As Hip Hop celebrates its 50th anniversary, writer Yasmine Summan looks at the history and development of the Emo Rap genre.
August 2023 marked 50 years of Hip Hop, a genre that continues to evolve, innovate, and inspire the next generation of musicians. Cultivated in a post-war political landscape rife with disparity and inequality against Black Americans, empowered by The Black Arts Movement at that time, hip hop’s humble beginnings in New York have transformed into an entire culture, lifestyle, and movement that props up the music industry, boasting billion-dollar revenues per year. Over its 5-decade span, we’ve seen many faces of hip hop and its influence on other facets of music. One genre-fusion that is still sorely overdue for its flowers is Emo Rap.
Emo rap, also known as ‘Soundcloud Rap’ and commonly grouped in with trap metal, is associated with the explosion of artists fusing hip hop or rap with emo and alternative genres, using SoundCloud.com as a home for their work. Emo rap peaked in the mid-2010s, but many have argued that without nu-metal and rap-metal in the noughties emo rap wouldn’t have found its footing in the same way, and therefore, nu-metal is the precursor to modern emo rap. Early examples of this that are best known are, of course, Jay Z and Linkin Park’s collaborative EP ‘Collision Course’ which featured iconic remixes/mashups ‘Numb/Encore’ and ’99 Problems/One Step Closer’. Limp Bizkit also picked up similar tricks of the trade from rap and hip-hop at the time, both in their sound and their aesthetic. In a 2013 interview with XXL following Limp Bizkit’s signing to Lil Wayne’s Cash Money record label, frontman Fred Durst gushed about his long-standing love for hip hop and rap. “I grew up on all kinds of music, and then got turned on to hip hop around 1979 – I was checking out all these mixtapes. DJ Chuck Chillout, DJ Red Alert and all these crazy things, [the films] Wild Style and Beat Street. I was able to hear a lot of just that earlier primitive stage of hip hop where the groups were forming—the Disco Three before they were the Fat Boys, the Treacherous Three and the Cold Crush Brothers and all these types of people—somehow hearing that stuff just changed my life.” You also had Rage Against The Machine topping charts, Vanilla Ice and Ice T exploring heavier side projects – the nu-metal explosion of the 90s and early 00s is one that cannot be understated. “It was a beautiful time to be in,” says the unapologetically genre-fusing Kid Bookie. We’d then land into the late 2000s and early 2010s with rap metal, crunkcore, and party metal with the likes of Attila, Hollywood Undead, Insane Clown Posse, and Issues, until finally approaching the modern-day emo rap explosion.
To concisely summarise emo rap’s success in the late 2010s, Spotify provided their yearly recap of statistics back in 2018 that outlined emo rap as one of the more significant trends in hip hop within the last decade, boasting 16 million casual listeners per year. As reported by NBC news, emo rap’s popularity measured by Spotify streams alone grew 292 per cent within a year. Oh, and Spotify’s breakout artist of 2018? Juice Wrld, of course. Juice Wrld and Lil Peep are examples of the great heights emo rap was capable of reaching. Juice Wrld’s 2018 ‘Goodbye & Good Riddance’ debut would peak at Number 15 on the Billboard charts, not counting all the singles from that album that also hit the top 100 including ‘Lucid Dreams’ which peaked at Number 2, certified platinum as of May 2023, and was praised by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest hip hop records of all time. Lil Peep has equally left a remarkable legacy, building a cult following as early as 2015 with his various EPs and singles that amassed him 112k followers on Instagram and 82k followers on Soundcloud after just posting his first song. Along with his ‘Come Over When You’re Sober’ Part 1 peaking at 38 in the Billboard charts, and receiving gold certification in Denmark, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., Lil Peeps’ online popularity is what arguably shot emo rap into the mainstream. Without Lil Peep, it’s unclear whether emo rap would be as respected or developed as it is today.
Where emo rap deviates from rap and nu-metal is in the name, emo. The offshoot of 80s hardcore, emo music has always put emotional vulnerability often conveyed in the lyrics at the forefront of its entire identity. This allows it to manoeuvre seamlessly through genres without losing its core identity and values. Writer Andy Greenwald hits the nail on the head in his 2003 book Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo, where he describes emo not as a genre but as but rather “a particular relationship between a fan and a band … the desire to turn a monologue into a dialogue,” creating a “specific sort of teenage longing, a romantic and ultimately self-centred need to understand the bigness of the world in relation to you.” Emo rap came to be when artists fused hard 808 beats with deeply emotional lyrics often detailing an affinity for death, relationship troubles, struggles with self-worth or drug abuse.
There’s some argument about where emo rap started exactly, artist Phem argues “I noticed the sound creeping into things as early as Black Beatles. A lot of people might disagree with me on this but Swae Lee was one of the first to inject the emo inflexions into hip hop and mainstream music. Rae Strummer & Mike Will’s production, that’s what got me hooked. I had never before heard that vocal inflexion on beats like.” Most credit Lil Peep, Juice Wrld, Lil Uzi Vert, Rico Nasty, Ghostmane, nothing.nowhere., Lil Tracy, Trippie Redd, Bladee, $uicideboy$, and XXXTentacion for popularising the genre, however, emo rap experts favourably praise Bones and GothBoiClique for creating the groundwork for emo rap to flourish, with SoundCloud being the home of that success.
Other artists at that time that often go overlooked are Alexis Munroe, Ca$hrina, and Banshee. It’s actually still rare to find the same admiration for women of emo rap when exploring its history despite there being prominent women in the scene. Rico Nasty, Alexis Munroe, Princess Nokia, Daine, Phem, Baby Goth, Lil Bo Weep, and plenty of others have been relegated to the sidelines of this conversation it feels. Writer Natelegé Whaley explores this for Pitchfork in ‘Rico Nasty and the Importance of Black Women’s Anger in Rap,’ explaining that “Black female artists kept owning their fury anyway, especially once hip-hop emerged. Early women rappers reaffirmed new forms of feminine power and aired out grievances with street harassment, abusive relationships, and their own foes, in a way no one else was doing at the time.”
Soundcloud eclipsed the hole left by MySpace and other early 2000s streaming platforms but was still relatively small enough for artists not to feel the pressure of delivering record-selling hits. “Some of my (early) memories include making music with my friends,” says Phem as she reflects on her early years in the Soundcloud sphere. As explained in a deep dive by Owen Verespy, major labels were often hesitant to take a chance on emo rap artists, and so they all marched to Soundcloud. Director of American Rapstar, an exploration into the SoundCloud rap explosion, Justin Staple spoke to Rolling Stone about just why emo rap exploded as it did. “Traditionally, rap was more party music and journalism of the streets and street poetry. But I think now there’s been a sense of isolation and uncertainty about where culture is headed, and a lot of the subgenres and subcultures have moved on to the internet and not so much in the club. Since the music can be consumed by yourself, in your room, and not in a club setting with a DJ, it is probably more prone to be sad than party anthems.” His documentary also explored how a lot of these artists grew up listening to Nirvana, My Chemical Romance, Slipknot, etc, paired with hip hop too, resulting in this fusion. “We are the babies that grew up on it,” says Kid Bookie. “We are completely experimenting in it in way more ways than ever before.”
Alternative music hates to admit it but it has always been trailing behind hip-hop, in some way or another. Whether it be nu-metal bands picking up hip-hop streetwear style and thinking they’re revolutionising fashion or the sorely overdue appraisal of emo rap that’s still heavily debated by sceptics who say it’s “not real emo.” The standoff between genres is nothing new, Bookie explains from his own upbringing with those two genres “I was right in the middle of both of it when it was kind of picking up. I was a skateboarder, I was into my rap and I was into my rock. Not everyone was doing both, you’d have to do one or the other. If you were both you were weird.”
Emo rap has been relegated to a peculiar place where neither rap and hip hop, nor emo wanted it. “Soundcloud rapper” was used as an insult for plenty of years, even OG’s like Snoop Dogg mocked the “mumble rap” style of rapping. Emo rap has taken some other blows regarding allegations that the genre glorifies drug abuse, with many blaming the opioid epidemic on artists who mentioned it in their music. With all the hate, and the tragic deaths of Lil Peep, Juice Wrld, and XXXTentacion, emo rap was left on the back burner for a minute or two, only really jolting back in 2021. As time goes on more music sceptics have come to appreciate what emo rap has become and pay their tributes to the genre. It will be interesting to see what opinions are almost a decade later.