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When the crepuscular tones of Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” comes on, you can’t help but be reminded of Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3”: two mid-tempo, alt-rock/808-heavy bangers with guttural whines as the songs’ beating hearts. Both trade in illustrious raps of luxe splendor for tales of heartbreak and psychological profiles of destroyed personages. Both songs peaked in the Billboard Hot 100’s Top 10 (“XO Tour Llif3” at No.7 and “Lucid Dreams” at No.3). This spiritual, emotional, similar world of rap is immensely profitable. Known as “emo rap,” there’s been an odd fascination with it since rap has become the most commercial and popular genre on the planet. And just as evident with these songs, the means of navigating the genre are frustratingly onerous. Because of the artists’ similarities and lack of boldness in the province, the claustrophobic air of emo rap could possibly stunt the sub-genre’s growth in the long run and contribute to its denouement.
Kid Cudi is the paterfamilias of emotional rap. Hip-hop’s always been a means of spooning out the blocks of stress inside the brain; Cudi’s music pushed down a door for spilling about how artists feel about and react to the constant tug of reactive forces to those stresses. As Cudi so famously sung on “Soundtrack To My Life,” one of his biggest, most memorable records, “I’ve got some issues that nobody can see.” His template for his style of emotional rap was more spacey than anything; warbled synths, bold 808s, and off-key singing comprised all of his first two albums Man on the Moon: The End of Day and Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, both going platinum. Over the course of six albums, Cudi’s avoided boxing himself into one creative corner while he explores the crevices inside of his brain.
The same can’t be said for his current-day emo rap progenitors. There’s only a handful of artists that exist on the mainstream spectrum, and when they are discussed, the others are usually brought up in conversation with each other. Other than Juice WRLD’s curious emotional hymns and Lil Uzi Vert’s melancholy whines, Trippie Redd’s dark cries similarly explore the darkness of the heart’s wants. Lil Skies often gets grouped into the conversation with his depressive atmospheres created in his musical labyrinths. Both the late Lil Peep and XXXTentacion traversed realms of sadness within their catalogs of genre-bending music. Lil Xan wraps up the most popular of emo rap’s artists with glum music that sings of sadness and demise. Across these five paragons, a uniform sound exists – one of a mid-tempo, pounding bass, somber adventure.
“SAD” by XXXTentacion sounds like it could be a throwaway track from Lil Uzi’s 2017 album Luv is Rage 2. Lil Peep’s “Awful Things” would have been an even bigger hit if XXXTentacion had utilized the production on his debut studio album and final release ?.This flexibility seems to read from the lack of creativity, but there may be more to it than that. Emo rap itself may just be tighter in what it allows than traditional, wide-ranging rap.
Yung Lean exists somewhere in emo-rap’s ancestry prior to the current wave of artists, but after Kid Cudi’s plebeian beginnings. The Swedish rapper built his entire aesthetic from seeds of early emo rap conventions; his collective is literally called “Sad Boys.” He first gained recognition in 2013 with the video for “Ginseng Strip 2002,” with numerous mentions of his throng and the trademark frowning faces that identified them. He released his debut project Unknown Death 2002 that year, a moody collection of atmospheric, emotional cuts that pushed Cudi’s introspective music in a bold, experimental new direction. It became another viral success, resulting in the sort of American eminence that would attract followers to emulate his template. Vibe included the mixtape in their “The 10 Most Overlooked Debut Rap Mixtapes of 2013” list and this accolade, along with a few choice others, cemented Lean as a powerful rap force and frontrunner for emo rap culture.
After Unknown Death, Yung Lean’s music became increasingly experimental. His debut studio album Unknown Memory released in September of 2014 to mixed reviews. Pitchfork‘s scathing review for the project made it clear that he’d taken a step backwards. “Instead of bringing something new to rap, he’s making cheap copies of his role models,” Pitchfork‘s critic Jonah Bromwich wrote. Just as Lean had built his career in slow, foggy emo rap with atmospheric tinges, he had walked away from it. Since then, he’s released two other albums—Warlord in 2016 and Stranger in 2017—and neither have had the sizeable impact that his debut mixtape did. Lean has pretty much scrubbed all stylistic similarities to modern emo rap at this point. He’s mixing genres like their ingredients for a smoothie, doing what he wants, even if it doesn’t get him the acclaim that he desires. Because of that, the emo rap scene has largely distanced itself from him. In the modern emo rap discussion, Lean’s name seldom arises.
Lil Uzi, on the other hand, seemingly went in the opposite direction. The sneeringly confident rapper from 2014’s The Real Uzi channeled the energy of boastful rap that made some of his earliest cuts so magnetic. He started to grow more in tune with his emotional side in 2015’s Luv Is Rage while also showcasing his rap capabilities. Vicious rap attacks “Safe House” and “Super Saiyan” were included in the same breath as singing cuts “Right Now” and “Top.” The critical acclaim from the project’s singing songs pushed him in the rockstar direction that’s dominated his aesthetic since. With this came more emotional, introspective songs that have made him emo rap’s leading star. “XO Tour Llif3” is perhaps his most popular song, peaking at No.7 on Billboard Hot 100 through his embrace of the style’s characteristics. As his star power has grown, so has his association with the genre. Now, you can’t have a conversation about emo rap without Uzi in the discussion.
This lack of room for error may account for why much of the music sounds the same. But down the line, this may not hold out as well. While it’s all fun and games to say that Juice WRLD and Lil Uzi sound the same now, down the line, when others come into play, we’ll have to eat our words. The artists would only be emulating what they see is working, versus being themselves, so who would be to blame? And the list of up-and-coming emo rappers is much longer than one would expect. Guys like JPEGMAFIA and the eclectic collective Boyfriendz are only a few of a long list of rappers looking to break into the narrow pathway for the subgenre. With styles that are in a similar atmosphere as the industry’s current collection of faces, how will the industry ever grow if listeners aren’t able to accept experimentation?
Although it’s admittedly not the same, the emo rap scene reminds of how notoriously difficult it is to become successful in the female rap scene. There are tons of other women rappers besides Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and the City Girls, but the space is extremely narrow; whether it’s media or radio coverage, there’s an agenda that only promotes one or two at a time. This means that, to get the coverage that any rapper desires, they must generate conversation that includes the hottest artists—most of the time through conflict—so that they may hijack some of that spotlight. Other times, they emulate that artist’s work in hopes of being recognized by them. Different circumstances aside, the end result for both female rap and emo rap is the same: the arena becomes a claustrophobic space that doesn’t necessarily promote growth or reward it.
In order for emo rap to grow, the space must become more accepting by shedding expectations to adhere to its conventions. The juxtaposition of Yung Lean and Lil Uzi’s journeys showcases just how inflexible the genre is for creativity. This is why you can listen to mainstream emo rap’s biggest rappers and name their influences and what other songs their music sounds like whenever they come up on the radio. Hip-hop has long rewarded creativity and flexibility and that shouldn’t stop. Emo rap is still extremely young, but growing pains are apparent. Kid Cudi was instrumental in the genre’s creation and is pushing his sound in bold new directions; his joint album Kids See Ghosts is emo-rap on steroids. If the genre’s founder can say “fuck conventions,” why can’t its followers say the same?
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