Thursday, March 1, 2012

Vulnerable Rap

There are thousands upon thousands of rap and hip hop songs in existence today. Many consist of anthems about drugs, sex, violence, or love. Often times, rappers try to make themselves look tough or "hard" when singing about these topics, like in "Monster" when Kanye West declares that he is "the best living or dead hands down."

Although rappers often attempt to make themselves seem tough, often times their most memorable songs are born at a moment of vulnerability, because it is different from so many other songs, and it allows their true emotions to be revealed. For instance, Sean Combs (Puff Daddy) sings many songs, "Bad Boy For Life" (a song about drugs and personal bravado), and "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down" (also a song about personal bravado). Despite the popularity of these songs and many others, one of his songs that seems to be slightly more memorable is "I'll Be Missing You" (a shockingly different and emotional song about lost loved ones). In it he says:

"It's kinda hard with you not around
Everyday we pray for you
Till the day we meet again
In my heart is where I'll keep you friend."

In this song Sean Combs becomes emotional speaking not about his own awesomeness, but instead about his loneliness from missing someone who has passed. In singing this song, he lets out his true feelings which the listener can connect to. His vulnerability allows this song to become memorable.

Furthermore, the rapper Earl Simmons (DMX) performs many songs, "Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood" (a song about violence and personal bravado) in which he says, "He in the bag, and I'm over here killing his men." He also sings, "Party Up" (a song about personal bravado and being legendary) in which he says, "Off the chain, I leave niggaz soft in the brain cause niggaz still want the fame, Off the name First of all, you ain't rapped long enough to be f***in' with me." And even despite the widespread popularity of such songs, they often get blended together, allowing arguably his most memorable song to be "Slippin'," in which instead of discussing his own personal bravado, or violence, or even sex, he lays out the amount of difficulty that he is having finding his way in the world. He becomes a vulnerable person, and he brings himself down onto a level consistent with "normal" people. By becoming a regular person, it allows the listeners to relate to what he is going through. According to the author of "The 100 Greatest Hip-Hop/Rap Songs of All Time," "Anybody who is a close friend with me knows that this story mirrors certain aspects of my life." In "Slippin," Earl Simmons says:

"Ay yo I'm slippin' I'm fallin' I can't get up
That ain't the half shit gets worse as I get older
Actions become bolder heart got colder."

In these lines, DMX opens up his heart and displays his true emotions. He does not cover up any feelings with references to how great he is, and in return, this vulnerability is rewarded with a stronger connection to his listeners and a more memorable song.

There are many more examples of emotional songs that are not necessarily the only ones of there kind, but which are still very different from the normal lyric of the rapper. For instance, Jay-Z's song "Glory" written about his child shows an emotional side of himself. Furthermore, Jay-Z allows himself to become vulnerable by saying, "Last time the miscarriage was so tragic," but in doing so only brings himself to a more human level and creates a closer connection between himself and the listeners. Jay-Z's song "Glory" can be listened to here:

Although this vulnerable, emotional, and different style of rap may not be as popular as the violent, sexy, and drug-filled form of rap, it often creates the most memorable songs for those exact reasons.


  1. Jason,

    I think you have an excellent point, and I've never really thought about the facade or front that rappers put up in order to mask what they're truly feeling. I think that emotion is one of the best engines for creativity, which can take multiple forms that involve working towards something (perhaps to distract the artist from emotional distress as they are going through a tough time).

    So even in the violent, sexy, and drug-based rap, I think these topics may all be motives to conceal something else that is going on in that time; or they could just be a way to fill notes on a page. Either way, I agree with you in that the more emotional songs, such as “Glory”, have an advantage in getting through to listeners. However, if a subject goes deep with emotion, some listeners may not be able to relate to it, which is one motive (I think) for keeping some rap songs as light and as superficial as possible (so that they can be applied to a wide variety of audiences).

    I think the greatest emotional outcome of any song comes from the interaction of the listener with the text; that is what gives rap depth: the onus is not all on the emotional level of the song, but rather how the individual’s experience can bring multiple different meanings to a song.

  2. I think you make a really great point here because many hip-hop artists do make their most memorable tracks when they let their guards down and show their vulnerable sides. I think that this is because people do not expect to hear this type of vulnerability in hip-hop, so it catches people's attention and draws them to these songs. I also think that it is easier for artists to appeal to their listeners when they let their guards down in their music. In these vulnerable songs, listeners are able to see the artist’s raw emotions and connect to the artist on a much deeper level. Although it is typical for hip-hop artists to act tough and powerful in their music, I think it is important for them to also show their vulnerable sides so that they can connect to their listeners in a more personal way.


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