“We all self-conscious, I'm just the first to admit it”
I was 11 years old when Kanye West shared his insecurities on the bed of an airport x-ray machine at the end of the “All Falls Down” video. It was the first time I had ever consciously pinpointed an introspective moment in any song, rap or otherwise. Ye didn’t always have the answers, though.
It wasn’t until I was on my way out of high school that I came to realize the same pressures crushing me as a Black kid moving through the school system were dogging Kanye: American society expects Black people to act a certain way, especially if you’re a rapper, and Kanye was one of the earliest examples I can remember of a Black man who went against the public's perception of Black masculinity.
Rap has never been without its confessional figures. Biggie Smalls once filled us in on his “Suicidal Thoughts,” and De La Soul noted that smiling in public might as well be against the law. But moments like these were spare; the exception to the rule of rap as dictated by Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton: “Our art is a reflection of our reality.”
That reflection is often of tough, aggressive emcees who were molded by tough and aggressive surroundings forced into being by racist school and housing systems and police forces descending on communities loaded with drugs and firepower they helped funnel in from the outside. These surroundings have also been and continue to be responsible for some of the greatest music ever made, from Nas to Kendrick Lamar and beyond.
But Kanye West sparked a change when he released The College Dropout. Rap songs where insecurities and Jesus pieces flowed free of tough guy posturing and proved what Black people across America already knew: there’s more than one side to Black masculinity.
“When I started rapping, I was rapping about crazy shit that I had no experience with,” recalls Bronx rapper Kemba. “It wasn’t nearly as introspective or honest and that’s because I didn’t hear any of it. I didn’t know it existed or could exist.”
Kemba credits the vulnerability Kanye expressed on The College Dropout’s lead single “Through The Wire” (At 17, Kemba also dealt with a life-threatening jaw injury) and Ye’s fourth album 808s & Heartbreak—a more somber and melodic project made in the wake of his mother’s death—with the general shift toward a more sensitive type of rap dominating the mainstream.
On his latest album, Negus, Kemba draws from this same school of thought, which was later spearheaded by Drake and Kid Cudi in the wake of Kanye "making emotional rap cool again." He approaches America at the apex of the Black Lives Matter movement through the eyes of a teenager with bluntness (“I could walk outside now and get shot down” from “The New Black Theory”) and strained coos over the possibility of burying friends and family too soon (“Heartbeat”).
Kemba's newfound ear for melody and spitfire flow come together on “Psyrens (Curious)” to tell the story of an artist who idolizes a pusher with money for more than just ramen and scorn at his Target day job. These songs paint desperation and heartache in much the same way Chance The Rapper illustrates the streets of Chicago on “Paranoia” and how Lil Uzi Vert mourns his dead friends on “XO Tour Llif3,” and he plans to continue on this path on his follow-up. “I’ve spent so much time simply reporting what I see and not having honesty be my main focus,” he told me. “I just love creating that way now, so I don’t see myself going back. I feel like people take you in a lot more that way.”
This approach to rap is a far cry from the early 2000s when 50 Cent being shot nine times validated his toughness, though that’s not to say this doesn’t still happen. The opulent grime of Westside Gunn and Conway’s rhymes stem from the indie giants' hometown of Buffalo, NY, which is one of the most dangerous cities in the country. A bullet to the back of the head almost ended Conway’s life in 2012, leaving half his face paralyzed from nerve damage, but he managed to flip the adversity into lived bars that are pushed through his permanently disfigured mouth with a snarl. It hurts, but he doesn’t show it. Art reflecting reality.
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As Black men, we’re often taught by peering white eyes and even within our own communities that fear and anxiety are weaknesses that must be battled and conquered. This mode of respectability politics can be what pushes a good kid even further toward a m.A.A.d city, a thought that Houston rapper Danny Watts says is constantly weighing on him.
“I feel like as a Black man, there’s a dichotomy in what people expect of us,” Watts told me over the phone. “You have the community at large and what your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles expect of you and what society expects of you, and you’re stuck between both of these things trying to find a balance.”
Growing up, Watts says that any kind of severe emotionality was frowned upon. If he was too happy, his uncles would tell him not to “be the nice guy"; too angry, and his mom would punish him for fighting; too sad, and he’d be called weak. This all came to a head when the death of a high school friend left him fighting conflicting emotions left dormant in his head. He didn’t know how he was supposed to feel.
“They called my mom and she got upset with me for doing something like that at school,” Watts continued. “I didn’t really understand it until recently, but I feel like she did that because she was scared. I asked myself 'Why was she scared?' and I realized that she was scared because they were trying to write me off. Police officers also wanna be the ones who caught you so they can reap the rewards: 'I’m the one who caught this not normal Black boy, and since he’s not normal, all Black boys aren’t normal.' It’s tough on us, but in that moment I realized that it’s tough on our parents, too. The reason they make us be as respectable as possible is to protect us, but it hurts us at the same time. In doing so, we’re not allowed to be who we really are.”
Watts found freedom in parsing these emotions on his recently-released debut album, Black Boy Meets World. He ruminates on death (“Pill”), abandonment (“Uprooted”), the corrupting pull of the streets (“Things We Have To Do”), and generally surviving America unscathed as a Black man raising a child. “I got to a point where I had to own it,” he continued. "I stopped letting what other people think of me control me on a daily basis, which is why I’m able to be so expressive about how sad I get. I’m able to cry in front of people, I’m able to tell my brothers, 'I love you, bro.'”
He’s grateful to exist in the same time as Black artists like Tyler, The Creator and Brockhampton, who have spun tales of love, sexuality, depression, and emotional honesty into genuine fan connections and even Billboard chart success. Watts’ emotional barring is steeped in a smooth boom bap low-end provided by Jonwayne, but it’s just as cutting.
“I always feel that our culture—Black men and women—we were never afforded the luxury of being complex and multifaceted. We were expected and forced to be one way, so we only acted one way. You see more and more stories of people diving deep into who they really are and doing profound things for our culture. And I mean the culture and society in general. I like that we have the comfort to be as free or as reclusive as we wanna be.”
The need to let out bottled emotions has also touched others in the Midwest these past few years, like Kansas rapper Stik Figa. Nestled within Central Standard Time, his solo debut on Mello Music Group, is a track entitled “Holding Back Tears.” The song begins with a man who empathizes with crooks, and ends with a friend dead from a drug deal gone bad and grief boiling down into revenge (“The tide I'm against in a ship ready to capsize / In troubled waters I guess I'm getting baptized / Ask for forgiveness for every time that I backslide / Would be a miracle drown in hate for the last time”).
In the song’s video, directors Morgan Cooper and Solomon Bass use trembling hands and discreet gun exchanges to display a desire for vengeance that would continue a vicious cycle of death that ultimately can’t be blamed on any individual.
When I spoke with Stik about the video, I noted how the conversation surrounding guns is often centered around deaths they leave behind, but not about why men have those guns in the first place and how that can affect the Black experience. He remembered Chief Keef being sent to jail for violating his parole by holding a gun in a video where Pitchfork brought him to a shooting range and the need for a system to feed off of the dangers of the Black inner-city experience for views and clicks. He saw “Holding Back Tears” as an opportunity to offer a more complex dive into the traumas of gun violence.
“It’s not about being a weenie or being tough anymore," Stik explained. "The overarching theme of the record is that when we were young, we were told that being tough—keeping your emotions to yourself—and all that was what made you a man. But now we’re able to see the effects of that and make a change. Now we’re dealing with these issues in the Black community, mental health issues that never get addressed because we're dealing with so much trauma on the day-to-day, that not being able to express yourself is how we end up in these other situations where we squabblin’ or we shootin’ or some more shit. I’m grateful that times have become more enlightened.”
After speaking with Kemba, Danny and Stik, hip-hop’s current relationship with Black masculinity lingered in my head for days. We live in a world where 21 Savage can’t take part in Amber Rose’s SlutWalk without being mocked for making "sucker moves" and being called “soft,” but a rapper like Tyler, The Creator can sell 100K copies of an album where he sings of unrequited love and comes out of the closet? How can Kevin Gates sing about love and still be a man but Lil Yachty can’t?
Stik Figa and Conway can bring us different vantage points from the streets and both walk away as men. Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi of Rae Sremmurd can show brotherly love on the cover of The FADER without being seen as “weird.” Joe Budden can be upfront about his suicidal thoughts off-record. Everyone from Chance The Rapper to Earl Sweatshirt, IDK to Open Mike Eagle and Deem Spencer, and even the mighty JAY-Z don’t need to hold back their tears or their happiness in order for their music to navigate a system that was built to destroy them.
Black men have varied experiences and perspectives, but insecurities no longer need to be buried. 13 years after Kanye's "All Falls Down" video, the exception is finally starting to become the rule.