If you’re a hip-hop head, a young person, or someone who has logged onto Soundcloud at least once in the past two years, you’ve certainly been exposed to a fair few young rappers with a certain radical means of appearance. They have hair of many shades, are tatted up from ankle to brow bone, and they sport grills that look like Now and Laters, gum drops, and jelly beans. They release Downtempo music reminiscent of trap. Vocally, some of them rap, some of them sing, and some of them even scream. You might have had some trouble telling these men apart since their aesthetics, both musically and visually, seem to blend. You also might have heard these aesthetics being given a name: “Emo Rap,” “mayhem rap,” or “SoundCloud Rap.”
The older generation of hip-hop producers and lovers finds this new generation perplexing at best. Panama Jackson of Very Smart Brothas wrote an article recently about one such rapper. SoundCloud denizen turned superstar 6ix9ine, that summed up the general vibe: “I don’t think [6ix9nine’s music] is particularly good, but it isn’t very different from most of what’s out there right now… his interview [on The Breakfast Club] is proof positive that these young cats need mentors.” In that same interview with The Breakfast Club, Charlamagne the God seemed to be dogging 6ix9nine rather than attempting to understand him, leading 6ix9nine’s manager, Tr3yway, to remark: “Most of the hate is coming from the older folks.” But some younger folks are equally critical. An op-ed in university publication The Daily Cardinal similarly lambasted 6ix9nine, alias Daniel Hernandez, and his kin as being “not only bad musicians, but bad people.”
You may be wondering what to think of all this—whether these rappers are simply hedonistic in their imagery and drug consumption, or whether they’re the equivalents of punk’s Sid Vicious or grunge’s Kurt Cobain for this rap-centered generation.
Let me break it down for you.
The problem with this brood of rappers isn’t their generation at all—it’s the fact that they’re men.
Yes, that is a bold statement. And yes, it’s true that the image of rap—or at least rap that is taken seriously—is male: Jay-Z went as far to describe hip-hop as “a young man’s game”. So it’s even more telling that in this era, when SoundCloud acts as a democratizing tool for indie artists and producers, that it’s overwhelmingly straight men who espouse violence, misogyny, and unabashed drug abuse that are shining through on that platform.
At the risk of sounding like someone’s churchgoing auntie, I know that none of that is new to commercial hip-hop — I grew up with Fat Joe pursuing “ghetto brunettes for unforgettable sex” and “freak in’ all night like we was on E[cstasy]”. And I don’t want to moralize on any of those factors mentioned above. Simply, we live in a society where violence and misogyny are norms, and also a society in which access to prescription drugs (“Xans”) is facilitated by a leviathan pharmaceutical industry. Despite hip-hop’s limitless ability to tackle social issues responsibly — and a litany of “conscious” rappers who can spit bars in circles around these contemporaries — it is still a commercial industry with large sums of money to be made. And for whatever reason, this image of the pill popping, grill sporting, colorful-hair-don’t-care male rapper is one that sells.
And specifically a male rapper in that regard. It’s not 2012 anymore—there’s not just Nicki Minaj, despite what she keeps trying to tell us with this Queen era. Remy Ma walks free. Megan Thee Stallion and Asian Doll have aggressive swaggers and flows that are on par with any ‘hood’ male rapper. Lizzo turns the image of the sterile, sexless fat woman on its head. Doja Cat broke the internet with her bovine missive against methane pollution, “Mooo!” Regional scenes in the US produce queer, trans, and/or non-binary rappers like Big Freedia and Sissy Nobby (New Orleans), Young M.A and Mykki Blanco (New York), Big Momma (Central Florida), and Billy Dean Thomas and Oompa (Boston), and that is not an exhaustive list. Across the pond in the UK, women rappers Stefflon Don and Nadia Rose are so boastful that calling them “women rappers” and not simply “rappers” seems disrespectful. Even Azealia Banks, for all her chaotic energy, is an undoubtedly gifted MC. And the bare truth of the matter is that none of these rappers get the ratings of their male counterparts even with higher production value, sharper lyrics, and (arguably) more effort put into their artistry.
That male mediocrity reigns supreme is not surprising. (I say this as a cis male hip-hop fan — not that that should give me any more credibility.) The twisted factor in all this is that the rappers of the SoundCloud generation are not just allowed to be mediocre, but celebrated, even heralded as doing something revolutionary.
Don’t take my word for it — the music press is clamoring to find the pearl in all this. The New York Times championed the late Florida rapper XXXTentacion for “expressing vulnerability while still lashing out” and called him “the first true rap star to barely bother with rap at all”. Genius also lauded ‘X’ for allegedly helping to open up the conversation about depression in hip-hop, and separately praised the innovation of the so-called “Emo Rap” genre by Lil Peep and Trippie Redd. Elsewhere, Paul Thompson of Complex extolled Lil Pump’s artistry as “agile”, and the rapper himself as an ingenue “yanked from the incubator and formatted to fit your screen”.
I’m not saying any of this is factually incorrect. But I strain to see the innovation. All that’s visible is a double standard. What music writer in history would ever describe a controversial female MC in the same terms as how convicted woman-beater XXXTentacion is described above?
Overall, the end result is a music industry where men with colorful visual aesthetics who act without impunity are deemed “counterculture”, when that is exactly what men have been doing since the gender binary came into existence. As other writers have touched upon: in our current era of #MeToo and the cancellation culture which touches black women more so than anyone else, giving these mediocre men their shine just isn’t going to cut it.
Hip-hop is not a lost cause. My favorite hip-hop track of all time, ‘Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa’ by De La Soul, is a screed against most of what is covered in this article. The protagonist of the song, Millie, is a young party girl in Philadelphia who falls victim to sexual abuse by her guidance counselor father Dylan. ‘Pistol’ takes down exploitation of young women, a culture in which injustices are ignored or excused, and men (in the form of Dylan) who appear to be positive influences while committing horrible acts in secrecy — and this was all in 1991, when hip-hop was only beginning to enter its commercial period. This is a long way away from today’s SoundCloud Rap stylistically, but it offers a promise that is obscured by commercial hip-hop: that hip-hop can be a powerful vehicle for social change and addressing social ills that are culturally contextual to its target black and brown communities.
Though these Technicolor men — in being marketed to young adults and, increasingly, youth—are seemingly immortal now, they may not be here to stay. I find a glimmer of hope in this situation from an unlikely source — a young woman who allegedly raps, the ubiquitous Danielle Bregoli, aka Bhad Bhabie. In a recent interview, the 16-year-old ingenue had this to say about her recent high-profile digital drama with Trippie Redd, 6ix9ine, and the late XXXTentacion:
“Let me tell you something: I don’t have time for these dudes. I’m over it. I’m over all their shit; they’re fucking weird. They’re fucking drug addicts, they’re psych*tic, they’re controlling. The fuck I look like? Bitch, I got a career to take care of.”
So here’s where we are with commercial rap in 2018: Danielle “There’s No Show Unless There’s Hoes” Bregoli, is the bellwether of progress who will lead us to the feminist revolution. Hold onto your knickers, girl —whatever comes next is sure to be even more bizarrely entertaining than hair dye and stick-and-poke.
Hassan Ghanny is a writer, performer, and music journalist based in Boston, MA. He is a regular writer for Boston Hassle. His writing focuses on the intersections of media, culture, and identity, with an intention to uplift people of color and people in diasporas. He is the author of SCORCHED RICE: Manifestos on Caribbean Diaspora Liberation.