In early 2008, I clicked onto my friend’s Myspace and a hauntingly sad yet high-pitched voice blasted through my speakers:
It was a song by Lil Wayne titled I feel Like Dying that was regulated to a mixtape, but at the time it would have been considered for Tha Carter 3. This song was a refreshing change from the mainstream rap of its time. Rather than glorifying the use of drugs, they were used as a coping mechanism and an escape from reality. Coming down from the high meant facing a bleak reality where death felt like the only other escape.
The song contained a sense of emotion I hadn’t heard in other rap songs in 2008. During this time, topics of sadness, depression, or self-harm were mostly regulated to the “emo” alternative rock sub genre.
I knew this was something unique, because there weren’t a lot other rappers taking the same approach Lil Wayne took in this song. I’m sure there are other “emo” rap songs out there, but I almost went a decade before finding another song that fused the emo and rap genres with the same skill as Lil Wayne.
Flash forward to the summer of 2017. Rapper Lil Uzi Vert was riding high off of his #1 song “Bad and Boujee” and had finished an appearance on The Weeknd’s XO Tour. While the rapper was rapidly gaining success, his relationship at home was suffering.
In the song “XO TOUR Llif3,” Uzi raps about an argument with his girlfriend she where threatens to harm herself as a result of the emotional pain she’s feeling. Uzi, feeling that his relationship has gone to extremes, taunts that he only cares money now (hence the most recognizable line: “all my friends are dead,” referring to the dead presidents on dollar bills). The verses of the song highlight the material objects and the money Uzi has received due to his success, while still relying on Xanax to calm himself down.
Accompanied by an equally dark music video, this song managed to take the grim realities of an emo song and place them over a rap beat. It worked, and the song was a big success for the rapper, giving him one of the biggest songs of the year. While this song was becoming the anthem for emo rap, there were other rappers embracing the new emo rap subgenre.
In late 2017, many people heard of the passing of rapper Lil Peep, who was establishing an identity in the emo rap world. Unlike Lil Uzi Vert who could switch between the darkness of XO TOUR Llif3 and the semi-upbeat tune of Bad and Boujee, Peep’s entire persona was built around emo rap. In his most popular song, Awful Things, he raps about being in a toxic relationship with a girl and asks her to tell him “awful things” to ruin his perception of her, allowing the inevitable break up to be slightly easier.
Lil Peep didn’t just acknowledge the sadness, his music was saturated in it. Meanwhile, he always appeared upbeat, positive, and carefree in his interviews. His music being a stark contrast to his public persona alluded to a common reality in the music scene: there is more sadness and depression than we often acknowledge. Lil Peep embraced this reality, and that’s likely why his music resonated with his fans.
In both life and death, Lil Peep’s music opened a window into a music scene lurking beneath the surface of the mainstream. He may now been seen as a poster child for the subgenre, but there are other rappers who have filled their music with vulnerable and depressing lyrics. Lil Peep often collaborated with friend Lil Tracy, whose feelings of sadness are a recurring theme throughout his catalogue. Other rappers who are beginning their careers are open about their sadness, addictions, and emotions. From Trippie Redd’s “Love Scars” to 6LACK’s “Prblms” to XXXTentacion’s “Joceyln Flores,” it’s apparent that new rappers don’t feel pressure to hide their emotions with toughness and violence.
In many ways, it feels like this movement should have been more prominent years ago. For every rap songs bragging about the glamors out newfound fame and riches, there’s a song about the hardships. Sometimes these songs glamorize the use of drugs, the need to carry a weapon, or one night stands. Rappers who have been in the game long enough know this is merely a halo effect that can lead to paths of addiction and loneliness.
The emo rap movement differs from most other rap songs in its introspective approach. Drug use isn’t about getting high, it’s about masking the pain. One night stands aren’t for fun, they’re about a need to avoid the loneliness of heartbreak. The dangerous behaviors often glamorized in rap are shown to have an impact, not as a status symbol of having achieved success.
Rappers are now more open then ever, and this gives them freedom to express themselves with less social influence. Listeners are still exposed to dangerous and harmful substances, but they lyrics advise them to proceed with caution. In this music, rappers have no shame in having feelings. In fact, it’s expected to have emotion.
Late 2017 saw the rise of Logic’s song 1–800–273–8255 which was named after the National Suicide Prevention Hotline’s number. The song’s chorus filled the airwaves with the line “I just wanna die today,” which used the elements of emo rap to construct a song addressing depression. In actuality, the song is a conversation between a teenager calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and the operator helping him realize he has reason to live. Beneath this seemingly depressing song is a message of hope that would been too taboo to play on the airwaves not too long ago.
In researching this topic, I’ve discovered many other rap songs throughout the years that could be classified as emo. Emo rap is becoming increasingly mainstream, but its formation has been years in the making. We’ve finally reached a point where new rappers are able to build a career addressing their emotions without having to adhere to standards put forward by other rappers.
Some rap fans may not enjoy the whiny nature of emo rap music, as emo rock received the same criticism in the 00’s. This is true of all music, not everyone is going to appreciate it. For others, this shift is a refreshing change allowing more vulnerable artists to find a voice through rap.
After all, rap has always been a genre unafraid to move away from the beaten path. Rap is no stranger to controversy and change, that’s why many unique artists have found success in the genre. This is why emo rap works as a new approach for artists to express themselves. It’s explicit. It’s unfiltered. It’s real.
— — —
Thank you for reading! If you’d like to support me, please check out my website here!