It started out in New York in the 1970s as a voice for African American youth, and from its humble beginnings hip-hop has continually evolved to become one of the world’s most popular music genres.
There was Gangsta rap in the ’80s, then in the ’90s we had political rap and mafioso rap – all of these changing styles had machismo and bravado at the heart of them.
Hip-hop’s latest phase is still a genre accused of misogyny for its use of ‘video vixens’ wearing next to nothing, shaking their curves. It’s also been berated for its focus on violent lyrics that glamorise the problematic gun culture of the US.
In spite of this, over the last few years hip hop has begun to show a softer, more emotional side. With rappers like Drake and Kanye West commanding the airwaves, they’re starting to change the status of the infamously tough genre.
West was an established producer in hip hop in the early ’00s. He burst onto the music radar with his debut album The College Dropout, which propelled him into the mainstream.
Wearing polo sweatshirts and writing lyrics about self-consciousness, he stood out from your average trash-talking rapper.
West’s experimental album 808s & Heartbreak was one of the wildest musical detours hip hop had ever seen – an emotional outpouring of heartbreak and lost love.
Tracks like Love Lockdown didn’t exhibit any bravado or machismo; an unashamed ode to the bitterness of love.
808s & Heartbreak managed to pave the way for rappers to shake off the burden of masculinity in their music, using their heartbreaks to fuel their albums. One rapper in particular who caught onto this was Drake.
Drake has always been a stand out figure in the hip-hop world. A Jewish Canadian former child actor going against the grain of hardened black male rapping, he’s steering clear of aggressive talk in favour of being emotional and proud of it too. Getting criticism for his ‘soft’ songs, famously about his exes, doesn’t seem to deter him.
The insults are outweighed by his staggering success at awards like the Grammys and the fact that some are heralding him as the most influential and popular artist of his generation.
His sophomore album Take Care spawned the hit Marvin’s Room – a blurry melody about an ex-lover that he couldn’t get over – that had everyone drunk dialing their exes in 2011.
Drake’s stance against hyper-masculinity, taking a frank look at people’s flaws and self-awareness and has made him the rapper of a generation. At 26 he’s got two double platinum albums under his belt and is the rapper with the most number one hits ever.
The emotional swing in today’s hip-hop has transformed songs about women in the genre. The focus on curves and sex is still there, but more rappers in a male dominated industry with chauvinistic tinges have started to appreciate women. They’ve begun to explore the emotional pitfalls of love.
In West’s superb Blame Game, he raps: “On the bathroom wall I wrote ‘I’d rather argue with you than be with someone else’” and on the hook sadly sings, “I can’t love this much, I can’t love you this much”.
This goes to show that the once swaggering and aggressive genre has got a softer side – and that it’s here to stay.
Photos by NRK P3 via Flickr