What’s with all the vulnerability lately?

Eminem’s latest album, Recovery, has been described as an emo rap CD, which is darn near oxymoronic, like referring to a glam metal album as “good.”

I haven’t listened to much of it, but based on the tracks I have heard, I wouldn’t say that description is inaccurate. But if you’ve been paying attention recently, there are some changing themes in hip hop.

After the musical arson of Lil John and Soulja Boy and (to a greater extent that is commonly realized) 50 Cent, the genre seems to be dusting off the ashes a little bit with some nuance that for all I know might mean the genre’s paradigm has finally edged off a little.

But you still have to scowl.

Take these three videos from the last few months:

Eminem and Lil Wayne’s “No Love”:

Jay-Z’s “Young Forever”:

And Cee-Lo’s (ahem) “Fuck You”:

All three of those videos — Cee-Lo isn’t a rapper but I include him anyway because this is my blog and I can do what I want — obviously explore themes of youth*.

*Two of them also sampled early 90s pop songs that as recently as six years ago were used as punchlines. Mr. Hudson’s “Forever Young” was included in Napoleon Dynamite (2004) for the same reasons Napoleon’s moon boots and wolf t-shirt were. And Haddaway’s “What is love?” basically had an entire movie (A Night at the Roxbury) based on how ridiculous the song was. I don’t know what this means, except that if you can somehow create one hit song, there is always a chance you’ll never have to work again.

But it’s more than just youth. It’s vulnerability. The kid in the “No Love” video gets bullied. The Cee-Lo kid is a dork who can’t get the girl. And I think it’s fairly obvious that a song called “Young Forever” is really about mortality (though Jay-Z makes clear in the lyrics he considers himself, or at least his work, to be immortal).

The best song of the three is almost certainly “No Love,” because it is the most involved. The other two are excellent pop songs, and Jay-Z’s song has a little more to it than that. But as with a lot of Eminem’s work, you get the feeling what you’re hearing is implicitly autobiographical — and in this case comical that one of the bullies in the video looks like Justin Beiber.

The song’s key line is kind of just thrown in toward the end of Eminem’s verse

“You’ll never take my pride,” he says.

I believe this is what the song is about. It is about Eminem’s life, beginning to end. His being bullied as a kid, mistreated by (in his opinion, I’m sure) practically everybody he’s ever met, his drug addiction, his critics, his terrible last album. The song begins with Lil Wayne saying, “Throw dirt on me, and grow a wild flower” and basically ends with Eminem saying “You’ll never take my pride” as the kid in the video summons the courage to stand up to his bullies.

What is interesting about this is not the pride thing. It is the angle from which this song approaches the pride thing. Pride has always been a big part of rap music, in most cases the central theme. But rappers have basically never depicted themselves as victims, and have certainly never embraced victimhood in any realistic way.

When Tupac actually did get shot five times at the studio where Notorious B.I.G. was recording, he made it clear he had been the victim of a crime, but you don’t get a whole lot of victimhood in his response song, “Hit ‘Em Up.”

The message is quite the opposite, actually. The whole point of the song is, “I’m better than you, which is why I didn’t die when you shot me.”

That, from 1994, was the essence of hip-hop victimhood for basically the next 15 years. Never an acknowledgment of vulnerability. Five shots couldn’t stop me, I took it and smiled.

It is tempting to say this apparently new sentiment in rap is an expression of a broader cultural feeling. A feeling in America, because of the recession or whatever, that we ourselves are vulnerable and that this sense was bound to work its way into pop culture. That may be true, I suppose, or it may be total hogwash.

I think it’s more likely that it is more narrow than that. The last few years, rap looked like it was descending into self parody. It looked like it was breathing its last breaths. Like the genre itself was vulnerable.

And maybe that has something to do with it.


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