprise to anybody that hip-hop is considered to be, uhm, somewhat masculine. Machismo and maudlin don’t mix (like two dicks and no chick, find yourself in serious shit).
That being said, recent events have seen a shift away from that, as almost all real hitmaking rappers right now (who are not named Whiz Khalifa) do rap about such topics. We are living in the age of emo-rap. And after the sped-up soul sample, the return of conscious rap and incorporating European house, it was once again mr. West, the self-proclaimed voice of our generation, who, even though he may not have invented it, definitely brought it into the spotlight.
Kanye’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’ seemed like self-inflicted public therapy for a man in pain from several personal problems. He vented on the whole album, even shaking loose the restraints of rap cadence (to the dismay of many earlier fans) and found a like-minded cohort in the new talent in his stable that literally welcomed people to Heartbreak, depressed stoner Kid Cudi. He took his ‘smoking lonely swag‘ a step further when his musings scored him a strong selling debut album and a worldwide hit single with ‘Day N Nite’. Impressive, especially for a newcomer in the digital age. Personally, I welcomed the trend, as it was a welcome diversification to our beloved genre and a move away from years of overtly masculine gangster poses. But how long it can still be seen as a new movement in rap is up for debate when one of it’s biggest stars is also one of it’s most depressed (at least on record). Drake. The man was already bemoaning the trappings of fame and success when he was still hawking free mixtapes. We are approaching critical mass.
It’s a universal law that every action causes a reaction and despite it’s rebellious origins and generally anti-authoritarian attittude hip-hop is still no exception to the rule of this law. De La Soul’s emergence as a counterpoint to gangster rap is well documented but there are plenty more recent examples as well. 50 Cent’s over the top gangsterisms and misogyny were hailed as a breath of fresh air coming from the candy-corn pop rap that was dominating the charts back in the early 00s. So when he became the go-to hitmachine during the middle of the decade every major record label wanted a slice of that pie, signing new artists with a similar style or have already contracted acts record songs in the same vein. This in turn caused aspiring rappers to believe they had to sound like that to get signed and convinced older rappers it would make them relevant again. It happens time and time again, until everybody sounds the same and critical mass approaches with an implosion of the success of said style as a result. In 50’s case the implosion eventually paved the way for a more concious sound and may very well have heavily contributed to the success of Kanye’s first two albums and Common’s ‘Be’.
So what’s next? Are we going to see big money hustler rappers like Ross jump on the bandwagon and shed his fabricated image for a different fabrication? Okay, the picture above is mostly for comedic effect, it’ll probably never happen. Is there even more room for emo-rap’s dominion? It seems unlikely, though it will take some time before it dies out. Maybe we’ll see a resurgence of M.O.P. style rough, rugged and raw rap, maybe OFWGKTA‘s sudden rise to fame is an inclination of a new direction coming on. They incorporate doubts and pain in their music but their outward anger certainly seems like a big diversion from the introverted depression we’ve been hearing lately. Or maybe Shady 2.0 Boys is a hint of the future and we’ll see traightforward lyricism take a frontseat again, possibly with the addition of speed and melody, like Yelawolf.
Whatever it’ll be, it’ll be something (fairly) new and add another chapter to hip-hop culture’s rich history. Goodbye emo-rap, your angst was fun while it lasted.