Rap Music Is Having An Emo Moment

Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty, following their emo godfathers Drake and Kanye, are reinventing the genre.

By Elijah Watson Dec 30, 2016
(Photo by Brad Barket/Getty images)
(Photo by Brad Barket/Getty images)

Every year, a new crop of rappers comes along that represents a change in the landscape of the genre, and 2016 was no different. But this year seemed more divisive—with older rap artists and fans holding today’s young MCs to a standard that they didn’t ask for (or necessarily care about in the first place).

The first devil-may-care rappers that come to mind? Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty. As poster boys of the current moment in rap music, Uzi and Yachty were expected to meet certain rap benchmarks—such as freestyling—and were criticized when they were perceived as coming up short. Both had the opportunity to spit some bars during respective appearances on Hot 97. Uzi was tasked with rapping over a DJ Premier beat, which he refused, choosing Kanye West’s “Robocop” instead. Yachty was given Outkast’s “Jazzy Belle.”

These moments followed both throughout the year, with everybody from Anderson .Paak and Ab-Soul to Pete Rock and Shia LaBeouf weighing in on their freestyles. But the truth of the matter is that Uzi, Yachty and many other contemporary rappers aren’t concerned with “old” rap standards; they’re defining the genre and their craft on their own terms.

In this way, rap music feels like it’s hitting its rebellious adolescent phase—and the cosmic rise of rappers like Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty feels weirdly similar to the emergence of emo music in the early 2000s. Like today’s misunderstood rappers, emo bands have been criticized not only for stylistic deviations within their genre, but also for their aesthetic choices. The flamboyant fashion that’s associated with the emo subgenre (think: skinny jeans, studded belts, and colorful hairstyles) marked a drastic departure from the last rock music movement that went mainstream: grunge.

Criticism was inevitable—and the confessional, weepy nature of emo songs, and the subtle ways in which emo bands challenged ideas of masculinity, were easy targets. Still, emo music managed to become the rallying cry of teenagers, who were just beginning to explore their tastes. (Hot Topic has emo music to thank, probably, for much of its commercial success.)

Today, rap music serves a similar purpose for young people—at least the kind with tell-all lyrics and ultra-catchy, singable hooks. Being in your feelings used to be cause for ridicule. Now, it’s cool. And sure, Kanye West, Kid Cudi, and Drake are the godfathers of this subgenre—daring to rap (or croon, or hum, or sing) about their regrets and their heartbreak. But the baton has been passed on, and today, young rappers are continuing to play with and push the genre’s boundaries, stylistically and lyrically.

Part of this is a generational gap: Both Uzi and Yachty have said in interviews that they’re influenced by rappers and rock bands alike—including, yes, emo bands.

“Many of Lil Uzi Vert’s vocal ideas are influenced by a youth absorbing hard rock and emo bands like Paramore, Flyleaf and My Chemical Romance,” Vert said of himself in an interview with Rolling Stone. (There’s even a video of him singing along to Paramore’s “Ain’t It Fun.”)

Vert’s emo sensibilities are apparent throughout his catalogue, especially in “Money Longer” and “Stole Your Luv.” Both songs are all about the hook, and the ways in which the words themselves become melodies. In “Stole Your Luv,” the breakup confessional dedicated to his longtime girlfriend Brittany Byrd, Vert sing-raps:

“Now she want to go because I’m on a roll […] Look at your face boy / I know you’re sad, yeah / You want her back, huh / You want her back, yeah / Can’t get her back, yeah […] She done with you like a fad, yeah.” These lines could have easily appeared on a song from a Decaydance Records sampler, sandwiched between nasal-y tracks by Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco.

What’s more, Uzi and Yachty have also caught a lot of grief for their style choices: like the time Uzi freestyled for XXL while wearing a purse. Some raps fans don’t know what to make of his ever-changing hair color (which has been blonde, blue, green, purple and red) or Yachty’s cherry red braids. That hasn’t stopped either of them. And like the sideswept bangs of emo’s heyday, the rappers’ colorful hairstyles have also inspired a number of memes and tutorials.

Maybe, above all, Vert and Yachty are considered polarizing within the rap world because of their feet-dragging when it comes time to pay homage to the guardians of rap music. In August, Yachty said he couldn’t name five tracks from either Biggie or Tupac. Afterwards, the rapper further stirred the pot, declaring that Drake was better than both.

“In where in the handbook of hip hop does it say you must know this list of songs to make music,” Yachty tweeted following the controversy. He has a point. To expect young artists to be scholars of their respective genre, or to question their credibility based on their influences, is an exercise in railing against inevitable. With each new wave of artists comes fresh takes on age-old ideas. Yachty has the right to think that Drake is better than Biggie and Tupac, and it is unfair to criticize him citing some nonexistent set of rap commandments.

Rap is still young (the genre began in the 1970s in New York), and its emo phase is just one of the many iterations it will go through in the years and decades to come.

Vert and Yachty aren’t the first rappers to play with melody and delivery, either. Consider Young Thug (if Drake and Kid Cudi tested the waters of emo rap, Young Thug sailed them). Following his 1017 Thug mixtape, the Atlanta rapper was everywhere, with songs like “Danny Glover,” “Stoner,” and “Lifestyle” helping him become rap’s next big thing. And yet, he still faced criticism for his vocals (half-rapped, half-sung hooks that came in the form of howls, mumbles, wheezes and yelps) and again, his appearance. Whether he was wearing tight jeans, dresses, or skirts, Thug couldn’t be himself without getting questions about his masculinity or sexuality.

Young Thug used this to his advantage, maintaining a sense of mystery about himself until he finally started giving interviews. Now, he’s in his own lane—and has paved the way for Uzi, Yachty and a handful of other artists at the same time.

When emo music became mainstream, the subgenre was constantly mocked and second-guessed. But as we’ve seen with the rise of emo nights—events hosted by bars and venues in which the DJ spins tracks by bands like Taking Back Sunday and The Used—the music still means something to people, to the teenagers who have become today’s 20-somethings. There’s a certain camaraderie (and catharsis) that can be found in belting out lines like, “And with my one last gasping breath / I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt,” (or decidedly more wholesome verses, like ones that start with “Hey there Delilah / What’s it like in New York City?”).

In 10 or 20 years, a generation of young adults finding their way in the world might take a similar solace in songs like “1 Night” from the King of Teens. The spirit of emo music lives on in today’s contemporary rappers, who are reinventing the rap genre in the way that feels right to them. Rap music isn’t the same today, and we shouldn’t expect it to be. It turns out the kids, colorful braids and all, are alright.

Elijah Watson is a writer based in New York. He writes for OkayPlayer.