Mr. Sensitivity and Rap’s Emotional Core

Nas, Lupe Fiasco, Jim Jones and others have shown their soft sides. But the trend goes way back.

Nas (Valley Jean/FilmMagic/Getty); Lupe Fiasco (Joe Kohen/Getty);Jim Jones (Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty)
Nas (Valley Jean/FilmMagic/Getty); Lupe Fiasco (Joe Kohen/Getty);Jim Jones (Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty)

(The Root) — Hip-hop’s soft spot is showing. In recent months, a few of the more prominent male figures in rap have dropped their machismo shields and displayed some touching moments of PDE: public displays of emotion.

Just more than a week ago, Queens, N.Y., rapper Nas released his video for “Bye Baby,” a heart-tugging kiss-off in which he openly recounts his bitter breakup with ex-wife Kelis. He even went so far as to hold her iconic green wedding dress — the only thing she left behind — as the cover art for his latest album, Life Is Good.

At around the same time, when Slaughterhouse MC Joe Budden performed the song “Truth or Truth” at S.O.B.’s nightclub in New York City, he was overcome with emotion as he rapped about a conversation he had with his 10-year-old son. The New Jersey rapper cried as he described his boy’s epiphany. “He said, ‘Dad, I’m weird … but I don’t have a problem with that … And whoever don’t like it, they don’t have to be around me/I’m comfortable with me and who I am’ … I could die right now and feel like he got the most important part of Joe.”

Then there’s Lupe Fiasco, who at various times has shown heart-on-sleeve vulnerability, whether it’s his anti-misogyny song and video “Bad Bitch” or his teary interview back in late July with Sway Calloway of MTV’s RapFix Live. After viewing a six-year-old clip of himself playing tour guide around Chicago’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods, Fiasco broke into tears upon seeing the faces of some of his now-dead friends — the “ghosts,” he called them — who have been victims of street violence since his rise to rap stardom.

And in the promo clips of the new season of the VH1 reality show Chrissy & Mr. Jones, we can see tears streaming down the face of Harlem rapper Jim Jones. It’s a sensitive-guy role that he reprises from a previous season of Love and Hip Hop.

Rap Confessions

These examples are in stark contrast to the stereotypes that paint rappers as artists who make music solely about their material wealth and sexual conquests and how quickly they’ll pull out a gun to settle a beef. Although some of those depictions can be true, they’re equally shortsighted. Rappers do act like rappers, but sometimes, lest we forget, they’re human, too.

What is happening in hip-hop right now that’s allowing rappers to open their hearts? The answer may have less to do with any newfound male self-awareness than with a cyclical recurrence of the genre’s reliance on being authentic. Please note: Male sensitivity in hip-hop isn’t all that new.

“I think it’s always been kind of a backup force,” says John Kennedy, the music editor at Vibe magazine, of rap’s vulnerable side. “Hip-hop goes in tides. Late ’90s, DMX came out and everything was gritty. Then Ja [Rule] had his run, and then 50 [Cent] came. And then it was street again. Then Kanye came and it was a little bit less street. It just goes back and forth.”