“Emotional shawties in this bitch,” a then 16-year-old Yung Lean spits over a melodic Japanese-style beat on “Ginseng Strip 2002,” before announcing, “bitches come and go (brah), but you know I stay” – putting a tender twist on the old adage “bros before hoes” and cementing the loyalty of his Sad Boys collective.
The Swedish rapper’s 2013 track contains typical hip-hop elements, such as sampling, drum kits, 2Pac references (“Mackaveli”) and boasting of sexual conquests (“Got my balls licked by a Zooey Deschanel look-alike”), but Lean’s strange, affectless flow conveys equal parts humor, sensitivity, and gloom. In 2013, The Guardiandeclared that Yung Lean and his producer Suicideyear “set the lugubrious tone for sad (or emo) rap.”
This style of gloomy, ethereal rap has exploded in popularity in recent years. A corollary to both Bedroom Pop—a genre characterized by contemplative lyrics, woozy bass lines and heavy reverb (see Velvet Underground, Panda Bear, Youth Lagoon)—and Cloud Rap—a hip-hop genre known for its ethereal, surreal quality (see A$AP Rocky, Main Attraktionz, Lil Yachty)—I call this genre Bedroom Rap: songs made not for bumping in your whip, but rather for lying on your bed, alone, scribbling in your notebook under a candlelit glow.
While these songs have been classified as hip-hop or made by hip-hop artists, they also contain surprising glimpses of interiority and vulnerability, further softened by hazy synths and wistful piano melodies. The list below is by no means exhaustive, but rather is a collection of my personal favorite hip-hop tracks to play in the soft glow of my bedroom when I’m feeling dreary and guitars just aren’t cutting it.
The records are listed in order from earliest to most recent to loosely track the style’s evolution.
“Turn On The Lights” – Future (April 2012)
Pluto’s lead single depicts a depressed and drug-addled Future searching in vain for the perfect girlfriend (“And if you see her ‘fore I do tell her I wish that I’d met her”). Mike WiLL’s elegiac synth harmonies render Future’s guttural flow particularly wistful. Yearning and plaintive in a year when trunk-rattling rappers like 2 Chainz were dominating the charts, and Kendrick’s explosive good kid, m.A.A.d. city was capturing the critics, “Turn on The Lights” was a surprising hit that launched both Future and Mike WiLL’s careers.
“Chum” – Earl Sweatshirt (November 2012)
The lead single from Earl’s debut album Doris addresses his feelings upon his return from Samoa, where his law professor mother sent him to boarding school due to his violent lyrics on his breakthrough mixtape Earl and other behavioral issues. On “Chum,” Earl raps over a minimal piano loop and a fuzzy bassline about his absent father ("It’s probably been twelve years since my father left, left me fatherless”), his mother’s attempts to get him to behave ("Mama often was offering peace offerings”), and finding a family in Odd Future (“the blunted mice in the trap” references Syd Tha Kyd’s in-home studio—nicknamed “The Trap”—where Odd Future recorded all their early music). DIY, melodic and brooding, “Chum” has all the quintessential elements of Bedroom Rap.
“Ginseng Strip 2002” – Yung Lean (March 2013)
Stockholm teen Jonatan Leandoer Håstad began to attract attention as Yung Lean in 2013 when “Ginseng Strip 2002” garnered over 2 million views on YouTube. That same year he released his EP Lavender, on which “Ginseng Strip 2002” appears, in addition to his debut album Unknown Death 2002. FACT magazine wrote in its review of Unknown Death 2002 that Yung Lean’s “thick, melancholy numbers drip with a rare and earnest allure” and deemed the album the “epitome of sad rap.” “Emotional shawtys in this bitch / Mackaveli!”
“Loveleen” – Rejjie Snow (2013)
On “Loveleen,” Dublin rapper Reijie Snow’s low-pitched flow mourns the death of Trayvon Martin (“another young boy in the grave with his picture on my shirt / rest in peace and may you lay”) over a hazy, desolate beat. Unlike the frenetic turn-ups by fellow UK grime artists, Snow’s languid, melancholic flow is perfect for a night alone in bed.
“DJ Khaled is My Father” - Spooky Black (August 2014)
While his 2014 EP Leaving—produced by Weeknd-collaborator Don McKinney—is not exactly rap, the EP’s woozy, bass-heavy production places it within the hip-hop genre when defined broadly. Besides, Corbin Smidzik (FKA Spooky Black, Lil Spook) is a rapper. On “DJ Khaled is My Father,” Corbin wistfully coos in his voice that The FADERdescribed as “deep and wavy as Lake Superior” about the “smell of roses nuzzled [in his lover’s] hair.” Two years later, Leaving holds up as a sui generis collection of songs that tugs at listeners’ heartstrings.
“White Iverson” – Post Malone (August 2015)
Previously unknown, Post Malone’s “White Iverson” took 2015 by storm. While most accounts indicate the record is about basketball, nothing more than an ode to newly-inshrined Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, I can’t help but hear romance when Malone croons: “Saucin’, I’m saucin’, saucin’ on you / Swaggin’, I’m swaggin’, I’m swaggin’ oh ooh.” And with Malone’s mellifluous voice, FKi’s soporific production, and the fact that the track pulled Post Malone out of obscurity, “White Iverson” is quintessential Bedroom Rap.
“Fine Whine” – A$AP Rocky, Joe Fox, Future, M.I.A. (May 2015)
“This love, this love, this love won’t last forever,” Joe Fox murmurs in this syrupy track’s post-hook from A$AP Rocky’s 2015 album, At.Long.Last.A$AP. Rocky is often credited with popularizing Cloud Rap, which shares Bedroom Rap’s wobbly, celestial aesthetic. While hailing from Harlem, A$AP’s style is more readily associated with lean-influenced Houston rappers. A$AP, therefore, eschews historical allegiance to geography, instead of embracing a post-regional, internet sensibility. In mourning broken relationships and the dangerous effects of lean, A$AP and his collaborators embody Bedroom Rap’s melding of traditional hip-hop themes and sensitive subject matter.
“I Remember Makonnen” – ILoveMakonnen (April 2016)
Around the time Post Malone’s “White Iverson” went viral, so too did a similarly wistful, Drake-endorsed track – ILoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday.” Like Post Malone, ILoveMakonnen has since had trouble releasing a song with the epic catchiness of his first hit. Unlike Post Malone, though, Makonnen has been releasing swathes of material for years—with 2 albums and 18 mixtapes, he’s frighteningly prolific. Creating tracks in his bedroom as early as 2011, The Hundredsreported that "Makonnen is the oft-unsung weirdo whose jarringly emotive, strange, sad, tongue-in-cheek vulnerabilities has his complete oeuvre hard to pin down to any one genre.” On “I Remember Makonnen,” a 10-minute freestyle over a simple piano riff, he takes this style to its logical conclusion, howling: “I stare at the moon, I remember when I was young making songs in my room, but now I fly all the time and I stare at the moon.” The track was released along with several others in the days preceding his 27th birthday—here’s to hoping Makonnen makes it through his Saturn’s Return.
“Can I” – Kodak Black (June 2016)
Kodak Black’s Lil B.I.G. Pac—which was released on his birthday as he sat in prison—has a tender, emotional depth surprising for a Florida rapper who lists Boosie Badazz and Chief Keef as his primary influences. On “Can I,” Pitchforkwrites that Kodak “oozes pathos over a gorgeous beat” with a “sleepy effervescence.” In a song about his tough street life, he asks his potential lover: “If I tell you how I feel, can I fuck? / I’m really in the field so I need someone to hug / I’m out here for real so I be needin’ a little love.”
“Do Yoga” – Rae Sremmurd (August 2016)
Where the original SremmLife was all about turning up for the club, SremmLife 2 often shows the brothers turning down and turning inwards—any flicker of elation is undermined by sonic darkness. While there isn’t much depth to these lyrics (“all my girls do yoga, hey / then get high at night”), Mike WiLL’s woozy synths and sparse piano refrain nail the sound of Bedroom Rap. Also, how many rap songs do you know about yoga?
Looking for more? Here's a more exhaustive playlist, via Spotify.
By Anna Dorn. Follow her on Twitter.