Above: Kanye West and Kid Cudi perform at SXSW in 2009.
For the past 10 months, I’ve been helping Pandora’s hip-hop programmer, J Boogie, curate new music. Consequently, I’ve had to keep tabs on the latest generation of artists trending on platforms like SoundCloud. As someone who grew up listening to the hyper-masculine hip-hop of the late 1990s and early 2000s, I’m struck by how often I hear today’s rappers speaking openly about their vulnerabilities: loneliness, heartbreak, anxiety, drug abuse.
With hip-hop still the reigning king of mainstream music, these introspective lyrics are working their way into the genre’s latest hits. The most recent example may be “All Girls Are the Same,” by 19-year-old rapper Juice WLRD, a lovelorn track that tackles rejection, alcohol abuse and disaffection with surprising candor. Just a few weeks ago, the song landed WLRD a multi-million dollar deal with Interscope Records (labels, too, are beginning to recognize these artists’ appeal — and their emotional resonance — with younger listeners).
This new class of hip-hop heroes is taking a markedly different approach to lyricism than the icons of decades past. But as far back as 10 years ago, there were hints that realness and sensitivity were beginning to elbow their way past guns, girls and money to become the genre’s subjects du jour. I’ve been able to identify three significant moments from the past decade that hinted at this change in direction.
The first (and most widely cited) artist to set the stage was Kanye West with his 2008 album 808s and Heartbreak. A dramatic contrast to West’s previous work, the album created a schism between those who loved and hated the project. Regardless of your opinion, however, West deserves credit for being one of the first mainstream rappers to unapologetically package together auto-tuned vocals, minimalist production, distortion and emotional lyrical content. Record executives tried to shelve West’s early rap career and relegate him to production work because they thought it risky to invest in a rapper who didn’t fit the streetwise hustler mould. So when West finally earned enough clout to call his creative shots, he created an album that was uniquely inspired and totally his own. Rappers like Lil Uzi Vert, who was 14 at the time, frequently cite this project as a favorite.
Where West blazed a trail for introspective hip-hop, Lil Wayne helped redefine the genre’s relationship with drugs. During the apex of Wayne’s career in 2007, the song “I Feel Like Dying,” which discusses his drug addiction (to Xanax in particular), leaked to the internet. The rap ballad recounts his high highs and deadly lows with a haunting hook: “Only once the drugs are done do I feel like dying.” The song was not only impactful for delving into the true psyche of the era’s biggest rap star, but also for demonstrating that lyrics about doing drugs are often more relatable to listeners than those about selling them. A Rap Genius study analyzing hip-hop lyrics found that references to pharmaceutical drugs like Xanax began to increase the same year “I Feel Like Dying” came out. An unfortunate side-effect of this phenomenon: a new generation of users and a continued cycle of prescription drug abuse, mentioned in contemporary songs like “Betrayed” by Lil Xan.
A third artist who would leave his mark on hip-hop’s sound is Kid Cudi, with his melodic rap style and open discussion of his own mental health issues. From night terrors to depression, Cudi’s lyrical content surfaced his inner struggles and told hip-hop listeners that it was okay to be different or an outsider. Additionally, many of today’s younger hip-hop artists end up singing more than rapping, a hallmark of Kid Cudi’s delivery and something he does with finesse. A song like “Man on the Moon (The Anthem),” which came out in 2008, is a sort of blueprint for hip-hop songs today: a guitar-based sample, atmospheric synths, minimal drums and melodic, introspective lyrics.
These three artists undoubtedly moved the needle in hip-hop, but so too has the internet. The barriers to making music are lower than ever, and hip-hop styles are no longer rigidly defined by geographic location. Artists no longer need a record deal or a conceptual masterpiece to own the cultural moment, a significant departure from the longer, slower road to stardom traveled by West, Wayne and Cudi.
Whether or not you enjoy the current state of hip-hop, it’s worth stepping back and appreciating how today’s young artists have taken an ethos that inspired them and made it their own. Ultimately, this new generation is writing its own chapter in music history, one that may very well leave a lasting impression on rappers 10 years on.