Oliver talks to Pat Macdonald about emo rap. Macdonald’s essay “Emo Rap: A Eulogy” appeared in the March 3rd issue of the Nassau Weekly.
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On November 15, 2017, Gustav Elijah Åhr, known professionally as Lil Peep, died from a Fentanyl overdose. Seven months later, Jahseh Onfroy, known as XXXTentacion, was killed in an attempted armed robbery. Fanbases mourned, posthumous albums were released and forgotten about, and the blossoming post-punk subculture of emo rap withered.
When XXXTentacion died, I was working at an overnight summer camp on Crescent Lake in rural Maine—about as far from Broward County as it gets. Rumors had been circulating (campers aren’t allowed to have their phones) that “X died.” One of the 12-year-old campers in my cabin refused to go to sleep until I gave him a definitive answer. Not realizing that this news might be emotionally consequential for him, I told the truth: “Yes, he’s dead after all.”
I turned off the single light bulb in the cabin. The cabin was completely dark and silent. I lay in bed for a few minutes, then began reading The Phantom Tollbooth aloud, picking up where we’d left off the night before. Before I’d finished the first page, I heard heavy breathing in the dark, then whimpering, then sobbing muffled by a pillow. I stopped reading, walked over to the source of the sounds, and asked bleary-eyed Jason to talk with me outside on the porch.
Jason was a conventional tough guy. He was the center of his friend group, universally admired by other campers. Given his social effortlessness and renowned athleticism, I was caught off guard by this emotional outburst. It was kind of unsettling to see him show any kind of vulnerability in front of the other members of the cabin, who snickered as we walked out to the porch.
“He didn’t deserve to die,” Jason said through choked sobs. He just looked down at his feet, no longer donning his unshakeable daytime cool-guy persona, and said, “Jahseh didn’t deserve to die.”
This was my first glimpse of the pervasive influence of emo rap. Jason was part of our camp’s Main Idea program, which gives underprivileged boys in Maine the opportunity to spend a week at camp for free. I figured that there might be more to his story than the invulnerable-invincible-emotionless-effortless image he tried to project. On the one hand, of course, Jason’s breakdown in mourning the 18-year-old superstar demonstrates the strong vicarious connection he felt with XXXTentacion. But perhaps more importantly, I think it reflects the exact sort of sensitivity and vulnerability that X’s music unambiguously endorsed.
So began my fascination with “emo rap.” Of course, I’d listened to XXXTentacion and (more so) Lil Peep before, along with artists like Trippie Redd, Lil Uzi Vert, Juice WRLD, and Kid Cudi, who have all released albums that fit loosely under the emo rap umbrella; i.e., they’ve all released albums which incorporate elements and/or themes of moody/melodramatic post-punk with traditional hip-hop drum beats and/or verses (a skeptic might describe it as deflated pop-punk over trap beats—but I really think there’s more to it). But it wasn’t until I watched Jason uncharacteristically break down in a fit of sobbing in front of his judgmental friends that I began to think about the new wave of emo rap music as a movement of actual social importance.
With the deaths of its rockstars, truly “emo” rap has waned from the forefront of the average hip-hop listener’s playlists, left tenuously in the unsteady hands of up-and-comers like Yung Lean. While the names I mentioned in the previous paragraph are all still alive and making music, each has plotted a markedly un-emo path in their most recent releases: Trippie Redd dropped A Love Letter To You 3, which is a compilation of feel-good love anthems; Juice WRLD dropped The WRLD On Drugs, a poppy trap collaboration with Future; and, of course, Lil Uzi Vert dropped out of music altogether. With the passing of Lil Peep and X, the leaderless emo squadron has scattered and found shelter among its more numerous and altogether less compelling counterparts in frivolous pop rap.
Kid Cudi, on the other hand, has lyrically stuck the emo rap formula (his latest material, with Kanye West as KIDS SEE GHOSTS, focused lyrically on the quest for inner peace); that said, unlike that of Lil Peep and XXXTentacion, Cudi’s music itself rarely draws from emo or punk influences, putting faith instead in his time-tested pop-rap formula. But his lyrical melodrama and (usually) positive messaging may help to contextualize the purpose of the phenomenon of emo rap: Ever since his debut EP A Kid Named Cudi (2008), Cudi has been a vocal proponent of intentionality in rap lyrics, as he counsels that other rappers consider the impact of their messaging. He said in an interview, “I think the braggadocio, money, cash, hoes thing needs to be deaded…It doesn’t advance us in any way.” In this way, Kid Cudi tries to use rap music as a vehicle for social progress. “We’ve been doing that theme for what, 4 decades now?…Why not use your power for good, why not tell the kids something they can use in their lives?” While to some, Cudi might come off as sententious and condescending, his argument is definitely relevant to the new wave of “conscious” hip-hop. This concept of artistic responsibility is neither new nor uncontroversial—in fact, it’s as old as art itself. But in the context of this eulogy, it may at least help us to navigate the intention and appeal of rap’s brief but prolific emo phase.
XXXTentacion is an especially interesting case study because his music is essentially split into two emotional halves: anger and depression, each specifically in the context of teenage angst. As cringe-worthy as “teenage angst” might sound, its associated feelings are real and powerful—that’s what XXXTentacion (never afraid of coming off as melodramatic or cringe-worthy) sought to seize upon.
The angry half of XXXTentacion was mostly expressed through aggressive punk-rock screams (e.g. “Floor 555”) and incendiary lyrics (e.g. one of his songs just goes “Fuck that shit / fuck that shit / fuck that shit,” while another goes “Fucked up / fucked up / fucked up”) This kind of music basically boils down to an aimless, intoxicating revolt against nothing in particular. While not as complex as his sadboi material, X’s angry fuck-you-type songs like “Look At Me” feel as cathartic as punching through a cement wall.
The depressing/depression side of XXXTentacion is more relevant to this eulogy. He addresses depression in his own life in the vaguest possible terms (e.g. “Every single year I’m drowning in my tears,” “I’ve been feeling lost / ducking all attachments,” and simply “I been feeling pain”) to make his message broadly applicable to the varied life experiences of his fanbase. The first “track” (really just a spoken-word introduction) on his album 17 awkwardly explains what X was trying to do with his music: “A collection of thoughts, situations, and real-life nightmares I’ve lived…Here is my pain and thoughts put into words. I have put my all into this, in hopes that it will help cure, or at least numb your depression.” Clearly XXXTentacion was being melodramatic in marketing himself as nothing short of a cure for depression, which makes about as much sense as 2 Chainz marketing himself as a heat stroke remedy because his “wrists so cold.” I think the idea of “numbing” listeners’ depression misses the mark, too. For any listener, depressed or not, I think X’s music does the exact opposite of numbing; instead, it concentrates emotions that are usually spread thinly across the mind into one potent, palpable pocket of emotion. To twist the analogy of “bottling up” these negative emotions, X’s music shakes the bottle until it bursts. Far from a sedative, XXXTentacion’s music brings the listener’s difficult life experiences to the vivid forefront of their thoughts so that aching feelings can be dealt with before they’re permanently repressed.
On the other hand, Lil Peep’s melodic, droney, lo-fi, synthesizer-heavy style could be more persuasively compared to a sedative, showering the listener with cathartic bass and reverb. While high-horsed music savants may critique Lil Peep’s music for lacking structure and variety, there’s no denying that listening to his best work feels like standing under some kind of glorious, restorative waterfall. It surrounds the listener in a way that’s as relentlessly soothing as a narcotic.
In a perverse way, Fentanyl overdose was a fitting tragedy to mark the end of Lil Peep as a man and as a symbol of modern emo-ism. Perhaps the only way for Lil Peep to engage more deeply with his woozy, narcotic style of emo rap was to dive headfirst into the feeling itself and never look back.
Unlike XXXTentacion, Lil Peep lived the emo lifestyle: the influence of goth culture was obvious in the way he dressed, his tattoos, his lyrics, and the people he hung around (“Gothboiclique”). While XXXTentacion was a depressed rapper who wanted to tell his listeners to feel better by drawing upon emo themes in his lyrics, Lil Peep was a bona fide emo icon who wanted to make his listeners physically feel better through blurry neuroleptic bangers. Whether the purpose of emo rap is to make the listener think or feel, I can only speak from experience: for me, while X’s music often feels like the advice of an arrogant older brother, Lil Peep’s music really gets in the bloodstream and feels no need to explain itself. Some might call his lyrics “simplistic,” but I’d instead argue that they’re “un-distracting,” which is all they need to be. I think Lil Peep would argue that that’s the difference between emo culture and intellectual nihilism: Emo is something thoughtless, something you just have to feel.
With his recent posthumous release, Come Over When You’re Sober, Part 2, Lil Peep combined more intentional lyrics (with an effect similar to that of XXXTentacion) with even more potently sedative instrumental backings. The genre’s strongest lyrical and sonic elements merge synergistically: in short, it represents the apex of emo rap. Lil Peep’s ghostly vocals float drowsily over maximalist emo-trap beats without drowning in them; his lyrics manage to be overtly emotional without sounding corny. COWYS Pt. 2 is emo rap’s swansong, leaving us with a taste of what might have been: the soaring emotional heights to which rap, the most notoriously heartless genre, almost rose.
As we put to rest this controversial subgenre, I think we should all let go of our intellectual pretensions and admit to ourselves that emo rap was a positive force in the universe. I hope it rests unpeacefully and screams itself back to life.