A Brief History of Whispering in Hip-Hop
For an art form built on aggression and in-your-face flavor, hip-hop doesn't seem like it'd have a place for whispering on tracks. In fact, whispering is hardly ever associated with any musical genre. When a rapper attempts to rock a crowd or rip a microphone, the first instinct isn't to use an inside voice as if telling a secret. Yet hip-hop has proven to manifest itself in a variety of different ways, with a hodgepodge of unique flows and deliveries. Whispering is no exception.
Most recently, the music world got a dose of whisper rap with 21 Savage's contributions to Metro Boomin's "Don't Come Out the House" and his own "ASMR"—he dabbles with periodic whispering to increase the menacing vibe of his music. Yet whispering in rap dates back more than 25 years, as quite a few artists have experimented with giving their music an ASMR feel. Vanilla Ice was a pioneer, while Ying Yang Twins and David Banner grabbed the baton in the mid 2000s. And Iggy Azalea and 21 have helped to bring the aesthetic back to the modern-day music scene.
Whispering in rap has developed over the years and takes on a variety of unrelated desired outcomes. Some are made to give a sinister vibe (like in the aforementioned 21 Savage), others are meant to seduce (Ying Yang Twins) while some are just meant to be flat-out different.
XXL looks back through the hip-hop archives to recall a history of rappers whispering. Holler if you hear them.
The oldest and most well-documented example of a rapper whispering is none other than Vanilla Ice. His breakout hit, 1990's "Ice Ice Baby," has verses that are rapped at full volume, yet during the hook the rapper whispers "ice, ice, baby" over an iconic, piano-driven beat.
It was the first time whispering in a rap song emerged in a mainstream track. To this day, it remains a whispering anthem.
A few years after Vanilla Ice fizzled out, Tha Dogg Pound got its whisper on for 1994's Above The Rim soundtrack, on "Dogg Pound 4 Life".
Whereas Vanilla Ice smacked listeners dead in the face with the whispering chorus, Tha Dogg Pound ties it onto the end of the track. For the last minute of the song, Tha Pound members whisper threatening lines like "There's no way you can escape/So rest in peace, bitch/Anybody's killa/Dogg Pound Gangstaz."
It makes for a haunting finish to the song and a chilling aural experience.
In 1995, West Coast rap crew Funkdoobiest also used whispering techniques on their Brothas Doobie album, specifically on "Ka Sera Sera."
The rappers don't necessarily whisper rap any bars but while one member sings the chorus, the others harmonize with creepy whispers in the background. It provides atmosphere and edge, rendering it one of the group's eeriest tracks.
Digital Underground was best known for unique deliveries, quirky song structures and all around zaniness. "April Showers" off their 1998 album, Who Got The Gravy?, is no exception and harped heavily on the silky whisper flow.
"April Showers" melds a variety of R&B vibes together with whispered spoken word both a capella and over D-Flow's smooth instrumental.
This whisper technique is used to seduce the listener, especially when lines like "Splashing seeds of new beginning swimming on naked skin/Or trapped within thin lambskin walls/Wind chimes and bells, erotic smells/Breath becomes deep, desire swells, desire swells" are softly serenaded.
In 1999, Latyrx, the alternative Bay Area duo consisting of Lateef The Truthspeaker and Lyrics Born, made a mark with intricate whisper-rapping on "Storm Warning." The track came off their Quannum Spectrum album, which made waves in the West Coast's underground scene.
The track starts with Lateef rapping, "Rivetin' world winds rippin' the world/Women and children wait a minute we're all in jeopardy," with an almost inaudible whisper that is followed up with Lyrics Born rapping his entire first verse with a timid whisper.
In this instance, the whisper allows the rappers to rap quickly without having to worry about perfect articulation. The way they move from word to word is muffled by the whisper, allowing for a more nimble flow altogether.
In 2005, the Ying Yang Twins recorded the ultimate hip-hop whisper song. The Atlanta duo's smash hit "Wait (The Whisper Song)" finds Kaine and D-Roc whispering sweet flexes into the ears of the women they are trying to bed.
"Hey how you doin' lil' mama let me whisper in ya ear/Tell ya somethin' that ya might like to hear/Got a sexy ass body and ya ass look soft/Mind if I touch it to see if it's soft," D-Roc opens on the song.
What makes this track so iconic and the true epitome of whisper-rap is the fact that it made serious waves in the club during an era of loud and abrasive crunk music (which the Ying Yang Twins helped shoot to popularity). It's impressive that a song as soft and quietly delivered as this one thrived during that era.
In the same year The Ying Yang Twins dropped its whisper classic, David Banner followed suit with "Play," another dirty-talk smash that was also produced by Mr. Collipark.
Banner's sexual track followed The Ying Yang Twins' formula almost to a tee, yet instead of a simple snap as the supporting instrumentation, Banner went with a bigger bounce. He whispers heavy on the chorus and keeps that same energy throughout the verses as he tells his desired women to "work them hips" as he's like to see them "drip sweat."
In 2018, Iggy Azalea revived hip-hop's ASMR experience.
Last summer's Survive The Summer album features "Tokyo Snow Trip," a well-executed whisper rap track. For the entire two minutes, Iggy gets super quiet and talks tough, flexing her grandiose travel lifestyle. Produced by Bedrock, the ambient 808 drums allow Iggy to hook listeners in with her sensual voice.
21 Savage also brought whispering back to hip-hop's mainstream last year on Metro Boomin's Not All Heroes Wear Capes album.
The track "Don't Come Out The House" starts with 21 Savage chanting loudly until the beat switches, after which listeners can hear 21 whispering tough talk over Metro's rolling hi-hats.
He pops back up loudly when the beat switches yet again, saying, "Y'all must thought that I was gon' whisper the whole time." He proceeds to go back and forth with rapping at a usual volume and whispering for the remaining two minutes.
There is no denying that when 21 whispers its to evoke a menacing feel, especially when he whispers lethal lines like "21 kill all of his opps."
21 doubled down on his whisper rap style with the appropriately titled "ASMR" off his I Am > I Was album.
Once again, he flips alternates between rapping with a regular speaking voice and whispering quietly. Even though the subject matter stays consistent from flow to flow, listeners naturally pay more attention to the lyrics that he whispers. It's almost as if 21 is letting listeners in on some sinister gang secrets that are too volatile to say at normal volume.