clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Alter egos are hip-hop's best creative and mental cruxes

From Slim Shady to Kill Edward, created characters allow artists to explore emotions, attract new audiences, and experiment with sound, all while avoiding controversy.

Google (Labeled for Reuse with Modification)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


In psychology, an alter ego is the existence of a second self that is distinct from a person's original personality. Robert Louis Stevenson's thriller Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde explored this concept through a man with two personalities: one of a normal, God-fearing doctor of good moral aptitude, and another of a psychotic, unrestrained menace, both in continuous battle with each other for supremacy. While in real life the phenomenon is not always that extreme, people wrestle with secondary personalities that threaten to impact their day-to-day lives all of the time. Societal codes of conduct and ethical guidelines mix with life experiences to help build character that isn't always suitable for the public, so much of the time, it remains hidden.

The idea of the alter ego has been captured in art for hundreds of years. Comic book superheroes such as Batman and Superman rely on their regular faces to blend in with the public when, in fact, they'd rather serve as faceless symbols of justice. In music, alter egos have always held importance. The days of George Clinton's Afrofuturist identities of Starchild and Mr. Wiggles helped to create new sonic universes, and David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust brought immense acclaim to the concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. In hip-hop, alter egos have walked the thin line of offering new creative freedom and enabling the expression of mental trauma in ways that make the convention more important to rap than any other genre.

The stories say that hip-hop's Golden Age started in the 1990s. Coke rap from the 1980s gave way to conscious rap of the next decade. Daniel Dumile, known at the time as Zev Love X, had formed the group KMD with his younger brother DJ Subroc and a friend named Rodan in 1988. Their debut album Mr. Hood came in 1991 and became a major hit, but before their follow-up Black Bastards could be released, Subroc was killed when struck by a car while crossing the street in Long Island, NY. KMD was dropped from Elektra Records that same week, and Dumile went into a dark, depressive funk for years. He hit rock bottom, sleeping homeless in the streets, until in 1997, he returned to the scene, rapping at open-mic events at the Nuyorican Poets Café in Manhattan, New York. He no longer went by Dumile, he was MF DOOM – a villainous alter ego crafted to pay homage to Marvel Comics villain Doctor Doom, partly inspired by the pain from losing his brother and from being subject to hell for such a long period of time. Through his new persona, he became one of the most influential artists in hip-hop culture and created a mysterious persona for the sole purpose of mystifying listeners.

RZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard of Wu-Tang Clan have also been instrumental in the implantation of alter egos in the Golden Age. Instead of being in response to trauma, RZA's identities were for trying out new lyrical styles. With nine different alter egos under his belt, he's had perhaps the second most experience, in hip-hop, of trying on different hats. That honor of having number one goes to Ol' Dirty Bastard; he has 28 different nicknames attributed to him that enabled him to explore vast arrays of sounds in the pursuit of becoming a legend.

Alter egos endured long into the turn of the century and became much more prominent. Eminem and T.I. are perhaps two of the most popular of the early-to-mid aughts, their personalities offering much more than experimental trips. Eminem himself is a straight-forward rapper that copes with his demons; his alter ego Slim Shady is darkly funny with his violent raps, enabling Eminem to escape the controversial aesthetic by placing it on someone else. T.I.'s alternate character is somewhat similar; T.I. is the business-savvy, ethically-sound rapper that's become conditioned to the corporate world while his other, T.I.P., is the street-savvy inverse, always approximately 1.5 seconds away from confrontation. The differences between Eminem and T.I.'s alter egos musical sounds aren't that much different, but they both serve as mental and creative outlets for their artists to shirk around controversy.

In modern day rap, the alter ego continues to be the opportunity to try out new styles while making the not normally accepted side of a personality more digestible for mainstream audiences. Lil Yachty is one of new-age rap's most popular artists that's relied on an alter ego since he hit the rap scene in 2016. His debut project Lil Boat featured Lil Yachty as the fun-loving, innocent teenager with a penchant for making bubbly songs with Auto-Tune, and his arrogant reflection Lil Boat was the rapping goofball with powerful, pounding bass anthems. The creation of this identity enabled Yachty to traverse grounds that he already does while also giving him the freedom to navigate the more pop-ish sounds that his debut album Teenage Emotions attempted to do.

Rico Nasty is another creator with a penchant for a number of personalities. Trap Lavigne is her moshpit-ready persona, being able to get hardcore to keep up with her magnetic fanbase. Tacobella is her sing-song disposition that's a lot softer than her other one appears to be, giving her the artistic means of going in directions that she perhaps wouldn't typically traverse. When you bring both of those personalities together, you get Rico Nasty who exists firmly in the middle of them. Her triangle of identities gives her a wider range than many of the artists who stay firmly within their creative space.

Both Lil Yachty and Rico Nasty have come into rap with the mindset that having multiple identities makes it easier to wear multiple hats. Perhaps they've learned from Tyler The Creator, one of the most influential rappers for the current industry, through his use of the controversial Wolf Haley persona that gets even darker than what Tyler typically creates. J. Cole's recent creation of Kill Edward was possibly born out of a need to have a creative outlet for other psychological endeavors. Edward raps about not being able to cope with pain without drugs, something that Cole himself is harshly against. With newer artists and older artists dipping into the creative reserves of legends, it appears that the alter ego has become all but a necessity for the modern genre.

With modern rap turning to a more emotional standpoint, it makes sense for alter egos to place greater importance on creative expression than mental freedom. Historically, artists like Tupac (Makaveli) and Snoop Dogg (Snoop Lion) have created new identities, not to cope with mental illness, but to explore sounds out of their typical range of experiences. This creative freedom helps to avoid tarnishing a legacy/persona that has already been built and, instead, helps to establish a new one that, if accepted, can be blended in with the first. But most artists that do create alternate personalities choose to keep them separate. Artists like Kid Cudi have explored emotions on a deeper level than many of his peers, and the way that his music has been received hints that discussions about mental health have become much more acceptable in the rap community. The fact that he's never had to use an alter ego to separate his characters says a lot.

The alter ego has existed in music, specifically rap, for decades now, being responsible for some of the most iconic moments in pop culture. In the past, it's mainly been used as a means of creative expression, although some have used it as a means of separating personalities and escaping mental traumas. With rap music becoming more emotional and enabling artists to tell the stories that they want without tarnishing their legacies, it looks like alter egos will open up in the ways that they're used by artists; whether it's to cover topics that they typically go against, or to add new dimensions to their artistry. Whether it's for creative purposes or to cope with mental trauma, alter egos have become one of hip-hop's best creative cruxes.


More by Trey Alston:

Sign up for the newsletter Join the revolution.

Get REVOLT updates weekly so you don’t miss a thing.