In the last fortnight, Lil Nas X has once again set the Hip-hop sphere on fire - in case you’ve been living in the Amish community ‘MONTERO’ is a first-class theatrical display that a ‘98 Busta and Janet Jackson ‘What’s it gonna be’ collab would be proud of. From riding horses to riding Satan, this visual spectacle came the week after we collaborated with MandemLinkup on discussing the intersection of masculinity in hip-hop. MandemLinkup is an online community that challenges masculinity cliches and discusses issues of mental health - the idea of the Zoom talk was to discuss flashpoints, themes and the journey masculinity has taken in hip-hop. With X’s latest drop it just shows a sign of the times and the progressive nature of the culture - let’s get into it below.
Over the hour, it was plain to see that contemporaries alongside Lil Nas X like Tyler, The Creator, Jaden Smith and Young Thug are contributing to the maturity of hip-hop culture. To take it back to the roots, hip-hop was all about being your authentic self - for some it was the come up out of the hood, making a better life for their kin, or striving to create generational wealth.
Another strand, however, has been an open expression in theatrics, to really perform and sell a story to the audience. Just like when Eminem dressed up as Britney for ‘Real Slim Shady’ 20 years ago, Lil Yachty was recently seen dressing up like Oprah in ‘Oprah’s Bank Account’. There are many lenses we can put on for this, “He must be super comfortable with his sexuality”, “This is a power move to show his Oprah-level financial status”, “He’s a kid just messing with everybody as Em did”. Truly though, it’s an immense tangent away from the toxic trend of talking about the size of your dick, how other rappers are bums, how many foreign’s in your garage and how many foreign’s you’ve chopped (to entertain popular terminology.)
If there's any genre that you can be expressive and hopeful for it to make a change, it’s hip-hop with its foundations built in socio-political undertones - and if it takes dressing up to do that why is it any less poignant or any less masculine than white-male pop-star/rock-act counterparts doing the same? Did we forget that Prince and Rick James were hetero norm sex icons who caricatured pimp culture with their Jheri curls, painted nails, tight leather pants and knee-high boots? I know you’re sitting there with your mind blown - take a sec before reading on, go ahead.
The discussion was facilitated by myself, Rav Kumar (RK), with Esh leading the discussion at the beginning (EJ), with contributions from Brian Oko (BO), Jolly La Barbera (JLB), Hiren Mehta (HM), and Henry Houdini (HH). We kicked off the talk discussing memorable moments in hip-hop where masculinity was either called into question or examined under the microscope and the theme of bravery struck a real chord.
"So I can wear skinny jeans and I can skateboard and I'm not a douche. And thinking about that now, that challenged the notion of masculinity for me."
EJ: Young Thug - is this the same guy that wore a dress and this guy's got his fingernails painted? But he's in music videos with some rappers that probably wouldn't do any of that sort of stuff, right. But he's alongside them with his fingernails painted and sort of a completely different dress sense. And I think that that's quite eye-opening in itself and it's quite impressive actually to see that bravery in artists like that.
BO: I was thinking of Tyler, The Creator as well. Usually with his sexuality not being super defined. And like the whole Frank Ocean thing several years back, which I think kind of changes the whole perspective of what was hip hop before. I think Kanye kind of broke that thing first because he was talking more personally about his problems and how he was thinking over things. He was not as intimate before, at least not that deep.
HM: A lot of what I learned about being a guy, being a man came from hip hop music. And the stereotype that I have of someone who's a hip hop artist is someone who's, yeah, like some of the points you guys made were like talking about women, how to get women, how to get rich, wearing the bling, aggression, like who have I killed or who have I fought. But now Kid Cudi and Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, apparently some of them have now been talking about their suicidal feelings, being more vulnerable in the lyrics. I remember seeing Pharrell on one of his videos. And he was wearing skinny jeans and he was skateboarding and I was like, oh, wow. So I can wear skinny jeans and I can skateboard and I'm not a douche. And thinking about that now, that challenged the notion of masculinity for me.
HH: I had to pick a moment itself, it would probably be Lil Nas X. Just his kind of being obviously really well known and him coming out I think last year, pride actually, of just being gay. And I think that that is just kind of a sign of the times. And it's funny because people like Young Thug and, I can't remember who else, even Kanye. Oh, so the Cam'ron thing is like they'll do things that aren't traditionally masculine, but still have that kind of aggression and masculine energy.
I think we need to also shout out Drake for this. Because I think before Drake, don't get me wrong, yeah, there's always people that knock down doors, and Kanye definitely knocked on the door before Drake and so on and so forth. But yeah, I feel like Drake was essentially known as the emo rapper for so long. Do you know what I mean? He was the guy that would talk about his emotions, getting curved by girls and caring about his mom and so on and so forth. And it's funny because he kind of flatters, he can do that soft stuff and then he'll do drill and talk about WAPs and stuff.
With most of the group straddling their 30s it was clear we were all spectators to the culture in the 90s and how gangsta-rap completely slaughtered the 2000s. With new sub-genres such as wavy music and drill setting the soundscape for 2020 onwards, how are our musical tastes adapting or developing?
"It’s easy to forget there’s also a sensitive part of those rappers where they were speaking more from an honest point of view, and adding misogynistic lyrics was the only way they could have fun. "
HH: I don't want to have to listen to violent lyrics for me to enjoy this music. Do you know what I mean? You can start to see drill kind of maturing in a way as well like Knucks had a set tune called ‘Home’. It's more like yes, it's kind of like the soulful drill and stuff like that. In terms of being homophobic and being misogynistic or being materialistic and I mean all these things. But I do say like a little disclaimer of like, if you do just want to listen to that wholesome conscious rap there's plenty of that out there. But the mainstream view of hip hop is that it has toxic elements to it. But I think that as we see the diversity with people like Tyler, The Creator and stuff and like just seeing how someone can belong in the world of hip hop, still kind of engaged in the same cues.
BO: The level of maturity goes with the genre as well. I think at the beginning it was mostly like just making little rhymes here and there and like it's the 70s/80s, making everything rhyme as it was to create an atmosphere at a party. Then some of the rappers developed into storytelling, reflecting the point of view of a young person that has been oppressed, right. When you're young you haven't developed yourself as a man and you’re adjusting to adolescence. You're not there yet, you might be reflecting altercations in the streets or coming from difficult upbringings and social dysfunction.
I think the misogynistic part of hip hop comes mostly from that adolescent focus on sex and money. When you're in your 20s you're not really thinking straight and super impressionable to the likes of 50 Cent and the story he was selling at the time particularly in his lyrics. Like “I'm going to talk about where I lived, the drugs, girls, the money”. And that sold a lot because adolescent people liked that type of controversial music and you’re drawn into it. It’s easy to forget there’s also a sensitive part of those rappers where they were speaking more from an honest point of view, and adding misogynistic lyrics was the only way they could have fun. Then the mainstream made it the stereotype - the pile of the money, showboating of cars, girls twerking and all that archaic stuff in the music videos. I'm not sure if I should condemn them, but I think it's part of the culture - even if it's a dirty part of it, it's part of it.
RK: A while back I was listening to a rapper’s verse where he was talking about receiving oral sex but in an overly aggressive forceful way. And I was thinking “is this normalised for my kin, my niece/nephews, friends’ sons and daughters?” I'm approaching it from this mentality now. I don't want any of them to hear that - each to their own when they come to an age of consent and whatnot, but I don't want them hearing that from a young age thinking it’s the only norm.
And I've come to this point of, how I do experience and appreciate hip-hop without having to hear women being passive passengers to violent sexual acts? Like sex happens to them, they're not participating in that. I'm approaching that period in my life where that doesn't really appeal to me.
No conversation about hip-hop can go a miss without mentioning Jay-Z, from his origins to where he’s developed now it’s clear that 4:44 was a turning point - whether it’s building generational wealth, apologizing to Beyonce about cheating, or being open about his mother coming out - he's tapped into his vulnerable stride and is fearless in releasing that type of content. No person or artist should have to wait two decades for their “4:44” moment.
Hip-hop has evolved a lot, but the music will always be driven by adolescents expressing their authenticity and realness - not being a punk, and not being punked. We are constantly being exposed to new unique forms of expressions and as time passes it just becomes part of our pop-cultural visual lexicon.
To ride out on an optimistic note here’s the last comment of the talk from Hiren Mehta:
"I'm really interested to see what hip hop is like in five to ten years time. And I think it's going to be more different than what we've seen before. And I don't know, maybe I'll see it when I follow Culture Shift, I'll see that change in that world. "
As fans of hip-hop, we want more than just a one-stop convenience store of the latest industry gossip or click-bait - publishing as a whole can do better. Culture Shift aims to open up more conversations similar to the subject of the intersection of masculinity extending to social issues, economical issues, and more. Our goal is to build a community across generational audiences by engaging everyone in a dialogue that affects them, but also allows them to broaden their horizons.
Want to hear more about pushing stereotypes of masculinity in hip hop? Check out 'Ep.4 The Rise of The Singing Rapper' from 'This Is Not a Drake Podcast'.