Harder, Softer: Stoicism and vulnerability in hip-hop

Post Author: Jack Denton
Kendrick Lamar

If there is anything that nears consensus in our splintered and specialized digital entertainment media landscape, it is that most music critics love Kendrick Lamar. His most recent album, To Pimp a Butterfly, has a 96 rating on Metacritic, including a perfect score from The Needle Drop and a Best New Music designation from Pitchfork. A Rolling Stone review gushes, “Lamar straight up owns rap relevancy on Butterfly, whatever challengers to the throne barely visible in his dusty rear-view.” Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, his last album, received similarly nearuniversal acclaim.

Back during hip-hop’s second Golden Age, the title of the most critically favored MC was slightly more disputed, but the argument for Notorious B.I.G. is at least as strong as the argument for any of the other top contenders (Nas and Tupac, for two). At the seminal 1995 Source Awards, Big took home more awards than any other artist, winning New Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, Lyricist of the Year, and Live Performer of the Year over Tupac, Nas, Outkast, and other GOAT nominees. His combination of wordplay, flow, narrative complexity, bravado and humor was unparalleled among his peers, and has (arguably) never been matched. At the very least, he was certainly sicker than average.

Maybe unsurprisingly, given the universality of the consideration, both of these top-flight MCs have a song in which they contemplate suicide. Biggie has “Suicidal Thoughts”, and Kendrick has “u”. In “Suicidal Thoughts,” Biggie specifically details how he wants to end his life—“I swear to God I want to just slit my wrists and end this bullshit / Throw the Magnum to my head, threaten to pull shit”—and wonders if his mother will even miss him if he were to do so. There is serious emotional pain treading below the surface of his lyrics. However, it is presented with the boom-bap swagger one might expect from, say, someone showing off his expensive new car. The main thrust of “Suicidal Thoughts” is I’m such a hard, bad-ass motherfucker that I remain indifferent in the face of death. No one will miss me because “I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fuckin’ tell,” and I’m proud of it. Biggie’s steady voice expresses no concern over the potential physical pain involved in suicide, and crucially, no vulnerability whatsoever, with very little worry of the emotional impact on those who love him. His only concern seems to be all his fake friends who are likely to show up at his funeral pretending to miss him—that, and of course, dealing with Puff Daddy’s irksome screams (“Ayo BIG!…Ayo BIG!!”). Throughout the song, Biggie’s demeanor parallels the beat—empty, but seriously cool.

“u” is the complete thematic opposite of “Suicidal Thoughts” in its open insecurity and fragility. Befitting the chaotic spiral of creeping bass, freewheeling saxophone, and a litany of white noise, Kendrick’s thoughts descend into deconstruction of the mistakes and insecurities that have accompanied his rise to fame that now besiege him. Kendrick’s vulnerability reaches a zenith in the third verse of “u,” where—through glugs from a bottle—his thoughts shift from depression to crying himself to sleep to suicide. “ If those mirrors could talk it would say ‘you gotta go,’” Kendrick sobs, “The world’ll know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness.” Unlike Biggie, whose gangsta persona is so collected and cold-hearted that killing oneself is just another routine murder to be scoffed at, Kendrick looks anything but cool as he looks death in the face. Magazine cover stories and money can’t change the fact that Kendrick is deeply insecure. “u” is unwavering in its presentation of this sentiment, and there is no pretense of toughness anywhere on the track.

Starting in the late 80s and continuing through the 90s, hip-hop blossomed into its most mainstream-recognizable incarnation: gangsta rap. Gangsta rap is where rap music finally hit its stride. It was the gangsta era that cemented the MC, rather than the DJ, as the centerpiece of hip-hop music. Gangsta rap invented boom-bap, the driving pulse of bass-drum kicks between tight snare hits on two and four, that was synonymous with hip-hop beats until recently. Perhaps the most visible element of gangsta rap was its aesthetic. Visually, this involved baggy pants, bandanas, large chain necklaces, scowling visages, and guns – clothing and accessories associated with the culture of impoverished black neighborhoods out of which this brand of hip-hop spread. Musically, this aesthetic is composed of a kind of coldness of beats, with the hollow 70s-jazz-keyboard nihilism of the East Coast cadre and insidiously laid-back synth of the West Coast. Lyrically, gangsta rap’s favorite topics are drugs and violence. With very few exceptions, there is no vulnerability whatsoever in the presentation of these (or any other) topics by gangsta rappers. For gangsta-era rappers, even when discussing devastating, deeply emotional circumstances, appearing “hard”—or in the very least, not appearing soft—was primary.

Tupac on the set of “Above The Rim” in 1993. Photo by Mark Peterson.

Ice Cube is a paradigmatic gangsta rapper. The former N.W.A member’s 1990 “Dead Homiez” is exemplary of the straight-faced manner with which gangsta rap treated its tragedies. The song is about the murder of a childhood friend, and includes mention of him “lying dead in a gutter” and “the screams of his mother” that still haunt Ice Cube. However, the most unforgettable aspect of the track is how unphased Ice Cube sounds throughout. His deadpan delivery over a bleary G-funk beat conveys complete desensitization,  best represented by the unaffected “Damn…” that follows the line “They killed a homie that I went to school with.” Ice Cube never admits to fear about being killed himself, or to any deep upset about the situation. Many songs of gangsta rap gone by hint at the recognition of trauma—Prodigy of Mobb Deep raps “I’m only 19, but my mind is old” in the classic “Shook Ones Pt. II”—but almost none are willing to risk presenting themselves as anything less than powerful in doing so.

In these situations, trauma was both constant and arbitrary.

This attitude of stoicism in rap was nearly ubiquitous from the late ’80s to the mid-2000s. Despite frequently concerning itself with deeply destabilizing experiences, gangsta rap was committed to appearing tough. The genre displays a consistent avoidance of publicly contending with pain, and any implication of weakness is quickly dismissed. On DMX’s 1998 song “Slippin” (a shockingly vulnerable song for most rappers of the time, but especially for a guy who sounds like a drill sergeant when delivering the friendliest of lines), he allots two verses to a detailed description of his life’s descent into drug addiction and disrepair, only to conclude with a third verse assuring us of his victory over his past vices and his re-emergent strength. As the song’s chorus emphasizes, “Get me back up on my feet so I can tear shit up!” Make no mistake: this is a song about DMX’s powerful redemption, not his weaknesses.

The reasons for gangsta rap’s bravado and toughness directly stem from the social conditions out of which the genre emerged. These conditions, due to racialized and systemic poverty, were extremely poor public housing projects that were riddled with drugs, police brutality, gangs, and violence, exemplified by Nas/Mobb Deep’s Queensbridge Houses or the Compton of N.W.A. et al. In these situations, trauma was both constant and arbitrary. In an interview with Terry Gross, Jay-Z recalled growing up in Bed-Stuy’s Marcy Projects: “it would turn—suddenly, it just – violent, and there would be shootings at 12 in the afternoon on any given day. So it was just—weird mix of emotions. I mean—you know, one day your best friend could be killed; the day before, you could be celebrating him getting a brand-new bike.” Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the toughness that one might see adorning a kid on a corner in West Baltimore as not a show of power, but of fear. He talks about “young black kids with a scowl on their face, walking a certain way down the block with their sweatpants dangling… with their hoodies on” as an attempt to appear forceful in the face of ever-present danger. He argues that the “very need to exhibit your power in that sort of way is really to ward off other people because you’re afraid of what could actually happen to you.”

A young B.I.G.
A young B.I.G.

For men growing up amidst these precarious conditions, the ability to appear vulnerable is significantly compromised—indeed, appearing as such could be a death wish. Thus the culture of young black men raised in these circumstances is deeply inhospitable to vulnerability. Kevin Quashie, professor of African-American studies at Smith College, writes about a “neutered notion of vulnerability” in black culture due to “systemic violence against black people, as well as more individual acts of maiming and meanness.” He goes on, “rather than being seen as a quality of an inner life and a necessary human capacity, vulnerability becomes defined a a liability to black survival.” Thus, the art of this culture—chiefly, rap music—was almost completely devoid of vulnerability. Speaking in 1994 for large swaths of the genre, Biggie’s mother told a New York Times reporter, “He doesn’t want anyone to see that he’s not as tough as he thinks he is…He cries inside. He bleeds inside. But he doesn’t want anyone to see the vulnerable side of him.”

By contrast, today’s hip-hop allows for some showing of vulnerability. As “u” shows, rap’s current critical darling is unafraid of showing weakness, but what about more chart-popular rappers? Though Kendrick is no slouch on the charts, former child star Drake is, without question, the most popular and least avoidable rapper of the last few years. Drake’s persona, among the standard boasts about success and riches, is, ostensibly, about vulnerability. Drake frequently cops to being alienated, sad, and worried about what others think of him. For example, in “Marvin’s Room”, the lead single from his second album, Take Care, a sad-drunk Drake calls an ex-girlfriend late at night, begging her to listen to his emotions:“Talk to me please don’t have much to believe in / I need you right now, are you down to listen to me? / ‘I’ve had sex four times this week: I’ll explain / Having a hard time adjusting to fame.” On “Missin’ You,” Drake admits to the fear “that every girl I care for will find a better man and end up happier in the long run.” These lyrics are not anomalies amongst the rest of Drake’s oeuvre, but rather the thematic norm. Drake is so closely associated with such vulnerability that Drake being sad is one of the internet’s favorite memes.

Another critical favorite, Earl Sweatshirt (formerly of Odd Future), addresses depression from several angles on his current LP, aptly titled I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. Popularity-wise, one of the biggest rappers of the pre-Drake era was Kanye West, who decreed on his debut album that “we’re all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” Further into his career, on 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye sings weakly with a highly processed singing voice, only slightly recognizable as a rapper.  During Kanye’s reign, Kid Cudi also had a very successful string of mixtapes and albums as a very vulnerable rapper, with lyrics like “I’ve got some issues that nobody can see / And all of these emotions are pouring out of me”. How, then, did hip-hop transform from “Suicidal Thoughts” to “u,” to Drake from Ice Cube?

A major reason is a phenomenon that one might call the gentrification of hip-hop—the rise of a group of prominent rappers who come from more privileged backgrounds than the rappers of the gangsta rap era, the most important of whom tended to come from the nexus of extremely impoverished backgrounds and institutional racism, usually growing up in dangerous public housing projects. The gentrifying rappers, raised in safer circumstances, did not need to avoid vulnerability for their safety to the same degree.

Eminem is white, though he grew up very poor with an absent father. Because of his ethnicity, America afforded him very different cultural expectations regarding how he was allowed to express himself. Though Detroit’s 8 Mile might have been a similar environment to the childhood neighborhoods of other gangsta rappers, as a white performer, Eminem may not have felt the same prohibitions regarding vulnerability as strongly as other rappers. Thus, Eminem, despite his frequently intense and chimerical persona, was able to create vulnerable tracks, such as “Hailie’s Song” and “Mockingbird”, about his daughter and his own weaknesses, with lyrics like “sometimes it feels like the world’s on my shoulders / everyone’s leanin’ on me.”. His whiteness  almost certainly made this a little bit less dangerous and scary a move.

Following in Eminem’s wake was Kanye, who was raised primarily in black middle class circumstances. Though he claims Chicago as his city, he spent the majority of his childhood in suburban Oak Lawn, Illinois, and spent a period of time living with his mother (a college professor) in Nanjing, China. Additionally, his time living in Chicago was spent in a middle class neighborhood. Kanye’s childhood lacked the danger that required the MCs of gangsta rap to eschew vulnerability, so he was able to embrace it.

The year after Kanye released 808s and Heartbreak, Drake released his breakout mixtape, So Far Gone. One of the most memorable, and definitely the most prefigurative, songs on the mixtape is “Say What’s Real,” which not only borrows a Kanye beat off 808s, but also concerns career-related alienation and problems of perception that would be right at home on a Kanye record. Drake took Kanye’s consistent vulnerability and made it a global brand. He also borrowed from and tweaked the sing-rapping on 808s and Heartbreak and turned it into his signature Drake croon. Like 808s-era Kanye, Drake beats tend to be meandering and atmospheric, devoid of the tough boom-bap of latter gangstas. Given all of this vulnerability, and the running theme, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Drake spent the better part of his childhood in a very affluent part of Toronto, far from Compton.

Lauryn Hill.
Lauryn Hill.

The incorporation of singing and sing-rapping (“crooning”) into hip-hop songs is both deeply indebted to and tied up with the convergence of hip-hop and R&B. This convergence almost certainly played a role in the increased acceptance of vulnerability in hip-hop. R&B, with its win-you-back slow jams and R. Kelly breakdowns, has long been much more comfortable with vulnerability. Artists like Outkast, and eventually Kanye, by singing their own hooks and sometimes not rapping at all, muddled the formerly distinct lines between hip-hop and R&B and paved the way for artists like vulnerable crooners like Frank Ocean and Drake.

Not only has the emergence of social media culture surely played a role in the norm of self-expression and vulnerability, but it has widened social reach, making it possible kids for growing up in the projects and other similarly harsh circumstances to safely express themselves online.

But long before Kanye was dipping his rapping toe into the R&B waters, a slew of female MCs were mixing rapping with soul and R&B-style singing. Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim, and Lauryn Hill were some of the most prominent and talented examples. The relationship of the female rapper to vulnerability has been (and continues to be) a complex one. Rap had long been dominated by men, and women in the industry had to fight sexist stereotypes only men could rap. These female MCs also had to contend with stereotypes about the fragility of women in a deeply masculine genre. Balancing the need to gain acceptance amongst the tough-guy field of male rappers with a rebel stance against feminine stereotypes, female MCs like Missy and Kim adopted bravado-heavy “queen bitch, supreme bitch” personas and hyper-sexualized lyrics that would make Ludacris’s fantasies blush. Still, these female MCs were able to make inroads with respect to hip-hop’s dialogue with vulnerability, though largely while singing, not rapping—a trend no doubt influenced by R&B’s much longer history with vulnerability. One of the most electrifying rappers of the ’90s, especially during her time in the Fugees, Lauryn Hill blossomed into a genre-defying maverick whose body of work brims with emotion. However, her most vulnerable songs, like “When It Hurts So Bad” and “Ex-Factor,” are completely devoid of rapping. “Ex-Factor”immediately follows the rapped “Lost Ones” on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Both songs are allegedly directed at her former Fugees bandmate and lover, Wyclef Jean, but while “Lost Ones” spits disgusted dismissal in rap form, “Ex-Factor” details the pain of the broken relationship – and notably features Lauryn only singing, not rapping. Though female hip-hop artists like NoName Gypsy have combined supreme vulnerability with underground success, the labyrinth of gender stereotypes has continued to make it so that mainstream rap is still largely devoid of vulnerable female MCs. Nonetheless, the influence female rappers had in rap’s eventual conflation with R&B is undeniable.

Earl Sweatshirt, Kid Cudi, and Childish Gambino (aka film and TV star Donald Glover) also grew up in middle-class areas. The title of Childish Gambino’s sophomore studio album may hint at a second reason for the rise of vulnerable rap: Because the Internet. As the Internet and social media have become a fixture of all of our lives, self-expression (and sometimes oversharing) has become more and more the norm – as documented ad nauseum by seemingly every journalist from 2008-2012. The trajectory from Facebook to Twitter to the vulnerability mecca of Tumblr is not dissimilar to the steps from Eminem to Kanye to Drake, in regard to innovations in the vulnerability of rap. It is no accident that Drake thrives in Internet culture. Additionally, not only has the emergence of social media culture surely played a role in the norm of self-expression and vulnerability, but it has widened social reach, making it possible kids for growing up in the projects and other similarly harsh circumstances to safely express themselves online.

(Sad) Drake (photo credit: Shareif Ziyadat)
(Sad) Drake. Photo by Shareif Ziyadat.

What about Pac? Certainly, this argument must concede that there are a number of rappers from the gangsta era who produced vulnerable songs that do not fit into the hard paradigm of gangsta rap, like Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson”, Tupac’s “Dear Mama”, Nas’s “Dance”, and Dr. Dre’s “The Message”. Though these songs are unquestionably anomalies for their era, they definitely had some influence on the eventual shifting idea of vulnerability (Nas’s poor singing and mother-mourning on “Dance” strikingly prefigure 808s and Heartbreak).

Fans frequently characterize Tupac as a gangsta rapper who, despite his hardened tendencies and braggadocio, had a real soft side. Unquestionably, Tupac’s body of work is one of the most emotionally dynamic, especially for his time. However, emotional dynamism does not equate to the type of vulnerability discussed throughout this piece. This is not to say that Tupac does not have vulnerable songs—there is the aforementioned “Dear Mama” and the striking “Death Around the Corner”, a song that is transparent about his fear of imminent death. However, on most of his “soft” songs, Tupac comes across largely with the confident manner of a preacher, focused on strength and redemption, rather than fragility. His moments of personal difficulty are almost always presented as part of a narrative trajectory of overcoming. His own struggles are almost always a side-note to a message about a greater social problem that is much bigger than himself. For example, from “Changes”: “Tired of being poor and even worse I’m black, my stomach hurts so I’m waiting for a purse to snatch / cops give a damn about a negro, pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero. Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares / One less hungry mouth on the welfare / First ship ’em dope and let ’em deal the brothers / Give ’em guns step back watch ’em kill each other / It’s time to fight back that’s what Huey said / Two shots in the dark now Huey’s dead / I got love for my brother but we can never go nowhere / Unless we share with each other / We gotta start makin’ changes.”

Any difficulty discussed on the fantastic “Keep Ya Head Up” is Tupac confidently showing solidarity and inspiration—a “holla to my sisters on welfare”—rather than the personal vulnerability demonstrated by many a rapper today. Kendrick Lamar provides a helpful comparison to highlight the difference, since he carries aspects of Tupac’s preacher’s torch (“We gon’ be alright!”), but is capable of consistently presenting his own struggles in such a way that allows the personal experience of his own emotions to stand on their own as a significant statement of self, outside of sermonizing.

The so-called “socially conscious” rappers of the 90s and early 2000s — such as Mos Def, Common, and Talib Kweli—handle vulnerability much like Tupac. Their music frequently features emotionally affecting stories and insights, but these stories are usually presented as third-person tales that distance the narrator from the emotions evoked. The emotional stories are often treated chiefly as emblematic of a greater black struggle, rather than personal vulnerability and difficulty.

For example, one of Common’s most well-known songs, “A Song For Assata“, juxtaposes a heartbreaking narrative about the police murder of a Black Panther with lines like “All of this just so we can be free.” Immortal Technique’s “Dance With The Devil”, despite offering the most intense catharsis of any of his songs, is a tale spun in a cold and disaffected manner; there is no vulnerability here, only horrifying wisdom. Even vulnerable Mos Def lines like “Sometimes I get discouraged / I look around and, things are so weak / People are so weak / Sometimes, sometimes I feel like crying / Sometimes my heart gets heavy,” play a role in a song whose ultimate message is political, rather than personal: “I want black people to be free.”  While this is unsurprising—a lot of the difficulty these rappers would have seen and experienced is inseparable from their racial and economic oppression — the treatment of vulnerability is very different from a lot of contemporary rappers. Still, these conscious rappers certainly made much less use of a tough-guy persona than their gangsta counterparts, and undoubtedly assisted in helping hip-hop shed its tough skin.

There are still plenty of current rappers who grew up in impoverished neighborhoods stricken with violence, drugs, and abusive police, like the majority of gangsta rappers who preceded them. Chicago’s drill music (named for an onomatopoeic version of the sound a machine gun makes), whose most prominent practitioner is Chief Keef, remains as tough as the genre name would indicate. However, many contemporary rappers who hail from the ‘hood are now allowing themselves to express their fears, weaknesses, and emotions – at least some of the time. Long Beach’s Vince Staples (“My feelings told me love is real / But feelings known to get you killed / My feelings if I miss it’s true / I spend my moments missin’ you”), Compton’s Kendrick Lamar (“u”), and South Side of Chicago’s Chance the Rapper (“I know you scared / You should ask us if we scared too / If you was there / Then we’d just knew you cared too”) are just a few of the numerous examples of the pervasive influence of vulnerable-hop felt today. Could this sea change be a “positive” kind of gentrification? Maybe—if you like your hip-hop on the softer side, that is.