The Rise of Vulnerability in Hip Hop: From Kanye to Kendrick
Since its beginnings, hip hop has been infatuated with the concept of authenticity. In a culture in which putting up a front is so frowned upon, sincerity is now being expressed through increasingly personal confessions of vulnerability.
From Rakim’s classic flow on ‘No Omega’ during hip hop’s ‘golden age’ through to the distilled ego of Kanye West, boasting and braggadocio have been lyrically prevalent among MCs for decades. Those that have currently cemented themselves at the top of the game, however, have begun to drift from this lyrical trope into increasingly personal territory: expressions of fragility and fallibility. And this seems to have influenced the new generation of talent.
This emerging lyrical motif is seen clearly in Kendrick Lamar’s discography. His second studio album, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, is a journey through temptation and self-loathing. From tracks ‘u’ to ‘i’, our narrator transitions from despising himself - experiencing a “resentment that turned into a deep depression” - to loving himself. But these tracks utilise more than just Kendrick’s unparalleled lyricism to explore his feelings, with his vocal delivery at times on the verge of tears, at others preaching powerful sermon. The stories of self-discovery and acceptance that pave the way between these two tracks are equally as personal and yet this lyrical introspection extends to make comments on community and society in an extraordinary way. ‘u’ sees Kendrick at his lowest. It is the most authentic portrayal of anger and sadness I have ever heard recorded. In an interview with Rolling Stone he commented that it was “one of the hardest songs I had to write… all my insecurities and selfishness and let-downs”. A far cry from the boastfulness on previous tracks, Kendrick’s introspection shows that vulnerability has a place in hip hop.
“Does this shift in lyrical motifs show any sign of vanishing soon? The answer, judging by the two years since ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’'s release, is no. Artists have completely reinvented themselves to fall in line with this trend.”
Danny Brown’s mixtape ‘XXX’ predates ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ and explores the fractured psyche of an addict. Primarily concerning his cocaine and Adderall use, on this mixtape Danny cleverly builds a character which he can use to show off his wealth and illustrate the horrific effects money has had on his mental health. His delivery switches from a high-pitched, cocaine-driven squawk to the bassy delivery of a grounded realist over the course of a single verse, with the lyrics following suit. The mixtape’s final bars explain the motivations of both of these distinct personalities, in what is again another deeply personal confession regarding his slowly vanishing sanity and, ironically, the accompanying happiness and stability it brings.
Does this shift in lyrical motifs show any sign of vanishing soon? The answer, judging by the two years since ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’’s release, is no. Artists have completely reinvented themselves to fall in line with this trend. On Tyler the Creator’s latest studio album, ‘Flower Boy’, he completely departs from his formerly controversial and inflammatory lyrics, writing about loneliness and his sexuality. What is it driving this trend? Is the motivation commercial or critical - are the audience and critics listening more, buying more, and enjoying more because they can empathise with the artist’s expression of fallibility? Or is it artistic - a movement that is reactionary to the emergence of characters like Kanye, who flaunt such an inflated sense of ego?
Certainly vulnerability has its commercial uses: ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ has been certified platinum and is already considered a classic, receiving 11 Grammy nominations and topping many year-end lists. Danny Brown’s latest studio album, ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, on which he continues the lyrical motifs and style that he developed on ‘XXX’, was also well received by critics. ‘Flower Boy’ is the best-received album of Tyler’s career, with an average score of 84 on Metacritic. However, the highly experimental nature of these albums and the widely acknowledged devotion of these artists to their craft leads me to believe that the motivation isn’t money or critical recognition.
So, is it reactionary to bold personalities such as Kanye? The rising hip hop collective, BROCKHAMPTON, who have dropped two incredible albums since June (‘Saturation’ and ‘Saturation II’), lead me to also conclude no to this question. Each MC in the collective writes about highly personal problems, from struggling with their sexuality, to a lack of acceptance from their families after dropping out of university, as well as dealing with mental health difficulties. Each also acknowledges their distinct and unique flaws. But they all met on an online Kanye forum, and many cite West as their biggest influence. Although I have to appreciate that every artist will have different motivations, I also struggle to believe that many would be driven to oppose such an influential, popular and lauded figure as Kanye.
Perhaps, then, the reason is cathartic. Writers may crave the release that accompanies writing about such personal struggles. Ultimately, I can’t say precisely what has driven this shift in hip hop. I just hope that it doesn’t let up anytime soon, because the last few years have given us some brilliant, moving, vulnerable and conscious music.