The Rise of Emo Rap

You thought unwarranted, trendy teen depression was left in your local mall back in the mid 2000s? You thought wrong. Emo music is resurging with a vengeance in new, face-tattooed packaging. YouTube and Soundcloud are providing home to this ever-growing subgenre of rap that can best be marked as “Sad Trap.” That’s right, the teens are still melancholy, but they’re on a lot more prescription drugs nowadays and under the impression they’ve garnered street credibility from abusing Xanax. Regardless of how the new scene and sound catches you, it exists and only seems to be expanding.

Hawthorne Heights and We The Kings are more than likely cutting in a musty basement somewhere, making way for the likes of Lil’ Peep, Lil’ Tracy, 6 Dogs, Oliver Francis, Yung Pinch, and a slew of other Lils and Yungs. Tracing the exact roots of the movement is both difficult and grounds for debate, but Swedish rapper Yung Lean certainly played a large part in pioneering this style. For those unfamiliar, Yung Lean is a 20-year old artist who stole elements of American rap culture — specifically from rappers like Gucci Mane and Chief Keef, and combined those qualities with forced teen sadness. He labeled his friends and fans “Sad Boys,” thus overtly exhibiting the emo angle.

Although Yung Lean may not have been the very first guy to surface the trend, he was one of the earliest and most notable artists mumbling melodically about being upset over lo-fi, 808 heavy trap beats. Today there are hundreds of already popping and up-and-coming despondent teens in very much the same lane. From what I gathered based on weeks of rummaging through rising YouTube channels that assemble songs of the genre, these artists encapsulate and incorporate many common elements and characteristics:

- They love cough syrup and prescription pills. Can’t seem to get enough Percocet and Xanax, which could be the seed of their sadness. Finding sad trap tracks that don’t mention designer drugs is an arduous task.

- They’re big into anime. Passion for Japanese cartoons is evidenced through direct references in songs, and even in beat samples. There’s a surprising amount of anime theme songs and soundtracks being put to use in lo-fi trap instrumentals. The most obvious expression of anime fandom is in cover art and videos. 9 out of 10 emo rap songs on YouTube integrate clips from shows like YuYu Hakusho or Bleach in the videos and thumbnails.

- Face tattoos and unnatural hair colors are almost required to break out. I’ve seen more white teenagers with face tattoos than I care to over the past few days. There’s a definite correlation between drug use and putting stupid permanent artwork on your face. Evidently any negative stigma surrounding face tattoos is gone, considering they’re almost as frequently seen as pink, purple, and blue hair. Tattoos and dying your hair have always been phony attempts at illustrating your uniqueness, but such appearance alterations are equivalent to wearing a hat in the modern rap game.

- Complex lyrical content isn’t even close to being on the table. You won’t stumble upon too many literary techniques or clever punchlines in sad trap lyrics. You will, however, hear a lot about the desire to die. For the most part it will be murmured with melody. Often times lyrics are completely incoherent, but if you listen closely you’ll notice these kids are pretty depressed about being alive, and hood as shit despite living in wealthy suburban areas. Street lingo is all over the place — talk of guns, drugs, and splurging on material possessions, but not in the classical rap sense. Emo rappers of the new class tie their connection to the streets in with anime, pill addiction, and disrespecting their parents. It’s puzzlingly disingenuous, to say the least.

As with any subgenre of any music, certain principles become standard. The dark track for sad trap has been laid, and you needn’t be a niche fan to trek down it. Aforementioned artists are working their way into the mainstream, and some of the biggest rappers in the game are hopping aboard the emo rap train. Lil Uzi, for example, recently made a hit entitled “XO Tour Life,” in which he laments about all of his friends being dead. “I don’t really care if you cry,” he boasts. Fair enough, Lil Uzi. You have millions of dollars in your 20s and we’re not quite sure why you’re sad. Within the same song he delves into generic modern rap tropes, but he’s not a guy who sticks with any one concept throughout an entire song.

Current renowned names aside, we’re about to witness a laundry list of textbook sad trap artists rising to the top. Many of these guys have long been cultivating clout among young listeners on YouTube and Soundcloud, and their shot to stardom is in near sight. As a 25-year old man, I can’t provide you an earnest, blanket opinion of the new school. Nor should I. You’ll have to formulate a viewpoint on your own, but bear in mind the sound and subject matter may not agree with ears over the age of 21. The generation gap widens with each new viral song. Envision Owl City and Chief Keef collaborating on an album, and that summarizes the feel somewhat accurately. My standing is neither here nor there, yet I will recommend a 19-year old sleeper of an artist named 6 Dogs. His most recent song “Mazi Love” is delightfully catchy and on the brighter side of emo rap. Give it an early listen as you immerse in the temporary trend of sad trap.

For better or for worse, emo is officially back and at its utmost influential. It’s darker, more hood, and more drugged out than ever. There’s no telling the kids to get off your lawn, because it’s their lawn now. Let’s all get broken hearts tattooed on our cheekbones, pop a Xanny bar, and just try to assimilate.

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