Overheard in the backseat of my car last month:
“JEFFERY is the hardest shit in existence, man — Young Thug makes 21 Savage look like a five year-old.”
“What? Dude, he’s wearing a wedding dress on the cover.”
“That’s the thing — he’s so unafraid of not being seen as hard, it wraps back around and makes him hard as fuck.”
Rap music, since its inception, has pushed forth masculinity and braggadocio as defining attributes of an artist’s authenticity. The past decades have mandated that establishing oneself among other aspiring artists requires a portfolio of dominance — comprised usually of being the least afraid to die, disregarding the most females, and acquiring the most currency. Entire discographies revolve around hedonism and self-indulgence; rappers name themselves after guns and base their image on violent crime, all to make sure everyone around them is aware that they are “hard”.
And all the above begs the question: with one of the biggest rappers in the game cross-dressing on his album cover and countless pop/trap hybrids receiving widespread acclaim across the board, does being “hard” even matter in 2016?
Through the ‘90s and 2000s, mainstream hip-hop teemed with felonious activity — a celebration of extravagance and short, luxurious lives. Lyrics rife with homophobia and misogyny, demeaning those who did not fill the roles hip-hop expected, resulted in a landscape unwelcome to those attempting to work against the grain.
Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s iconic, conscious rap was still rooted in conventional hip-hop boastfulness. Eminem’s comedic, self-hating debut broke ground for new blood that veered away from hip-hop’s traditional subject matter — but was still about murder, about how he didn’t “give a fuck.” Despite how diverse the genre grew through the ‘90s and early ‘00s, the airwaves were still wrought with the gunshots and sirens gangster rap had long before established.
In 2004, however, a young (yet already lauded) producer on Roc-A-Fella Records released his debut album as a rapper. With high-pitched R&B samples and gospel choirs, heartfelt personal anecdotes, and a teddy bear mascot, Kanye West released The College Dropout.
In an era where rappers based their image off their chain size and teardrop tattoos, Dropout fell into another camp entirely. Kanye pushed forth the image of a “regular person” in place of the apex, predator-esque character most upcoming rappers wished to encompass. The material steered clear of violence and homicide; instead, it focused on self-consciousness, sexuality, and feelings of inadequacy — something that, in contrast to so many records before it, previously had no place in hip-hop.
Dropout paved the way for future efforts to remove the previously established tenants of rap music. Lupe Fiasco’s triple-entendre-riddled nerd rap scaled the charts by targeting students and the socially conscious. Kid Cudi’s reserved, synth-heavy hip-hop appealed to the introverted suburban stoner — and many others, evidently. And this new generation of “soft” rappers was huge, selling out stadiums to an audience that gangster rap had never known.
Pushing The Envelope
The College Dropout was certainly not the first to abandon the standards of mainstream hip-hop, but it was definitely a leader in catapulting an unorthodox sound to the top of the charts. Through albums of the same ilk, a shift towards social progressivism, and the Internet, alternative sounds became the face of hip-hop. A$AP Rocky’s “pretty,” fashion-minded persona captured a young, female-inclusive audience, as did Childish Gambino’s Tumblr chick-directed, meme-riddled rap music.
Clearly, by the time Chance the Rapper was whining to college girls and Danny Brown was rocking straightened hair, the shift in sounds and image from the hardcore gangster era was complete.
Hip-hop was no longer dominated by the image that artists like NWA and 50 Cent propagated. The importance of being “hard” had largely diminished.
Through 2012 and 2013, Drake and Nicki Minaj continued their reigns as the biggest — and least abrasive — rappers on the charts. Kendrick Lamar’s bombastic hardcore hip-hop gave a nod to gangster rap, while addressing the toxic and shallow pitfalls associated with the genre. Countless other artists forged new paths, not adhering to a single, genre-defining sound.
Yet the following years raised the bar even higher — from the aggressive, poverty-stricken depths of trap music, a surge of upbeat and colorful new blood emerged.
Seemingly all at once, 2015 and 2016 ushered in a handful of artists with a flagrant disregard for hip-hop image standards. Lil Yachty’s Lil Boat mixtape collected a cult following for the sailor-themed, mumbling 18-year-old sporting colored dreads — the same 18 year old who topped the charts in a collaboration with the overwhelmingly positive D.R.A.M. in “Broccoli.” Similarly, D.R.A.M., having garnered a considerable fanbase for tracks like “Cha Cha” and “Cute” proves every bit as delicate as the archetypical hip-hop persona is calloused, yet receives airplay equal to Gucci Mane or Juicy J.
Yet what really cements 2016 as the year hip-hop changed is Young Thug’s most audacious contribution to the genre today – his mixtape, JEFFERY, the most recent installment of the eccentric pop-trap style for which the rapper is known. JEFFERY, which features album art of Young Thug wearing a wedding dress, received critical acclaim, as well as a long, consistent stint of radio play. For an artist so unconcerned with upholding traditionally masculine identity to be so universally celebrated is a remarkable landmark in hip-hop history.
Twenty years ago, there was no way Thugger could get away with saying ‘there is no such thing as gender’ without being demonized and discarded as a serious rap artist. Twenty years ago, DMX could bark ‘I show no love/to homo thugs’ and go platinum. Twenty years ago, hip-hop was about aggressiveness and detachment.
Today, it’s about showing just how much you care.
What was once called being “hard” has, to an extent, become replaced by the desire to be “real” and sensitive, to express vulnerability and openness. Contrasting the cold and unsympathetic displays of hostility with modern-day barefaced positivity speaks volumes about how hip-hop has evolved, and how it’s grown into the deep and diverse genre of music it is today.
My friend unplugs my phone and plugs in his.
“Thugger! I roll me one, smoke to the face!” rings out from the car stereo.
“Honestly, that does make him sound hella hard. I’m pretty sure you’d never catch 21 Savage in a dress.”
“That’s ’cause he’s afraid, man. Young Thug isn’t afraid of anything.”
Words by Adil Siddiqee.
Artwork by Conner Smith.