The Year Hip-Hop Went Emo
By Ryan Hamm
November 9, 2010
If you’ve listened to the radio in the last decade, you know rap was the toughest genre out there. While indie rock has sad sacks Bright Eyes and Dashboard Confessional offering their plaintive cries of relationship turmoil, Dr. Dre frequently threatened people with bodily harm, 50 Cent survived bullet wounds and Wu-Tang Clan members ruled album charts with grimy street tales. Hip-hop was where hardness ruled—if you wanted soft feelings, you had to turn to its wimpier cousin, R&B. R&B was “The End of the Road”—hip-hop was people literally shooting each other over trans-coastal rap battles.
Well, that was in the '90s. In 2010? This is the year hip-hop went completely (and sometimes excessively) emo. Kanye West said he’s “the abomination of Obama nation.” Drake’s unexpected fame had him worried before he ever had a debut album. B.o.B had a duet with the girl from Paramore. And Kid Cudi’s song “Erase Me” is all unrequited love and angst (with a healthy dash of self-loathing and inner doubt). His new album, Man on the Moon 2: The Legend of Mr. Rager(out today), is filled with track after track of self-doubt, wondering how he got to where he is and what the consequences of his mistakes will be. In short, hip-hop seems to have thrown in the towel on bluster and discovered that a little confessional poetry actually makes people like you more. Or, at least, not terrified to meet you in a dark alley.
Kanye West started all of this—2008’s 808s & Heartbreaks reads like your little brother’s 9th grade LiveJournal. But this year, West and friends have taken it farther. His Twitter account is an odd mish-mash of haute couture and intense personal reflection, including a 100ish-tweet apology to Taylor Swift that basically manages to both blame himself and society for his actions. And it seems his new album (due later this month) will be just as introspective: “Mama’s Boyfriend” is a rumination on divorce that makes Everclear’s “Father of Mine” seem surface-level by comparison. West has somehow redeemed himself as someone who was just reeling from grief (and Hennessey) when he made controversial comments to President George W. Bush and interrupted Swift at last year’s VMAs. And he’s done it through his own self-lacerating bile—no one will soon forget his performance of “Runaway” at this year’s VMAs (and its chorus of “Let’s have a toast for the d----bags”).
So what does this mean? Is arrogant posturing in hip-hop over? Well, not quite. Drake still finds time to brag about his wealth and sexual prowess in between whining about being sad. Kid Cudi’s emotions are likely to be just as affected by his constantly referenced drug use as his secret Yellowcard obsession (we’re just guessing here). And Kanye ... well, he’s Kanye. There’s still plenty of misogyny, explicit language, sexual come-ons, drug use and gun-toting violence to go around in most rap music.
This is also not to say the airwaves are suddenly clogged with too many feelings—after all, the anthem of the summer was “All I Do Is Win,” and that was basically an ode to having a lot of money to throw around. Lil’ Wayne and Eminem, however talented they are from a technical perspective, are incredibly offensive—their lyrics are filled with violence, obscenity and hate speech for women, gay people and people with disabilities. So don’t expect that pensive emotion has suddenly seized control of the entire industry.
But still, it’s good to see some honest emotion in hip-hop. It’s quite a culture shift when artists feel like they can be honest about the doubt they feel. For so long, we’ve all known the trappings of most hip-hop songs (money, women and guns) were empty in the end. It’s nice to hear that acknowledged from some of the genre’s biggest stars.
Above all, it’s important that a genre often acclaimed for its gritty realism and honesty is giving the other side of honesty a fair hearing. If Nas gains acclaim for telling honest stories about growing up in the projects, and Ghostface Killah is praised for authentically gritty tales of the drug trade, then why can’t the new emo rappers be applauded for being honest about feeling scared and sad? It might be a little overbearing from time to time (again, have you heard the chorus to “Runaway”?), but it’s good to hear a little vulnerability. Though, if Kanye ever writes a song called “Rapping Infidelities,” we’re going to be really suspicious.