Welp, no one asked for it, but we’ve got ourselves a new semi-regular feature. Featuring yours truly, talkin’ about hip-hop, from the bops to the flops. Meanwhile, groovy guests will stop by to talk about some CLASSIC hip-hop albums. It’s gonna be a good time, I swear. So drop that zero and get with the hero.
What’s The Deal With “Emo Rap”? Some Thoughts.
Once upon a time, I was boarding the school bus on bone-chilling, pitch-black mornings for the long ride to high school. I’d sit alone — ignoring everyone and everything — listening to Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Jimmy Eat World, etc. on my green iPod mini (damn, I wish I still had that thing). Yeah, I was actively choosing to be a gloomy motherfucker; but these emo-rock artists were the catharsis I thought I needed to survive the oppressive angst of teenage-dom.
And I certainly was not alone. This was mainstream rock music was at the time (the alt-rock charts from the mid-late ’00s are filled with this stuff), and another example of how genres are weird, ever-evolving, nebulous creatures. Hip-hop is maybe the most volatile of these creatures, and now the genre is serving up the solace that rock gave me as a teenager.
Hip-hop has risen so dramatically in popularity that it might the most mainstream of genres — look at the Spotify charts or album “sales”. But hip-hop hardly resembles what it was a decade ago. In the ’00s, gangsta rap was king of the genre, typified by its brutality and hardcore masculinity (and freaking out a lot of mommies). The maximalism of gangsta rap was eventually countered by the minimalism of trap, and in the meantime, it has become absurdly easy to make one’s own beats. I made a trap beat on GarageBand the other day in 20 minutes! So enter this “new wave” of young rappers who aren’t old enough to patronize Magic City. Instead of writing about strippers and coke, they’re making music about … being young. And they’re doing this in a social environment far more receptive to emotional rappers than when Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ was the talk of the town.
Now you can get a hefty dose of angst on one of the year’s biggest hip-hop tracks, Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Life” — it’s the “Push me to the edge, all my friends are dead” song. Climbing even higher on the charts is Logic’s heavy-handed song about suicide. And on the fringes — where the more critically acclaimed artists live — artists such as Frank Ocean, BROCKHAMPTON, and Tyler, The Creator are offering gut-wrenching emotion and vulnerability with their music. On his brilliant new album, Tyler explores his complicated feelings on sexuality, relationships, and identity while tearing apart the hypermasculine facade he built on tracks like “Bitch Suck Dick” or while singing “kill people, burn shit, fuck school.” It can come across as angsty — I’d sure be listening on that school bus, circa ’06 — but it’s also thoughtful and refreshing. As part of the evolution of hip-hop, this is progress.
But lagging behind the good stuff is a lot of lazy, superficial trash. Some popular artists — who were mere “Soundcloud rappers” not long ago — are channeling the impulses of the worst emo-rock bands of the ’00s. They’re offering a shallow, version of sadness, pain, etc., while grasping for the easiest and most #relatable cliches. The worst offender might be XXXTENTACION, who is all over the Billboard Hot 100 (despite a grab bag of criminal charges against him). His debut album 17 is a long exercise in forced melancholy, with its spacey trap beats, washed out synths, and “raw” (aka unlistenable) vocals spewing lyrics like…
“Does anybody here wanna be my friend? / Want it all to end / Tell me when the fuck is it all gon’ end / Voices in my head / Telling me I’m gonna end up dead.”
So, unfortunately, one of 2017’s buzziest rappers is someone piggybacking a trend and presenting a pale imitation. If Lil Uzi is rap’s Fall Out Boy, XXXTENTACION is its Panic! At The Disco.
Of course, “emo rap” is clearly not taking over hip-hop. It’s a small segment of a massive genre, and just happens to be having a moment on top. The backlash will come and hip-hop will continue evolving. But for now, younger fans — with unprecedented access to production tools and streaming music (which they probably take for granted, the ungrateful bastards) — are gravitating toward these “rappers with feelings.” Teenagers need catharsis for their angst, or just a soundtrack for staring out of school bus windows. If young rappers like Lil Uzi Vert can offer this while becoming hip-hop poster boys and getting stupid rich, I have no problem with that.
BOP of the WEEK
Injury Reserve – See You Sweat
The Arizona trio quietly had two of the best albums/mixtapes of 2015 and 2016. Their new EP is pretty tight, as well. Bop it!
THE CLASSIC CORNER: Saul Wright reflects on Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
When Colin asked me/I invited myself to write something for this hip-hop feature, I thought about my favorite hip-hop albums. My mind immediately went to The Low End
Theory, Aquemini, To Pimp A Butterfly, and other such well-known masterpieces. Maybe someday I’ll write a bit about those but I’d like to focus today on a slightly lesser-known classic – Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star.
The album, released almost exactly 19 years ago, combined these two forceful and creative emcees for the first time and it is the zenith of both of their illustrious careers. It was a shining light in the middle of a time when the rap world was more concerned with the hardness of gangsta rap or the glossy materialism of Puff Daddy and the like. It’s positive and introspective but manages to avoid most of the awkwardness, naivety and other trappings of the so-called backpacker rap of the time.
The album starts with the voice of one of the greatest saxophonists of all time, Cannonball Adderley – “We feel that we have a responsibility to shine the light into the darkness… there’s a lot of darkness out here.” A minimal jazz sample joins in – just a snare rim, a kick and a tinny ride along with a bellowing piano line and some deft scratching by Hi-Tek. “Astronomy (8th Light)” then comes in and the rappers deconstruct the multitudes of meanings for the word Black. The song hammers the theme and the word from all angles, addressing both the difficulties and beauty found while being Black in America.
The chorus to “Definition” finds them calling themselves “the best alliance in hip-hop.” While that might seem like typical rap braggadocio – in this case, it’s arguably the truth. Just to make sure it sinks in, they then flip the same chorus on a different beat for the in-your-face “Re:Definition.”
The album finds the two riffing on classic rap forms from Boogie Down Productions to Slick Rick. Parts of the charming old-school throwback “B Boys Will B Boys” will make you feel like you’re at a ’70s party in the Bronx with Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow. The album also finds Mos Def and Kweli collaborating with former Nina Simone bandleader Weldon Irvine, and paraphrasing Toni Morrison.
Black Star’s hidden weapon is the fabulous laid-back and beautiful production from Hi-Tek, who produces 6 of the album’s 13 tracks. His spartan jazzy style with crisp snares and a classic hip-hop aesthetic is the perfect match for Mos Def and Kweli’s pointed rhymes.
However, the main draw is the chemistry these two talented and intelligent rappers have with each other. It’s clear they’re having a blast while also pushing one another to write their best possible bars. Though Mos Def and Kweli have teamed up on tracks a number of times since, they’ve never made another album and likely never will. It’s a shame but another album isn’t really necessary when you make the first one this damn good.