What Rap’s New Stylistic Wave Says about Politics, Race, and Growing Up in the Age of Social Media
If you’ve been following the cultural arc of rap music, you know that it has increasingly embraced punk and emo music. Aesthetically and stylistically, artists have made waves drawing inspiration from the mid 2000s punk/emo scene. There’s also the boundless creative space of SoundCloud, which has provided a grassroots foundation for many of the genre’s hottest stars. The platform alone can largely be seen as the catalyst for the modern rap landscape, its usability and accessibility fostering the same DIY ethos that birthed hordes of scrappy punk bands in the 1980s. Taking all of this into consideration, what does it really say about the zeitgeist of today?
The most important thing to remember when answering this question is that popular music (and I don’t mean pop music), is a response to the cultural landscape of society. Cultural landscapes are largely rooted in current events. Psychedelic rock of the 60s was a result of the hippie movement, which was largely sparked by anti-war sentiments towards the conflict in Vietnam. Gritty punk and hardcore of the 80s can be seen as a response to the controversial conservative policies of President Ronald Raegan. Distilling these circumstances and their corresponding movements down to basic emotional responses gives us feelings of love and solidarity, and anger and rebelliousness (respectively). To be a youth coming of age in today’s complex world must be tough. I think that much is fair to say. Rap’s future is more than just a hot trend, it’s a change in the collective consciousness of American youth. It’s rousing music to turn up to in a seemingly dystopian reality. In other words, it’s the soundtrack to the duality of worlds that we live in.
The unlikely pairing of rap’s braggadocious nature and emo’s tear-stained pleas begs the question of why exactly these two genres are intermingling in the first place. A rather obvious answer would be the fact that many of rap’s hottest up-and-comers are young and would have grown up during emo’s cultural zenith in the mid 2000s. Any influence there could be seen as inevitable in retrospect. However, to cite that reason alone is to overlook all that’s going on in the present day—in the music scene and beyond. In the digital age where stardom is more attainable than ever, rap’s time-tested mainstream popularity, coupled with its straightforward means of execution (essentially vocals and maybe some “type beats” found on YouTube) offers an accessible escape to the good life for today’s youth. I want to place an emphasis on escape. Of course music in general is an escape, but perhaps there’s a little more to it in this day and age. Since rap’s new wave is analogous to emo’s original ascent some 15 years prior, analyzing the power emo once held can yield some insight into why it has made a return to form.
“Music mirrors what’s going on culturally,” Senses Fail front man Buddy Nielsen comments when speaking about emo's initial surge in popularity. “Then, it was a bunch of people that were young, impacted by 9/11. So as we became of age as adults, we were faced with this reality that like, yo, the world is like, a shitty, scary place. You can see a definitive change in innocence ending on 9/11, and that genre of music rose to prominence because it filled a youth culture gap."
Historically we’ve seen that when the sociopolitical climate gets rough, the music of the day responds with creative vigor. Right now it’s pretty obvious that things are tense for a lot of people in America. Identity politics have never been more prevalent, and it’s putting a lot of people in uncomfortable situations. Social media and the internet also play a large role in all this. They create a confusing and disturbing dichotomy where you may see a photo of your best friend partying in one post, and below it a news story about a mass shooting (and of course all the political outburst following it). How does a 16-year-old make sense of all this? It seems as though we live in a world full of extremely stark juxtapositions. One second everything is great, the next it’s terrible. The hottest sounds of today’s youth reflect that notion. Bleak lyrics about depression and drug abuse paint scenes of sadness that are finished with a clear coat of bass-heavy, club-ready beats. Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Life” left its mark on 2017 with a pop flair that sent it all the way to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100, all while detailing thoughts of suicide and depression. The inverse of this relationship can also be true. Take the late Lil Peep’s “Benz Truck,” in which he nonchalantly raps about hoes, jewelry, and typical trappings of the rap lifestyle over a grim acoustic guitar-laden beat.
The re-contextualization of rap’s tropes within these songs offer a clue into what young people are feeling. The emotional transparency of the music gives the impression that materialism and reckless abandon are little less than coping methods. This “live fast, die young” lifestyle isn’t new—certainly not within music. However, it has traditionally been attributed to rock stars. Hip-hop/rap culture has traditionally placed an emphasis on lasting wealth and legacy. This has been exemplified by the success of icons like P. Diddy and Dr. Dre, who have made names for themselves in the business world in addition to having successful music careers.
What’s also important to consider is that this stylistic fusion is not an act of appropriation, nor is it campy in the least bit. Rap’s embrace of emotional rock music seems to be coming from a place of sincere appreciation. The aesthetic appeal of the punk/emo scenes may indeed be playing a part, but at the heart of this cultural foray is a cathartic release of pure artistic energy. For this new batch of starts, it’s about being a participant rather than just a consumer. What’s more is that those already in this traditionally white cultural space seem to embrace the adoption of its culture by black figureheads. It may seem cliché to bring up race relations at a point when rap has seemingly transcended that for a while. But what about punk and emo? These are scenes that are overwhelmingly white and have more or less morphed into the repetitive lore of white, middle class struggle rooted in self-loathing and often times misogyny. I think the misogyny is still ever-present, especially when rap—a genre with a long history of lewd lyrics towards women—is added to the equation. However, this may be the first time an overwhelmingly white genre of music has been taken over by black artists and not the other way around. This signifies an important rejection of racial stigmas in music. The co-opting of historically white genre by black artists marks a turning point not only for punk and emo, but for music as a whole.
There’s no doubt that racial tensions are higher than they’ve been in years, highlighted by starkly opposing political agendas. It’s hard to have conversations about anything serious these days, or so it seems. Many people would rather not take sides and remain outside of the conversation. That’s where music comes in. In a society where the youth are caught in the crossfire of a sociopolitical war of words, and bombarded with conflicting information, music provides an answer. It gives the message of “We don’t care if you’re black, white, gay, straight, on this side or that…If you want to disengage from it all and simply have a good time, this music is for you.” For those trying to make sense of a chaotic world, a brand of music that is simultaneously carefree and ignorant and emotionally deep is the perfect solution. The world sucks, so why not get lit about it?