How rap’s heavy music moment is impacting the sound (and soul) of the genre

Rap's embrace of metal and emo is changing everything from the style of its brightest stars, to the way artists are tackling conversations around mental health.

September 19, 2018

Earlier this year when Princess Nokia released her emo inspired mixtape, A Girl Cried Red, it felt like a logical creative evolution rather than a move from left field. In the past few years, both mainstream and underground hip-hop have increasingly shown an affinity for the music, culture and aesthetics often associated with heavy music genres. Whether it’s Lil Uzi Vert moshing to deathcore band Lorna Shore, or Post Malone buddying up with Power Trip and Gatecreeper, it’s undeniable that rap is currently in love with everything draped in chains and reverb. While metal famously embraced rap during the massive ‘90s massive nu-metal boom, the inverse relationship has never been this forthcoming. As “emo rap” and “SoundCloud rap” have become both established (and wildly successful) subgenres, the gap between heavy music and rap has become nearly non-existent.

But this trend extends beyond rap’s biggest new stars: Justin Bieber and Rihanna have both latched onto metal’s harsh look, last year luxury clothing brand Gucci dropped their $18, 650 crust punk styled jacket, and even Kim Kardashian even hopped onto the death metal trend, sporting a vintage Morbid Angel shirt on Instagram (although she may have been taking notes from Kanye who has been seen sporting Cradle of Filth and Testament shirts). Whether it’s a product of their musical influences, or a general mainstream adoption of metal and emo culture, a lot of rappers today look like Gucci Mane went on a shopping spree at Hot Topic.

But it stands that a sizeable group of underground rappers are both wearing these influences on their sleeves (literally), and on their music. On “Tommy” by Vancouver-born, rapper Tommy Genesis, the Awful Records signee screams over a drum solo and noisy feedback. Rico Nasty’s ultra-aggressive “Smack A Bitch” off her excellent mixtape Nasty is dripping in metal attitude. Elsewhere, artists like $uicideboy$, Lil Tracy, and the late Lil Peep, are so steeped death metal, metalcore and emo that that they’ve pushed fans from both scenes together, and inspired crossover tours like Code Orange recently bringing along GothBoiClique”-affiliated acts like Ghostemane and Wicca Phase Springs Eternal on tour. And wherever you look, from Travis Scott to Lil Uzi vert, most rap shows closely resemble hardcore shows with moshing fans and artists encouraging stage diving.

Although the beginning of emo rap is highly debatable, they can roughly be traced back to the early 2010’s through the emergence of “cloud rap.” Popularized by artists like Yung Lean, Lil B and A$AP Rocky, and producers like Clams Casino and The Weeknd, cloud rap built lo-fi beats, ethereal synths and dreamy chanting vocal samples into dynamic soundscapes that artists could effortlessly rap over. Lyrics thematically leaned on early 2010 tenets of internet culture and applied ample usage of internet phrases like “swag” and “based.” By the time the genre reached mainstream status, pop artists like and Rihanna and Beyonce had adopted many of its ambient characteristics.

That being said, cloud rap shouldn’t be confused with the SoundCloud rap movement. While cloud rap has definable sounds, SoundCloud rap is more of a movement within rap that emerged from the music streaming site it’s named after. Soundcloud rappers often have a wide range of sounds but are generally lumped together as “mumble rap” which can be characterized by straightforward, sometimes indecipherable lyrics, and unpolished trap beats.

A couple years after the breakthrough of cloud rap in 2013, emo rap emerged through SoundCloud and YouTube as artists such as Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Peep and Trippie Redd and the notoriously controversial XXXTentacion fused the characteristics of cloud rap and trap music together. While this period also coincided with the early 2010s emo revival,—where underground acts such as Modern Baseball, Tiny Moving Parts and Touché Amoré started to bring the style of emo from the early ‘90s back into the spotlight—for this new generation of rappers, lyrical themes that focused heavily on anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues were trademarks of the genre.

Trends such as the emo revival or hardcore music’s adoption of nu-metal show that music is no stranger to the nostalgia effect.

While there still exists a sizeable stigma attached to conversations around mental health, in recent years, awareness has improved alongside great visibility. Historically speaking, hip-hop has not been particularly open to the idea of discussing  mental health problems, yet this new movement within the genre built its entire foundation around digging these topics.

Following the passing of Lil Peep at the tail end of 2017 from an accidental overdose of Xanax and fentanyl, the conversation around mental health and drug abuse in the rap world escalated. More recently, the tragic passing of Mac Miller (who died of a suspected drug overdose) exasperated the discussion, and proved that rap music still has a long way to go before the issue of glamorizing substance abuse is eliminated. While the legacies these rappers left behind have opened the doors for others to discuss their mental health challenges, it’s impossible to negate the the relationship these conversations have to the visibility of emo rappers opting to share their vulnerabilities publicly.

Social media has created a world where nostalgia is encouraged, allowing us to experience things we used to enjoy from a modern perspective to get a better experience than before. Trends such as the emo revival or hardcore music’s adoption of nu-metal show that music is no stranger to the nostalgia effect, but artists today aren’t satisfied with spewing out exact copies of the material that came out before. They’d much rather cross boundaries within genres. Whether rap’s association with metal can be attributed to fashion, nostalgia or simply music fans interest in new and developing sounds, it certainly feels like it’s here to stay.

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