A revolutionary sub-genre of music has emerged in the modern era. This genre is sometimes called “emo rap,” a term coined in 1997 by a member of the group Atmosphere, and is associated with new-wave rappers like Post Malone and Lil Peep. I think there is a need to talk about the impact of artists like Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar as indicative of something bigger: the rise of vulnerability in a genre historically defined by its invulnerability.
The first introspective hip-hop song was L.L. Cool J’s “I Need Love” in 1987. Artists like Ice Cube and Scarface quickly followed his lead. Tupac’s inflammatory “Dear Mama” and Biggie’s painfully personal “Suicidal Thoughts” had significant impact on the scene. Other notable contributors include Jay-Z, Ghostface Killah and Eminem.
Then along came Kanye. “808s and Heartbreak” (2008) was an absolute gamechanger and the most successful “sad hip-hop” album at the time of its release, selling over 400,000 copies in the first week. Kanye’s emotional journey of dealing with the loss of his mother and breakup with his fiancee resonated deeply with listeners while also producing mainstream radio hits like “Love Lockdown” and “Heartless.” The album was a pivotal point in hip-hop history and undeniably informed subsequent artists.
More recently, artists like Frank Ocean have made “waves” in the music world. “Channel Orange” (2012) and “Blonde” (2016) could more appropriately be called tsunamis. Ocean was arguably the first to successfully marry same-sex attraction with hip-hop culture in the mainstream—a significant feat as the two have historically been at odds with each other. Both albums explore Ocean’s struggle to reconcile his identity, lifestyle and sexuality with religion, alongside his relationship with his mother and other internal struggles. I would highly recommend these albums to anyone who thinks they don’t like hip-hop. Ocean was part of the same group (Odd Future) that spawned one self-proclaimed “Scum F*** Flower Boy.” I could wax poetic about “Flower Boy” (2017) for a whole other article, but for the sake of the word count let’s just say it sucker-punched me in the gut. Audiences of all backgrounds intimately identified with Tyler, the Creator’s strong emotional witness to loneliness and isolation while singing along to catchy bops, and the work immensely expanded and diversified his fan base. Other names worthy of obsessive non-stop listening (to the point where my friends have banned me from the aux) include Childish Gambino, Drake, Chance the Rapper, Kevin Abstract and BROCKHAMPTON and the incomparable Kendrick Lamar.
So many young people can relate to what these artists are finally speaking out on, regardless of race or gender. In this way, hip-hop becomes more accessible and relatable to the mainstream. It could be rightfully argued that this mainstream popularity could dilute or appropriate hip-hop and consequently black culture. As someone with no access to the black experience, my perspective is of course limited, but overall I see vulnerability in hip-hop as a positive change. I lack the cultural and racial context of the music, yet still enjoy it because I find other identities to relate to—the same identities that appealed to high school, emo-trash me in bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy.
Hip-hop music was born out of the black American experience, and listeners who are not a part of the community should be respectful of that. We have a responsibility to be thoughtful and conscientious fans. And no, unless years of institutionalized racism have suddenly vanished from the social consciousness, white people still can’t say the n-word. Don’t be a jerk.
An unfortunate reality of black identity is that it has historically been intertwined with systematic toxic and hegemonic masculinity. In allowing emotion into hip-hop, these toxic ideals are disrupted along with public perception. Emotionally vulnerable artists provide an alternative to the materialism, violence, homophobia and misogyny so often seen in gangsta rap and consequently the mainstream. I would argue that vulnerability in hip hop is cathartic for the black male community; black men are finally being allowed to cry and be tender and loving, even gay (or, in other words, human) listeners. Kids who are listening to this music are learning to not be afraid of emotion, but to embrace it, even celebrate it. Emotional vulnerability is even becoming visible in more auditorily gangsta rap; in his hit song “Plain Jane,” ASAP Ferg references “suicidal thoughts brought to me with no advisory.” The advent of “sad hip-hop” is a challenge to years of internal and external social prejudice. This emergence is more than a change in genre: it’s a sign of progress, for the black community and the world.
Caroline Fritz is a fourth-year student majoring in English with minors in Linguistics and French. ✉ CF853302@wcupa.edu.