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Emo rap at its limits

MGK (Machine Gun Kelly) and Trippie Redd at the March 21 listening party for their collaborative EP, g<em>enre : sadboy</em>, at Harriet's Rooftop in West Hollywood.
Christopher Polk
/
Billboard via Getty Images
MGK (Machine Gun Kelly) and Trippie Redd at the March 21 listening party for their collaborative EP, genre : sadboy, at Harriet's Rooftop in West Hollywood.

At the start of this century, as MySpace and LiveJournal were remaking the social hierarchies of youth culture, a crushing wave surged into mainstream view. The aesthetic movement that history would designate as emo's third wave stood out in a few ways from its predecessors: more brazenly commercial than the melodic post-hardcore that birthed the term in the 1980s, more flamboyant and feminized than the Midwest twinkle that carried the torch in the '90s. Emo as it existed in the early 2000s was an era of high contrast, the music and culture broadly maligned yet deeply felt in the hearts of teenagers everywhere, catalyzed by the new ways they were experiencing too much of everything as a shared world took shape online. "With the internet, teenagers have the ultimate emo tool," Andy Greenwald wrote in his 2003 emo history, Nothing Feels Good: "a private medium that their parents don't understand, one where they can easily trade, access, and share music, ideas, news, feelings, and support."

Years later, the SoundCloud rap of the late 2010s would experience a similar popular awakening — only now, the kids were using that ultimate emo tool to not only share music, but to make and distribute it. In 2017, as in 2003, the music that emerged from the sanctity and isolation of teenagers' bedrooms seemed to codify adolescent tragedy into its own folklore. Both emo and the rap forged in its image riffed on their alternative forebears and synthesized them into an explosive, angst-powered frenzy. Both, like internet culture and youth itself, felt fleeting, which may explain why their mainstream relevance was so ephemeral.

For a moment, though, the style dubbed "emo rap" threatened to disrupt both genres, during a movement that quickly migrated from SoundCloud's fringes to the center of the pop consciousness. In 2018, Spotify listed it as the streamer's fastest-growing genre, the charge led by an unholy trinity of next-gen wallowers working in different modes: the depressed alchemist Lil Peep, the crooning, heart-on-his-sleeve freestyler Juice WRLD and the walking electrode XXXTentacion. The connective tissue between emo rap's breakout stars was a propensity for melancholy and self-destruction. They all seemed to funnel their malaise through a self-satisfied, trap-boosted swagger. Their creative practice felt more instinctive than conscious, an extremely accessible quality for anyone facing down their formative years. As with emo, the music could sometimes be self-indulgent and stupefying — but at its height, it felt dialed into not just a vibrant subculture, but honest-to-god sonic revelations.

None of those three rappers lived to see the 2020s, and it can feel like the emo rap cloud that poured lean and tears on an unsuspecting public has dissipated in their wake. But there are at least a few artists still trying to operate in this mode — most recently, the rapid-fire spitter turned pop-punk avatar MGK(formerly Machine Gun Kelly) and the warbling imp Trippie Redd. MGK had been slowly migrating into rap rock when Travis Barker helped him usher in a complete transformation on the 2020 album Tickets to My Downfall, whose songs mimed Blink-182's bratty provocations, bristling in an innocuous way. Trippie, perhaps the most eccentric performer in a cast of face-tatted, neon-haired guerilla songwriters, has spent much of his career making hurdling rap that moves with the hairpin turns of a rollercoaster. The fellow Ohioans come together from their respective corners of the emo-rap spectrum for a one-off EP that considers the form as an outlet for intrusive thoughts winning, titled genre : sadboy, a not-so-subtle gesture at a shared distress.

The music on genre : sadboy is emo rap in a nominal sense, mixing strobing synths and soft-strum guitars with twitchy hi-hats. In its quieter moments, it has a staid quality that suggests a numbed drugginess, and its verses seem to spiral, possessed by both an emo hyperbole and a rap indifference: "Leave me out to dry and rot / Obviously I cry a lot," Trippie sings on "summers gone." Elsewhere on the same song, MGK makes the studio a surrogate for adolescent solitude, finding music the only outlet that can similarly separate him from real-world problems: "Only therapy that's workin' is / When I'm on this microphone with my еngineer / These songs are thе only way / That I can communicate with you when I'm no longer here." Such an admission certainly requires vulnerability, and yet thinking of these songs as truly confessional requires some effort. While the surface-level signifiers of emo rap are all here, so are its worst impulses — the genre's meagerness, its latent callowness and underlying futility — and it can never quite blend its two markers into anything transformative.

The term "sad boy" always brings me back to a comment made by the moody electronic artist James Blake in 2018, as he was grappling with a certain perception of his work that he found overly prescriptive. "I can't help but notice, as I do whenever I talk about my feelings in a song, that the words 'sad boy' are used to describe it. I've always found that expression unhealthy and problematic when used to describe men just openly talking about their feelings," he wrote. "There is no great victory in machismo and bravado in the end. The road to mental health and happiness, which I feel so passionately about, is paved with honesty." Though not a response to him in particular, Trippie and MGK's adoption of the phrase as a genre qualifier feels glib, countering Blake's plea for nuanced understanding of a mental health crisis with something stubbornly perfunctory. A generous reading might consider the move tongue-in-cheek, but the music is far too earnest for that; emo has never been subtle, but many of these songs are flat-out unperceptive in their displays of feeling, putting self-expression before self-awareness. "Have you ever f***in' cried in a limousine?" Trippie yelps on "suddenly," exhibiting a key conflict: fame and fortune testing the very limits of relatability. It quickly becomes clear that "sad boy" is a performance of genre here: Even as it attempts to meaningfully engage with very serious matters (depression, addiction, suicidal ideation) worth serious consideration, the packaging precedes the intent.

What is fascinating about genre: sadboy is how, in gesturing vacantly at an idea of emo, the project demonstrates just what made the most intriguing emo rap so effective in the first place. The grayscale guitars here muster little complexity, far from the twilight palettes of their inspiration, and the two lyricists underdeliver both as flexers and as martyrs. Emo is a literalist form, and when paired with the forwardness of rap bluster, the combination can be so overwhelming it scans as sincerity. This duo never summons enough bluster to bring their severity into relief, but there also isn't anything provocative happening along the music's dividing lines. "I'm sufferin' from boredom in suburbia / I need a hit of euphoria," MGK groans over a washed-out Frou Frou sample. Trippie can conjure a melodrama that isn't that far off from Gerard Way or Adam Lazzara, but his is a pantomime that is nearly prosaic. Even the most successful emo rappers produced plenty of awful songs, but they usually did so in service of reinvention. Peep's early music tapped directly into his source material — Mineral and Brand New and Death Cab for Cutie — until he eventually found his mojo without the samples. Juice was channeling the bounce and burst of the sound's migration to pop radio into run-on rap flows. X saw the correlation between screamo vocals and pit aggression and the sub-rattling, thrash-rap howling emerging in South Florida. In each case, a genuine link is being made. The songs on genre : sadboy feel not only removed from origination, but from function.

In Nothing Feels Good, Greenwald writes of the emo kid as a figure disenfranchised by the media and preoccupied with their own private drama, however shallow. Emo music, he says, resonates an art form that "privileges that very same drama — that forces no difficult questions, just bemoans the lack of answers." Its power is in the force and finesse of the bemoaning and the dynamic shifts between those extremities, how small a feeling can get or how intensely it can blot out reality. It's in the pacifying thrum of "It just takes some time" or the shrieking shortsighted optimism of "If I could find you now, things would get better."

Rap variations of this mode — Lil Uzi Vert's "XO Tour Llif3," or Juice WRLD's "Robbery" — can make the mundane feel urgent. Trippie once demonstrated an ability to do this, too: When he was 16, he recorded "Love Scars" in a single take in a dark room, and that song seems to shudder with a stress to be heard. That genre : sadboy feels more like an afterthought could be blamed in part on the comfort of fame, but its dulled edges are the kind that most often come with age. Emo is a teen kingdom, ruled by the inability to see anything beyond one's own bruised ego, and that myopic sense of self grows less engaging the longer it stays in control. Emo rap's biggest stars never had to reckon with this reality. Peep and Juice WRLD had just turned 21 when they died. XXXTentacion was 20. Their angst is eternally unprocessed, undeveloped, immature (a reality made more apparent by the diminishing returns of their many posthumous releases). The thing about the rest of the sad boys is, they have to grow up someday. The time always comes where the difficult questions require real action.

Simple Plan said it: Nothing lasts forever, and we can't go back. We can no more replicate the intensity of the emo rap moment as we can relive high school. The artists who carry that legacy now are the ones who seem to understand that the genre binary never had to be so binary. It could be rangy and free, fun and anarchic — floating on a matrix between the two axes off toward something else entirely. You can still hear what Greenwald called the CIY ("create it yourself") ethos in the work of Lil Tracy and Wicca Phase Springs Eternal and Powfu. It's that generative spark — that immense, overwhelming feeling of needing to shout into the void, even when you don't necessarily have the language to really express yourself — that is missing from most attempts to capture what is lost. Somewhere, way off in the distance, there is likely another revival brewing, incited by whatever the next breakthrough in social mechanics may be. And even that, eventually, will pass.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]