For the past 50 years in music, it’s often been cool to be sad. The countercultural phenomena that have guided teenagers and young adults for decades — movements like grunge, goth, new wave, alternative and punk — tap into the darker side of life, opening the door to themes like depression, nihilism, dissatisfaction and rebellion for millions — if not billions — of those who identify with them. The hipsters of every era tend to be typecast as angsty, if not completely bummed-out — it’s a modern tradition for each period of bubblegum-sweet popular music to be matched with an opposing force of artistic power, one that is historically more alternative and well, sad. This plays into stereotypes, yes, but it also offers a mode of expression for people struggling with legitimate issues beyond the façade, namely mental illness and the disabling, very real sadness it can produce.
Now, without the need for a record company to distribute music, this tradition of counterculture has shattered into thousands of subgenres within subgenres, an endless line of evolutions from the legends of the past. Nothing has changed the rap scene in this way so much like the full embrace of Soundcloud as a method of distribution and expression — so much so that the “Soundcloud rapper” has become a social type. Though this movement often boasts an image of party-savvy and drugged-up youth, it has also offered a niche for rappers to tackle previously untouched or hidden topics, one of these subjects being mental illness and the nihilism that sometimes comes with it. This has spawned rap’s new guard, an assemblage of teens and early 20-somethings with names like Lil Pump, Lil Xan, Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Peep, boasting the collective title of “emo rap.”
Why are they all “Lil”? We’ll never know. But it is clear from their music that these artists are not afraid to attack the darker side of life, most notably the realities of depression and the drug addiction that can accompany it. Their songs have lyrics like “I don’t really care if I die / Push me to the edge / All my friends are dead,” (“XO TOUR Llif3,” Lil Uzi Vert) and “My life is goin’ nowhere / I want everyone to know that I don’t care,” (“OMFG,” Lil Peep). This music is a subversive tangent from the classically hyper-masculine stereotypes of rap, attacking the taboos of mental illness and its consequences with a brash sense of self-assuredness. It has a characteristically slow, reserved tempo and heavy low end, creating a weight in each song that only enhances their typically melancholy or mundane lyrics.
“Emo rap,” or “sad rap,” as some have called it, still maintains the “party hard, get bitches” mentality of the rap music of late, a parallel with the similarly popular trap music of artists like Migos. But it goes beyond the party, often using the motifs of drugs like Xanax and lean to enhance a blissed-out image. Though it may seem like their music encourages drug use, it is slowly moving towards the opposite. Artists like Lil Xan often make a point to deter their fans from diving into drug use further than just the image it presents. Xan himself is known to yell things like “Fuck Xanax 2018!” at his concerts, and his songs contain lyrics like “Xans don’t make you / Xans gon’ take you,” to emphasize this sentiment even more.
The emo rap scene originated with a sense of self-destruction, but has recently shifted towards an image that still maintains the teen angst and recklessness of its past with a new warning of its dangers. Though it still perpetuates an image that glorifies sadness and heavy drug use, emo rap has the potential for change in this area. The people who listen to emo rap are typically in it for the aesthetic, but can get drawn into the lifestyle via the image and fall prey to its realities. This image is likely not going to change anytime soon, as it is sometimes more popular than the actual music, but the content has a chance to make up for that. Instead of completely embracing the sadness of depression and addiction, Lil Xan and many of his contemporaries have integrated a wary message into their music — one that celebrates partying, but points out the disabling sadness and looming addiction that the party lifestyle often creates in its participants with a rough but honest voice.
This presents itself most intensely in light of the recent Nov. death of Lil Peep, one of the genre’s rising stars. Peep was only 21 at the time of his untimely death — a suspected drug overdose on his tour bus in Tempe, Ariz. He was perhaps the most outspoken member of the emo rap scene about his struggles with depression, taking a no-holds-barred approach to his musical content in terms of transparency. Peep was open about the realities of life as someone who battled many demons, a drug user and a member of the genre which has, in the past, glorified drug use to a dangerous extent.
In one of his last interviews with Montreal media outlet MONTREALITY, Peep touched on this candidly, saying “You can’t predict where you’re going to be next year. You have no idea. I’ve been in very, very very low points like shitty situations, horrible situation,” continued Peep. “My mom always tells me time will heal everything … It will eventually get better.”
His colleagues, artists like Lil Xan, have taken his death as an opportunity to comment on the image they portray of an alluring world that indulges in drugs and sadness. There is still a ways to go in order to get rid of the negative aspects of the emo rap image, but many of the genre’s intentions show a unique side of rap that has been left unexplored in the past. The realities of mental illness and disabling addiction are a consistent presence in emo rap, and that has opened a door for further development of the genre.
Though much of its music now highlights partying, emo rap holds an intriguing promise for the future, one which offers a complex mix of awareness and the classic themes of recklessness that listeners know well. It continues to be a fascinating case study in what happens when self-destruction reaches a tipping point. The response to Lil Peep’s death has proven that many of the genre’s artists are committed to shifting their message to one that warns of the dangers hidden in partying and the glorification of mental illness. It is possible that the Soundcloud rappers have something more to say here, and their music has the potential to spread that message to those who really need it.