Lil Nas X (real name, Montero Lamar Hill) recently released his provocative music video for his new track, “Industry Baby”, and was instantly lambasted on social media for his overtly sexual content. The 22-year-old artist who infuses pop, hip-hop and country to create his own distinguished sound, facetiously defended his shows of femininity. His responses must be praised not only for its realness but his awareness of what his art and presence signify as a queer musician in the industry today. As queer artists especially those of colour produce heartfelt and unapologetically vulnerable tracks in the hip-hop arena, we are witnessing a reinvention of the standards for this genre.
A nouvelle vague of artists that tackle sexual orientation, intimacy, mental health, cultural representation and issues affecting their community is responsible for creating a more open and inclusive space within hip-hop’s historically machismo landscape. Some have labelled this aperture as hip-hop going ‘soft’ but at its core, the artform is returning to its 1970’s Bronx roots of authenticity and truthful storytelling of the human condition. The hip-hop artist by today’s standards and for the future will not be categorically defined by antiquated expectations of street bravado and donning a ‘hard mask’. In fact, this is the time where we see, as musician Future eloquently puts it, the “Mask Off”. As a lover of the art form, witnessing its odyssey into a more open field where young men and women of colour, representing the LGBTQIA community can become chart-toppers and Grammy winners is both a cultural and personal feat.
Growing up in the Caribbean, hip-hop was always considered the successor of Reggae, Jamaican Ska, Rock steady and Soca. The African ‘Burru’ beats, the emceeing and the braggadocious performances originated in Jamaican urban development parks and countryside fetes. These vibes were then transported to New York with the 70’s immigration waves with DJ nights becoming a cultural staple in New York’s South Bronx. From the onset, Jamaican born DJ Kool Herc, one of the founding fathers of hip-hop with his ‘Back to School Jam’ on Sedgwick Avenue, says that hip-hop is “Come and meet me as who I am. To me, hip-hop says:
“Come as you are. It ain’t about security. It ain’t about bling bling. It ain’t about how much your gun can shoot. It ain’t about $200 sneakers. It is not about me being better than you or you being better than me. It’s about you and me, connecting one to one. That’s why it has universal appeal.”
Artists like Le1f, Big Freeda, Frank Ocean, iLoveMakonnen, Cakes Da Killa, James Indigo, Tyler The Creator, Kid Cudi, Kevin Abstract, Earl Sweatshirt and so many more are pioneering this bold shift. No topic seems to be off-limit and no artistic decision seems to be curtailed. Encouraging listeners to not just experience harsh, sometimes unrelatable realities but portraying similar journeys so that every aficionado can see themselves represented in one facet of a larger story.
While hip-hop originated with both a socio-cultural and political function in delineating the conditions of the street, African American communities and national injustices of black and brown people; it has become a global cultural export. Penetrating even Middle Eastern and Eastern-European music industries (who can forget Putin’s crackdown on Rap?), the range of explored themes will be vastly broadened to encapsulate war, sexuality, political repression, idiosyncratic cultural movements and critiques of certain countries. Once again, DJ Kool Herc prophetically articulated, ‘Hip-Hop binds all of these people, all of these nationalities, all over the world together’ so restricting artists to wax poetic JUST on the trials of poverty, systemic racism, street life, police brutality and generational curses is limiting the growth of the art form. These topics are undeniably worthy of profound conversations, but they must not be done in insolation to other relevant intimate topics.
A One-Dimensional Vulnerability
It is reductive to say that hip-hop has NEVER exposed fans to any kind of vulnerability from its artists. In the early 90s, 2000s and even late 2010s, artists did explore emotional abuse, grief, familial loss and disappointment in a way that resonated with listeners to this day. The sentimentality, nonetheless, was always framed within the parameters of ‘Thug Life’, often delivered with a stoic disposition, nonchalant tones and redemptive conclusions. This is exemplified in the works of artists of the likes of Tupac Shakur, Ice Cube, Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z and Eminem.
These prolific Gangsta Rappers always strategically framed their emotions to be impenetrable to public criticism of being ‘too soft on the record’. Their lyrical emotional expressions were seen as a brief respite, monetary glimpses into their glamourous, badass lives. Ice Cube’s 1990 track, “Dead Homiez”, consumes listeners with its paralysing imagery of Ice Cube witnessing friends being killed, grief infecting his family and wider community. However, his cold delivery is symbolic of the third-person narrative style where he is relaying the story but never positioning himself to feel on the track.
There is a disconnect where he does not express the personal loss or fear, which perpetuates the desensitisation with which most hip-hop artists had to confront. Even with DMX’s 1998 “Slippin”, where he reveals personal struggles with drug addiction, he does not let the song revel in his ‘weakness’ but concludes with a courageous return, reasserting his dominance in the rap game and in his life. Nas’ “The Dance”, investigates the relationship he has with his mother however he treads a thin line when it comes to how much he exposes.
We draw similarities with Tupac’s “Dear Mama” and even Dr Dre’s “The Message” where we are confronted with a curated exhibition of their personal lives that are still deemed acceptable according to the street. Rage and glamourous euphoria seemed to be the only acceptable feelings for one to explore deeply throughout their records. Sadness, vulnerability and disappointment were perhaps considered emblems of weakness and unfortunately, still are today. They gave us no reason to question their hyper-masculine image, sexuality and ‘street cred’.
Today, artists are producing tracks that do not merely feature melancholia but these sentiments define their tracks. Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” features tracks that not only inspire nostalgia like “Ivy” but begins and concludes with apathy and pitiful acceptance. There is no far-reaching attempt to spin realities where he is not hurt or emotionally drained. “Solo”, “White Ferrari”, “Siegfried,” all tell us the harsh truth that relationships are infinitely complicated and allow us to see parts of ourselves that take time to heal and recover. And that … is completely alright.
Kendrick Lamar’s “U” pulls no punches as he battles the aftermath of mistakes, confronting regrets and insecurities as a rising star in the game. “U” is thematically explosive with Lamar unabashedly expressing his suicidal tendencies, depression but the tenderness and sensitivity is intact with this track. Lamar does not try to recover any kind of persona but allows himself and his fans to feel the despair he endured.
Of course, music regardless of the genre should uplift and inspire, so the 90s and early 2000s rappers created tracks that articulated a struggle and became representative of those who overcame. But overcoming is just one thread in the variegated fabric of the human condition. The other threads of melancholia, insecurity and personal hell also deserve to be explored thoroughly and this is what we are currently seeing.
The Nouvelle Vague
Presently, we see hip-hop artists refusing to curtail their thematic scope branching out into mental health, queerness and exploring generational and community curses. There is an intentional self-interrogation through confessional and emotionally wrought tracks. In “Junky”, Brockhampton’s Kevin Abstract examines his turbulent path coming to terms with his sexuality, homophobia within the African American community, its impact on his relationships and even demonstrates his own self-awareness of what he represents in the industry, an anomaly.
Steve Lacey’s Apollo XXI is rife with tracks that document the countless struggles he encountered in accepting his bisexuality. He even admits to the Times that this higher degree of self-understanding allowed him to become more musically liberated and authentic with his lyricism. We see a similar undertaking by Skype Williams with his “Sorry I’m Late” debut where he also unabashedly embraces his romances.
Moreover, global recognition of the importance of mental health has been reflected in the creative process and music across all genres. Tackling depression and anxiety, Billie Eilish’s Don’t Smile At Me and When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? intensified a conversation about mental illness within pop music. However, artists like Kid Cudi have been upfront about his struggles even at the beginning of his career with his 2008 mixtape A Kid named Cudi. His recent release, Man on the Moon II I – The Chosen, features tracks like “Damaged” and “The Void” where he cites his anxiety and depression, invoking a larger sense of constant confusion in his career and perhaps personal life that many fans can relate to especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Cudi sings, “I will fall in the void, fall in the void just to avoid / Anything that can bring me down or f*ck with my flow” giving us insight into his escapism to battle the complexities of stardom and self-esteem within this ambivalent phase of his life.
Surprisingly, this tide has also touched giants in the game like Jay-Z who has also produced confessional anomalies like his 2017 critically acclaimed 4:44. It was cited as an album for his die-hard fans where he stripped bare revealing his spiritous infidelity, generational trauma, his mother’s coming out and vision for the success of his community within America. Rhymes that would have killed careers 20 years ago are now allowing artists to appeal to new audiences and build a die-hard fan base because they have the courage to vocalise what some have always kept concealed.
Naturally, these unapologetic shows of intimacy and vulnerability are confronted with resentment, and full-blown ignorance at times. It seems that hip-hop culture accepts women who are vocal about their sexuality and even praises lesbian relationships. NWA and the Beastie Boys peppered their tracks with paralysing homophobic slurs and insults and 50 cent even once said it was ‘cool’ for women to like women but not for men. When queer women in the industry like Janelle Monae, Young MA, Kehlani create art expressing their sexuality, they are not scrutinised or rejected as harshly.
Admittedly, these shows of support also align with the narrative that same-sex relations amongst women appease the male gaze and are therefore acknowledged and desired. But when men, especially those of colour express vulnerability, even adopt conventionally effeminate traits or try to step out of the mould proponents of hip-hop have carved out for them, they are lambasted. Lil Nas X articulates this phenomenon as society viewing femininity as weakness. He tweeted in response to the backlash his “Industry Baby” video received, ‘You don’t like gay black men because you are afraid of black men being viewed as weak.’
It is also more common for hip-hop fans to respond positively to a Caucasian man coming out as bisexual or homosexual than a man of colour. Karnage Kills, a UK rapper, admitted in an interview with Emily Phillips (Bricks Magazine) that if he was a ‘white boy from Norwich’ coming out as gay, he would receive significantly better reception. This treatment is symptomatic of how hip-hop culture has defined black masculinity to the extent that it performs a punitive role when black artists try to broaden the scope. According to Impose magazine, Eminem, a technically prolific lyricist, has been able to produce deeply heartfelt tracks like “Mockingbird” and “Hailie’s Song” without the degree of concern with which his counterparts of colour would be plagued. His whiteness shields him from the professionally deleterious label of ‘being soft’ in the game.
‘Come as you are’
Just as hip-hop artists layer their tracks with harmonies and melodies, we are seeing them layer their personas with more depth and intimacy. Bry’Nt, an early 2000s rapper underscores the hierarchy in hip-hop in an interview with Complex’s Kamerson Mack. He cites the archetype of a ‘Hip Hop Artist’ is a heterosexual black man and any deviation from that will be highlighted. For example, a Caucasian rapper will be titled a ‘White rapper’ and a woman in the industry would be labelled a ‘Female rapper’, but the straight black man remains the default. However, it is expected that this may become a relic as more artists reveal the different sides to their personality and engage with artistic nuance more often instead of becoming a cliched gimmick.
The unspoken ‘pillars’ of hip-hop manifested through the homophobia and misogyny, but the hypermasculinity may be toppled as we see artists receive severe backlash for perpetuating these discriminatory legacies. US rapper DaBaby was dropped by Boohoo Man, Lollapalooza and other major brands and festivals after he made inaccurate and homophobic comments about HIV/Aids and the LGBTQIA community.
What may have been the benchmark in the past has become the taboo now, which signals progress in what hip-hop artists want to stand for. It seems that hip-hop much like the environment it is inspired from is at a crossroads where it must decide what it symbolises for the culture and for the proponents of the culture. Much like finding the right mix, right hook and timeless beat, artists and aficionados must find the messages with which they want to advance. These messages turn into movements with the right intentions and support.
Apart from reimagining the caricature of the hip-hop artist, we hope to also experience artists venture into even more novel themes for musical exploration. Vulnerability is universal but paradoxically extremely subjective and having artists reflect those struggles in the studio is the purest form of art. Nina Simone once said that an artists’ job is to reflect the times and we can expect hip-hop to not only reflect the socio-cultural and political times, but the individual trials generations endure. Storytelling itself will then emerge to be more nuanced, profound and diverse as we go forward. We hope to enjoy innovative flows that dare to be even barer, bolder and brazier.