A look back at sad rap: hip-hop has never been too cool for despair
March 18, 2018 10:01 PM   Subscribe

In January 2018, The New Yorker ran the article Lil Xan and the Year in Sad Rap, in which Carrie Battan provides a snapshot of a recent trend where "a cohort of young musicians embraced a depressive sound and became stars." Except the article misses the (slightly) longer history of this sub-genre, focusing on the recent past where Lil Uzi Vert's XO Tour Llif3 is a pinnacle of modern melancholy machismo, but missing 16 year old Yung Lean and his tongue-in-cheek cable broadcast "sadboy" aesthetic earlier in the current sad rap trend, back in 2013. And that's not the beginning, just another starting point.

According to Pigeons and Planes' History of Sad Rap in 2013, Little Pain was the Brooklyn rapper at the forefront of the sad rap movement, along with Yung Lean Doer, but far from the first rappers to talk about the sadness and grief that the artists and their peers were experiencing. Pigeons' article is old enough that their links and embedded videos aren't all active any more, but the text is still a good overview through 2013, so here's an updated summary of notable singles, albums and mixtapes:

Despair in the Birth of Hip-Hop:
  • Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five - “The Message” (1982) -- "a grave story song about trying to maintain your cool in a hopeless place"
  • Melle Mel - “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” (1983) -- "criticized the era’s dangerous dalliances with cocaine"
Darkness and Horror in the Early to Mid 90s:
  • Houston's Geto Boys - “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” (1991) -- the group "staked their career on this fixation on the darkness, and their violent, occultish oeuvre is one of the foundations of the horror-core subgenre," and in this single, "the dark and the hurt squared off" in "an indispensable hip-hop classic"
  • Scarface - “I Seen a Man Die” (1994) -- "a voice that could believably commute angst" was "put it to stunning use on a tale of inner city hopelessness and loss of life"
  • Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang [YT pl] (1993), specifically “Can It All Be So Simple” and “Tearz,” and "even the get money anthem “C.R.E.A.M.” was shot through with devastating lines like Inspectah Deck’s “As the world turns I learned life is hell.” "
  • Notorious B.I.G. - Ready to Die (1994) -- "filled with paranoiac musings on the ways he expected his line of work to lead to his demise," But "on deep cuts like “Everyday Struggle” (“I don’t wanna live no more/Sometimes I hear death knocking at my front door”) and album closer “Suicidal Thoughts” he brought his own sadness front and center in the music"
  • 2Pac - “How Long Will They Mourn Me?” (1994) and Me Against the World (1995) -- the album "is full of sad rap precursors is full of sad rap precursors like “So Many Tears” (“Back in elementary, I thrived on misery") and “Lord Knows” (“I smoke a blunt to take the pain out/If I wasn’t high, I’d probably try to blow my brains out”)."
Sad rap hits the charts in the mid-to-late ‘90s
  • Bone Thugs-N-Harmony - “Tha Crossroads” (1995) -- "one of the most nakedly sorrowful hits of the era"
  • Puff Daddy and Faith Evans featuring 112 - “I’ll Be Missing You” (1997) -- "the passing of Biggie prompted Diddy to flip “Every Breath You Take” into [that year's] multi-platinum smash"
  • DMX - “Slippin’ ” (1998) -- "deeply personal ... travelogue about his struggles with drugs"
  • Nas - “We Will Survive” (1999) -- "tucked ... away in the middle of I Am... [YT pl], one of his most adroitly commercial solo efforts"
  • Wu-Tang Clan - “I Can’t Go To Sleep” (2000) -- "wherein Ghostface and RZA literally cry about injustice over a loop of Isaac Hayes’ epic 1970 cover of “Walk On By”. "
  • Jay-Z - “Where Have You Been” and “This Can’t Be Life” [Soundcloud Go+ samples] (2000) -- in the latter, he "opened up about a girlfriend’s miscarriage and an absentee father ... [with] another Scarface appearance on a sad rap classic"
  • Jay-Z - “Song Cry” (2001 album release, as a single in 2002)
And then there was Slim Shady
  • Eminem - “If I Had” and “Rock Bottom” (1999) -- "which documented his struggles as a talented rapper in need of a career breakthrough to save him from ruin as a drugged-out family man whose relationship with his girlfriend appeared to be in a perpetual state of collapse."
  • Eminem - “The Way I Am” (2000) and “Cleaning Out My Closet” (2002) -- "introspective and revelatory cuts" from their respective albums, which had an impact on Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt
Underground "emo rap"
  • Atmosphere - “GodLovesUgly" (2002) -- "both a snarlingly self-deprecating appraisal of his plight as a struggling rap artist and a declaration of perseverance in the face of those troubles. Atmosphere’s way with personal struggles garnered him and his associates the grating title of “emo rap.” "
  • Sage Francis - Personal Journals [YT pl] (2002) -- "an aptly titled trip through a life of adversity and ambitions as a rapper with songs like “Inherited Scars," which deals with the sensitive subject of a family member’s problem with cutting"
  • El-P - Fantastic Damage [YT pl] (2002) -- "wherein El periodically broke through his dense word origami on tracks like “Stepfather Factory," a tale of childhood abuse told as a futuristic sci-fi epic"
  • Cage - Hell’s Winter [YT pl] (2005) "jampacked with confessional oversharing, especially on “Too Heavy for Cherubs” and “Stripes," both autobiographical stories of a young Cage trying to cope with his father’s abuse and heroin addiction"
New decade of pop rap sadness
  • Kid Cudi - “Day 'n' Nite” (2008) -- "wore those tough times proudly on his ... breakout single"
  • Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak [YT pl] (2008) -- "an album-length autotuned freakout that pushed Kanye’s anguish to the fore over stark production that mirrored the icy synth textures of early ‘80s British new wave moreso than hip-hop"
  • Kid Cudi - Man on the Moon: The End of the Day [YT pl] (2009) -- "both [albums] depict MCs at the precipice of collapse funneling emotional malaise into music that invigorated their careers even as it kind of cataloged their undoing"
  • Drake and Noah “40” Shebib - So Far Gone [Datpiff] (2009) -- the "mixtape that put both of them on the map commercially speaking, synthesized 808s’ sound and fury into a package that was less stark and uninviting and more commercially palatable"
  • Drake - “Marvin’s Room” (2011) -- "a story song that takes the shape of a messy, drunken late night call to an ex-girlfriend to demean the man who replaced him ... an unlikely summer radio smash, a soupy, ethereal song that sucks the air out of whatever room you play it in"
  • Drake - Thank Me Later
  • T.I. - No Mercy [YT pl] (2010), notably “Castle Walls” and “No Mercy” -- "Tip used the quieter portions of No Mercy to detail the suffocating difficulties he feels as a figure constantly in the public eye for all the wrong reasons"
  • Diddy & Dirty Money - Last Train to Paris (2010) -- "gave Drake, Cudi and Kanye’s sad rap blueprint a Bad Boy twist"
  • Future - “Turn on the Lights” and “Neva End” (2012) -- "sad robot love songs ... find him playing the trap house foil to Drake’s millionaire playboy"
  • Lil B the Based God - “What You Doin’ " (2009) -- "when he thunders into gutting, emotive fare like the glacial 6 Kiss deep cut ... all questions about authenticity quickly disintegrate"
Which brings us to 2013, and 5 years behind the times, but we're getting closer. First stop: Sweden and Yung Lean, who was almost 17 when he dropped his debut mixtape, Unknown Death 2002 (Mishka's Bandcamp stream; download from Archive.org; Mishka previously, twice), which included the singles "Ginseng Strip 2002", "Kyoto", and "Yoshi City" [official videos on YouTube]. The mixtape marked the start of a burgeoning microgenre that has grown and changed since then.

In 2014, Hot New Hip Hop looked at sad rappers and their saddest songs, covering some of the same highlights as Pigeons & Planes, but also some newer era names and tracks:
  • Chance The Rapper - "Acid Rain" (2013) -- "... as enthusiastic and bat-shit hyper as most of these tracks are [on the Acid Rain mixtape [Datpiff], there is an undercurrent of deep melancholy throughout the record that all bubbles up to the surface when the [...] track, "Acid Rain" hits.
  • Kid Cudi - "Solo Dolo" (2009) from his signature Man On The Moon album
  • Kanye West - "Blame Game" (2010) -- "He has a tear-inducer about his mom and even made an entire album devoted heartbreak, but "Blame Game" off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy may be one of his most effective."
  • Tyler the Creator - "Inglorious" (2009) -- "he's incredibly talented and funny, an excellent producer and a seriously depressing lyricist."
  • Capital Steez - "Emotional Thoughts" (2012) -- "Maybe this isn't fair, but hindsight elevates the lovely and melancholy "Emotionless Thoughts" to heartbreaking levels" [The Secc$ TaP.E official link
  • Tupac - "Brenda's Got A Baby" (1992) -- "he transcended the gangster image to talk about real problems, often of the socio-economic inequality kind"
  • Eminem - "Stan" (2000) -- "veers from the autobiographical to a lyrical fantasy and it stands as one of his best songs and one of the saddest tracks ever made"
  • Yung Lean - "Hurt" (2013) -- "Charizard blast burning through these grass type motherfuckas. Blue-Eyes-White-Dragons in Sweden. Forever." (Paired with that 1990s 3D software demo / local access cable channel video visual style)
Delving past (first generation) Yung Lean and deeper into the world of Sad Rap with Vice's Noisey sub-site: Of this last batch, it seems only Yung Lean and Spooky Black have gone on with any renown. Following his debut mixtape, Lean went on to make three official albums (Unknown Memory in 2014, Warlord in 2016 and Stranger in 2017) plus another mixtape, Frost God, in 2016 that was overshadowed by his album that year. Each release sees him evolving,
Add video games and American pop-culture references alongside depressing themes of aspirations and isolation, Yung Lean became perfect for the Tumblr generation.
[Warlord found Yung Lean] transitioning from teenager to adult ... in the internet age. The Swedish rapper’s third album offers glimpses of his full potential, songs that pierce through the detachment that once obscured real emotion.

Then there's Spooky Black, once a kid in Minnesota in a questionable du-rag who has stayed more mysterious than his Swedish counterpart. He posted his first EP, Forest in 2013, then took it down, then re-posted it with fewer tracks, then took it back down. 2014 was his peak year of (public) productivity, dropping the gangster slang and pose and instead sliding into morose R&B with the EP [YT] Leaving [Datpiff], and he re-named himself Lil Spook and made , a new mixtape [YT], Black Silk [Audiomack], joined fellow Minnesota musicians Allan Kingdom, Psymun, and Bobby Raps as the hip hop/R&B group the Stand4rd, releasing a self-titled album/mixtape [P&P review/ DL link]. Spooky Black/Lil Spook renamed himself again, releasing his debut track at the end of 2014 under his own name, Corbin, initially on Soundcloud, but he deleted it shortly there-after. Corbin teamed up with Bobby Raps again to make a new EP and put it on Bandcamp, and posted the first track with a weird/ goofy video, showing that despite their deeply gloomy music, they didn't take it too seriously. But you wouldn't know it from the three videos up on his very quiet YouTube account [Spooky Black - "Reason" and "Idle" // Corbin - "Hunker Down"]. That final video is from his debut album, Mourn, which one reviewer refers to as "a gentle mix of [The Cure's] Disintegration and Late Nights with Jeremih." Except that it's a concept album about a couple running off to the woods due to the “current state of affairs in the country,” with an unfortunate ending. Corbin, who had largely disappeared since 2015 because he "just had noting to say," talked with Joe Price for Dazed Digital in a rare interview.

Bonus link: Rise of the Sad Boys: from Kompakt to Yung Lean, a history of how electronic musicians have worn their sadness on their sleeves (FACT Mag, 2013)
posted by filthy light thief (19 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
search: 'scarface' - okay, thank god
posted by atoxyl at 10:48 PM on March 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Filthy Light Thief, as always, thanks for the education!
posted by ouke at 11:30 PM on March 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

You deserve a Nobel prize for this post, thank you so much!!
posted by lollymccatburglar at 12:17 AM on March 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is a wonderful post, but, also, 'Dead Homiez' (also also, 'Poor Georgie,' 'T.R.O.Y.', 'All That I Got is You').
posted by box at 4:44 AM on March 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is a fantastic post and reminds me of something that I read a while back about how the best ghost stories are tragedies first and horror stories second. Sorrow is a powerful and persistent emotion whether it's implicit or explicit in the work.

Fascinating to learn more about this through the specific lens of hip hop.
posted by slimepuppy at 5:51 AM on March 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

No one mentioned Lil' Peep yet? Come Over When You're Sober, Pt. 1 is a fantastic example of emo-rap, an ill-defined genre that he perfected on "Benz Truck" and "Awful Things" of the afore-linked mixtape. Sadly, there will be no "Come Over When You're Sober, Pt. 2," since 'Peep died of a drug overdose. He wanted to be the rap version of Kurt Cobain, and I think he absolutely nailed it on this album.
posted by Mr. Fig at 11:26 AM on March 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

When I die bury me with all my ice on
When I die bury me without the lights on

Rest In Peace Lil Peep
posted by yellowbinder at 11:35 AM on March 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

(You've probably already seen it, but this John Jeremiah Sullivan elegy for Lil Peep is pretty good.)
posted by box at 11:49 AM on March 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is a fantastic post, filthy light thief! There are a lot of very bleak, "sad", rap songs that have gone underneath the radar, especially during the 90's when horrorcore rap in the vein of Scarface, Brotha Lynch Hung, and others, were around. This is a really great blog for finding more artists of this style, specifically from the mid-90's Memphis underground scene. I'm not sure how many of the links still work, but you can find some of these albums on YouTube. I went through and listened to a lot of these songs many years ago, and there are some gems in there if you're looking for stuff like Scarface and Geto Boys. The combination of the lo-fi, cassette quality of the songs, as well as the stark, "gritty" lyrics, some of which describe scenes of brutality while lamenting about the misery and depression they feel for being in particular situations, lends itself toward being "sad" in the way that a lot of mid-90's gangsta rap did. Definitely check out some of these if you're a fan of anything like Geto Boys, Scarface, Bone Thugs, etc.
posted by gucci mane at 12:24 PM on March 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Or even UGK. Especially since two out of three people on that track (and DJ Screw) are now dead.

Andrew Noz seems to be working on disappearing himself from the Internet but I used to read him a lot and he always used to point out the falsity of the distinction between "hardcore/gangster" rap and "emotional" rap. The South especially seem to a have a real dark streak. Which also reminds me - is it me or does Kevin Gates get weirdly little discussion considering his popularity? He's not a 19-year-old with multicolored hair and he seems to have transitioned from being seen as a generic trap rapper to being seen as a generic pop-trap rapper but he's actually confessional and emotional as hell, in that Southern tradition.
posted by atoxyl at 1:33 PM on March 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks! I geeked out over this for a while, in part because sad music makes me happy (and there are reasons this is true, according to science).

If you want to pick up most of (DJ) Egadz tracks from Sad Music Makes Me Happy, you can pick up Shining Hours from Bandcamp, though this version from Amazon has more tracks and this version has even more, and it's also available as a more expensive digital "two disc" EP, but the original SMMMH CD is still being (re)sold.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:17 PM on March 19, 2018

Working hard not to be my usual asshole cranky old man in hip hop topics, thanks for this filthy light thief! For my crappy contributions, I'll try to do some songs maybe nobody has heard of, or forgot about.

7A3 - Mad Mad World (1988).
Monie Love - Read Between the Lines (1990).
King Sun - Big Shots (1990).
Paris - The Days of Old (1992).
Living Legends - Immortal Souls (1997).
Immortal Technique -- Leaving the Past (2003).
The Roots - Clock with no Hands (2006).
P.O.S. - Bleeding Hearts Club (2006).
Guilty Simpson - Cali Hills (2010).
GDP - Catatonia (2013).

Unlike filthy, sad songs actually make me sad and I have to turn to something else to avoid falling into a depression if I let too many play in a row. The Guilty Simpson song is about the death of J. Dilla. I never knew much about Dilla but I love the way that song plays as a retrospective and documentation of his feelings, and it feels as unfinished as it should.
GDP's Catatonia got me with the bleakness of how I already pictured New Jersey and then having him talk about "In this city where the only steady business is parking garages and writing people tickets".
Mad Mad World where he talks about army vets coming back from war - that was one of the first places I learned about that whole situation.
Monie Love's tales were so depressing because she speaks to things that were problems then, problems in the future, and problems to this day. Paris' the Days of Old is similar.
Big Shots is so haunting still to this day. One of the best examples of songs from way back when, when there was a major negative consequence of the drug game. I still wonder who that guy was that he names. It's haunted me enough that I searched for the man trying to find his story - who he was and how he came to buy that house. I'm avoiding using the song lyrics so that future searches don't lead me back here.
posted by cashman at 6:28 PM on March 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

search: 'scarface' - okay, thank god

Also, this comment is underrated. A good list of all the fantastic sad rap Scarface songs, just from his own work, would be at least 20 songs.
posted by cashman at 6:30 PM on March 19, 2018

Incredible, fantastic post & comments...!!

There were "too many" links to click, so I made a YouTube playlist with all 97 videos found so far (post & comments) :-)

Here it is! Press the "Play All" link in the upper right video to start it.

Thanks again!
posted by vert canard at 10:05 AM on March 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

Oh hey, it's me, cranky asshole on rap topics! So thanks for assembling that playlist. Aside from the Cure album that shows up because of the reference, it was mostly rap. That said, all that Spooky Black and Lil Peep and Yung Lean - terrible terrible terrible. I'm not even partial to eras. A lot of people in my same cranky demographic are partial to 90's hip hop and essentially have given up on new stuff. But there's so much great stuff out there! Royce has that new song "Rock It" and is further solidifying himself as the greatest rapper alive if Black Thought and Rakim disappear from the earth. Evidence has that new album out, and "Jim Dean" is flames. Billy Danze and Lil Fame each have their own songs out that are great - Say Nothing and . Also, Planet Asia is absolutely on a roll with his last 2 or 3 projects. Zion I, Black Milk, the list goes on.

But I feel like those terrible ones I mentioned are just a mush of the same warped beat, and I guess you have to be on something to even care. But maybe that just means it's not for me. Maybe in a world where nothing means anything if you're not posting it on social media, where everybody's on to the next thing to look at/sing/gawk at....maybe when sites big and small could care less about dating things and keeping older material on site, all in favor of just throwing it out in favor of the new (not the new quality, just the new), then putting out mindless background music that all sounds the same is infuriating to me, but reflects the world we live in now.

And that's what rap is supposed to do. So maybe instead of constantly shitting on that style of rap, perhaps it's better to also realize rap is doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing, and it's the status of the world, not the reflection of it, that angers me. The music is terrible because the world is. The shadows on the wall are reflecting what's in front of the fire, and the real world outside is just a labyrinthine set of caves the wealthy have constructed for us all to dwell in, with the same exact fires.

Anyway, ignore all that. More sad music! All Face stuff:

Street Life
A Minute To Pray, and a Second to Die
In My Time
Sorry For What
Now I Feel Ya
The 4 Hero remix of I Seen A Man Die
Six Feet Deep
posted by cashman at 5:00 PM on March 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm not going to threadsit, but... added all of your links, cashman! This is the last message from me (on this topic). :-)
posted by vert canard at 5:20 PM on March 20, 2018

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