When I was young, hip-hop was the apotheosis of hyper-masculinity. The hyper-masculinity was often so extreme that it verged on parodic. The video for Ruff Ryder’s Anthem, for example, came complete with topless men lifting weights, Pitbulls gnarling at the camera and tricked out motorbikes speeding down the street. The lyrics offered an abundance of braggadocio, a rejection of femininity and an absence of vulnerability. The Ruff Ryder’s Anthem was overtly masculine, but it was hardly unusual in the context of late nineties hip-hop.
Popular rappers in the past embraced masculinity by either stoically rejecting vulnerability or overcoming vulnerability through supposed greatness. Emotive hip-hop was redemptive. Vulnerability existed only as a surmounted obstacle, an ephemeral hardship of the past defeated by sheer masculine strength. The hyper-masculinity was self-perpetuating: the more machismo on display, the more popular the artist. To gain notoriety, therefore, aspiring rappers were forced to exaggerate their masculinity and reject vulnerability and the cycle thus continued. Only the masculine, it seemed, survived.
The stars of contemporary hip-hop, however, are rejecting the hyper-masculine. Plenty of popular artists originally adopted typical masculinity – in the pursuit of notoriety, perhaps – but banished aspects of the construct as they developed. Contemporary rappers increasingly reject the notion, for example, that financial achievement serves as a source of empowerment – as seen, for example, in J Cole’s ‘Love Yourz’ – and approach status with nuance, as opposed to self-praise – as seen throughout Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. And, most importantly, contemporary rappers are increasingly expressing vulnerability without redemption.
Kid Cudi arguably paved the way for this phenomenon in 2009 with Man on the Moon. The second song on the album, ‘The Soundtrack to My Life‘, explores depression and suicidal tendencies: ‘My heart’s an open sore that I hope heals soon/ I live in a cocoon opposite of Cancun/ Where it is never sunny, the dark side of the moon’. There is no triumph in this song, no redemption, no light at the end of the tunnel. Cudi opts for reclusiveness and rejects the outside world. There exists a profound vulnerability throughout Man on the Moon and Cudi ostensibly feels no obligation to hide this vulnerability due to some vague allegiance to masculinity.
Other rappers have followed suit. J Cole is one of the more frequently introspective and openly vulnerable rappers of the new school, as seen as early as 2011 in ‘Lost Ones‘ from his album Cole World: ‘I ain’t too proud to tell you/ That I cry sometimes, I cry sometimes about it.’ As with Cudi before him, there is little redemption for the emotive Cole. He struggles with fame and finds the perpetual pursuit of money problematic; he discards overblown materialism and finds no worth in the self-praising narrative that once engulfed hip-hop. Cole’s vulnerability is a reaction to toxic masculinity; a negation of what he calls ‘tough guy’ culture.
Kendrick Lamar, currently the most popular rapper on the planet, offers an eclectic blend of vulnerability. Lamar is complicated, inconsistent and conflicted. His critically acclaimed album, To Pimp a Butterfly, deals directly with suicidal thoughts, survivor’s guilt and plenty of other issues mainstream rappers once sought to avoid. Lamar talks about his fall into depression with dexterity, employing different narrators to highlight the experience. He does so pessimistically in ‘u’ – ‘The world will know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness’ – and optimistically in ‘i’ – ‘Blow steam in the face of the beast/ Sky could fall down, wind could cry now/ Look at me motherfucker I smile.’ Lamar stretches his vulnerabilities throughout the album, occasionally reverting to bravado, but never finding redemption.
While these accomplished rappers, and there are plenty of others worth mentioning, have opened up, emerging rappers continue this trend. Reclusiveness among these artists takes centre stage. In ‘44 Bars’, for example, Logic raps: ‘I just don’t go outside/ ‘Cause honestly I don’t fuck with this world, I’d rather hide’. Chance the Rapper examines similar trends in songs such as ‘Paranoia’: ‘I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared, too/ I know you scared, me too.’ And Earl Sweatshirt mimics the sentiment throughout I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside – particularly in the songs ‘Grief’ and ‘Inside’.
The ability to talk openly about vulnerability challenges an essential trope of the masculine construct, but unfortunately other masculine ideals remain largely unchallenged. While flagrant and unabashed misogyny is less abundant in hip-hop – the days of ‘Pussy Poppin’ and ‘Tip Drill’ permeating the mainstream are thankfully behind us – sexism continues at the highest level. Each of the aforementioned vulnerable rappers, for example, have used the terms bitch and hoe devoid of context. Similarly, homophobia, another trope of masculinity, is again less prominent, but by no means non-existent. Hip-hop is certainly making strides in challenging the damaging aspects of masculinity, but, as with most other forms of popular culture, there is still a long way to go.
It is nonetheless important that a culture once so entrenched in the hyper-masculine is rejecting one of the most damaging aspects of masculinity. Traditional masculinity dictates that men either reject vulnerability or hide vulnerability with bravado. The mainstream of contemporary hip-hop does neither. Hip-hop wholeheartedly embraces vulnerability. This sends an important message to the audience.
Contemporary hip-hop is telling men that it is okay to feel vulnerable. It is telling men that it is okay to talk about feeling vulnerable. It is telling men that it is okay to be human. Hip-hop’s challenge of masculinity is profoundly liberating, particularly for those feeling constricted or poisoned by toxic masculinity.