It’s a celebration, bitches. January 20, 2009. Thousands of excited 18-to-35-year-olds (a.k.a. youths) pack the ballroom at the Hilton Washington in Washington, D.C., for the Youth Inaugural Ball—a gala commemorating Barack Obama’s historic swearing-in as the 44th president of the United States. As the throngs giddily await the president and first lady Michelle Obama’s imminent entrance, fellow Chicagoan Kanye West bounds onstage to set the party off. Sporting a shag and tuxedo clad, he launches into a medley of rousing tunes from his repertoire: “Touch the Sky” (Whoooo!), “American Boy” (U-S-A! U-S-A!), “Stronger” (YES! WE! CAN!), “Good Life” (YES! WE! DID!).
But as the latter’s climactic call to throw hands high recedes, West’s band brings the music down to a hush. The mood gets strangely somber and melancholic. Kanye clutches the mic like a life preserver and begins to croon, his vocals frail and shaky sans Auto-Tune’s tech support: “How could you be so heartless?”
Forget the fact that the thousands in the room and millions watching on TV are ready to rally around hope, eager to embrace a new era of optimism. Kanye’s “Heartless,” woe-is-me-first moment has put history on hold. You see, it just so happens that this self-pitying breakup rap is the No. 1 most-downloaded song in the country. Which apparently means it’s fair fare for inaugural bashes. Thus, on this day, change has come not only to America but to hip-hop. Emo rap—emotive hip-hop of pain and introspection, the antithesis of swagger—is now seemingly as mainstream as Main Street, suitable for serenading a new president, lucrative enough to generate bags full of dead ones. You’ve come a long way, (cry)baby.
Or has it? Maybe it’s the crotchety hip-hop cynic in me. Or maybe it’s witnessing the startling image of a grown man with an Afro-mullet screeching, “You just gon’ keep hatin’ me/We just gon’ be enemies,” at the least appropriate time and place imaginable, while a bunch of kids in prom gear pump their fists and wave their iPhones in compliance. But I’m having a difficult time reconciling myself to the notion that rap is suddenly cool with the art of catching feelings. After all, how likely is it that any rapper would willingly align himself with anything called emo—which, in case you didn’t notice, sounds dangerously like homo (a decided hip-hop no-no).
Granted, rappers could probably stand to tone down the bottle-popping and exhibit some internal unrest given the problems of the world today—from war to economic meltdown. True, the emotional open wound that is Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak is a certified smash at a time when nearly everything else being peddled in hip-hop (particularly the usually reliable thug posturing) is tanking quicker than shares of Circuit City. Sure, there are a couple of new talents (Kid Cudi, Charles Hamilton) noted for their emotive tendencies. And, yes, enough rappers have come out as devotees of Coldplay’s Chris Martin (not emo by the rock definition, but plenty musically precious) to send Gwyneth into a fit of nervous chain-smoking. But does any of this actually signal a new trend in rap toward vulnerability? The issues and arguments deserve some scrutinizing. -Chairman Mao
For more of the Emo Trippin’ article make sure to pick up XXL’s April issue on newsstands now.