(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.
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."
The self-confessional part of hip-hop is a fundamental aspect of the music and its focus on storytelling. The transparency allows listeners not only to piece together the personalities of their favorite artists but also to identify exactly what binds their seemingly distant worlds.
According to Nas, it's important to show fans the "regular guy" inside. "You know me — I'm pretty much a private cat — but today's game is all about the social media, and the social media is the devil. It puts all your business out there," he told Michael Eric Dyson in an interview on MSNBC's The Ed Show.
"My divorce was very public, and so many people were talking about it," he continued. "I felt like it was very necessary to address it myself. As I was recording the music, I tried to stay away from it for a little while, but I couldn't, so I thought it was just therapeutic to just put it all out there."
Last year, certain songs from a generation of artists — including Drake, Kid Cudi, Community actor Donald Glover (who goes by "Childish Gambino") and Kanye West — were dubbed "emo rap" and put the subgenre back into the forefront. According to Kennedy, artists like "Drake and Kid Cudi really represent the current paradigm shift of hip-hop being in touch with its emotions."
West's 2008 album, 808s & Heartbreak, an artistic fusion of love lost, loneliness and distress, was conceived in the wake of his mother's death and a breakup with fiancee Alexis Phifer a year earlier. Whether the album was "good" or "bad" is debatable, but it was no doubt a standout moment in his career, when he produced a platinum-selling album while at an all-time low.
Similarly angsty rap bubbled from the indie underground even before that when Slug and Atmosphere headlined a concert at the Scribble Jam festival in Ohio in 2004, where the artists showcased lyrics of love and insecurity in "F—k You, Lucy."
The Angst Starts Here
It's no secret that when even the most guarded of artists release their inner feelings, it spawns some of the greatest, most emotionally rousing hip-hop hits. Some of the newest songs out there represent a revival in the direction of some of the more familiar emotional oldies but goodies.
On Slaughterhouse's newest album, Welcome to: Our House, Joe Budden, Crooked I, Royce Da 5'9" and Joell Ortiz talk about different things that affected them emotionally, especially Crooked I's memorial song for his late uncle, "Goodbye." That song is in the same tradition of heartfelt rhyming as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's "Tha Crossroads" and Tupac's "Changes."
The artists are merely reflecting the ups and downs of everyday life: celebration and victory, missing and mourning, redemption from revealing skeletons in the closet, anger, venting, appreciation and, of course, love lost and found.
The very things that Lupe Fiasco shed tears over and continues to rant about — violence, death and social problems in inner cities — were addressed in Ice Cube's 1990 single "Dead Homiez." Males in hip-hop — especially black males — have learned to share their fears, doubts, troubles and dreams in a refreshing way — in addition to praising themselves for their mountainous riches, premium bottle service and conquests with willing women, of course.
Whether it's through somber tunes like Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth's "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)" and the Puff Daddy-Faith Evans-112 collaboration "I'll Be Missing You," made in memory of the fallen, hip-hop's leading patriarchs have made hits with heavy emotional appeal.
Not all accounts were so sad. Hip-hop mogul Jay-Z may have gotten the "aww" moment of the year with his song "Glory," which recounts the joy of gaining the title of "dad." Right after wife Beyoncé delivered their daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, in January, he recorded the song, which features the infant starlet's cries and coos.
In 2012 hip-hop remains comfortably nestled in its sensitive stage, until it's ready to be moved. We just have to wait and see who the next rapper will be to cue that musical shift back to the streets, where hardened demeanors flourish. Kennedy would put his money on Meek Mill. "He reminds me a lot of DMX and 50 in that he's very much a street artist," he says of the Philadelphia Maybach Music Group rapper. "He comes from that, but he makes great songs that men and women can get into. I think he could really be the next one."
For now, it's refreshing that aspects of the music reflect the notion that it isn't always about promoting an alpha-male persona in order to make a hit. Sprinkling in a little bit of honesty and intimacy is what maintains the relatable persona that hip-hop devotees cherish so much. It just took a few sappy moments to refresh our memories, in case we forgot.
Stacy-Ann Ellis is an editorial intern at The Root.