Lugubrious: [loo-goo-bree-uh-s] (adjective): mournful, dismal or gloomy, especially in an affected, exaggerated, or unrelieved manner.
“Bitch, I’m morose and lugubrious / I’m’a let the uzi spit / turn his face into gooey shit” –Lil Ugly Mane, “Bitch I’m Lugubrious”
This is some ish I’ve wanted to spit on for a minute now, actually, but the world has kinda forced my motherfucking hand this week. To get the standard disclaimers and shit out of the way first: I am truly saddened at the loss of Robin Williams, an artist I admired greatly, who enriched my life in incalculable ways since I was a child. The world was certainly a better place with him in it, than without. With that said: I am never, let me repeat that word, NEVER surprised when an artist takes their own life. Especially one who’s work displays the sort of emotional complexity that Mr. Williams did.
It’s kind of an archetype or a cliché at this point in time: the image of the tortured artist, but there’s more than something to it. No one in the world spends as much time in close proximity with their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions as a person who creates art does. The experience can be fascinating, frightening, frantic, and I believe that most of those who continue down that path do so because of something they see when they look inside themselves that they just….can’t….quite….figure out.
The cool thing about art is that it gives us tools, it gives us languages. As strongly as I believe in blurring and bleeding lines together the idea of genre tropes and markers really create a shared vernacular. You can flip these different rules and pieces together and it lets you communicate on more than a surface level *with anyone who understands the code* but it also gives you an existing framework to push through your own emotions with. A genre can be like a framed-mesh for you to strain all the sand and gravel through as you hunt for those bits of gold and silver. And that stands for comedy and rap alike.
A few quick house-cleaning items to get out of the way here: when I talk about “sad-rap” I’m not just talking about rap that happens to be sad – many brilliant rap artists from Slug to Tupac have earned their bones spitting dat melancholy for decades now – I’m specifically going to be addressing the memeified modern internet rap-movement that artists like Lil Ugly Mane, Yung Lean, Lil B, Little Pain, Sad Andy, and the like all feed into on one level or another.
“I look good on the outside / but messed up on the inside / and everybody got a gun now / I guess I’m ready to die. Let me fly” –Lil B, “The Worlds Ending”
It’s important to acknowledge that hip-hop is as much sport as it is art, I think you could argue that for most of the 80s and 90s it was much *more* sport than art and it’s still being twisted and spun by that inherent tension between the artist’s need to express vulnerability and the gladiator’s need to project invincibility. On one level you could argue that the toolset our culture has created — the puffed-chest bravado, the simile punchlines, the multisyllable rhyme schemes, the brags, the boasts, the boisterous adlibs and thunderous basslines and machine-gun drum loops – is poorly suited to examinations of complicated, sometimes conflicting feelings of depression, weakness, and desperation.
Call me biased (or just #based) but I feel like the first dude who really took those tropes and deconstructed them was Lil B. You can look at a piece like the uncomfortably-personal “The Worlds Ending” video, which is basically just six-minutes of a very-depressed Brandon McCartney playing around with a pistol pointed at the side of his head, but you can’t remove the context that this is the same swagged-out Paris Hilton Wonton Soup motherfucker that can park his car and then fuck your bitch, doing Jerry Rice endzone dances in his tiny pants and ripped Vans. Through both fully and completely embodying extreme, deconstructed versions of the cocky, flashed-out brag rap he grew up on and diving into the innermost personal depths of his own pain and depression, B makes a remarkably powerful statement. That one doesn’t preclude the other. That swag is intrinsic and his personal value isn’t pinned to a code of external masculinity. That you can be swagged the fuck out not in spite of your flaws, and not just when distanced from your flaws, or when hiding your flaws, but right beside your flaws, maybe even because of your flaws, when embracing, adoring, and even romanticizing your flaws as critical, indivisible parts of who you are.
“Roofie up my absinthe in the club before I stagger out / Live or die? I’d rather take the latter route / Take the ladder out / Rope around my neck and kick the ladder out / there’s no need to drag it out” –Lil Ugly Mane, “Throw Dem Gunz”
On the other hand you have artists like Lil Ugly Mane, and Yung Lean. These guys stitch together trope on top of trope on top of trope. They craft entire soundscapes of multi-layered rap slang, leaned out beats, chopped vocals, and general spit-talk. The conflicted brilliance comes when truly uncomfortable personal observations are briefly allowed to bubble up to the surface, before being submerged again beneath a purple ocean of waviness. It’s not dissimilar from the feeling of your depressed friend making a slightly-too-real suicide joke around the bar table. This is a little closer to the way depression manifests itself in real-life; you could say that Lean and Ugly Mane have both composed outward-facing personas to better blend in and survive in their environments, the same way that people fighting depression have to adjust their behavior to deal with public at large. If you’re fighting through depression and someone asks you a casual “How’s your day” you’re going to want to spit some straight tatemae shit at them, but that honne bobs up to the surface now and then, too, it has to.
Which kinda brings us back to the tension between the art of rap and the sport of rap. There is definitely something humorous about what a lot of these artists do (humour, of course, has always been seen as a great tool for coping with internal conflict, pain, and tragedy) and because they’re using deeply-ingrained genre tools to explore these avenues there’s a sort of dissonance that occurs in what I will kindly call “traditionalist” listeners when those uncomfortable moments arise. A surface reading has trouble reconciling the two and the discomfort gets written off as parody, rather than a genuine attempt to explore complicated emotions using the only tools one has ever been given.
When we use the same kinds of tools and wear the same kinds of outfits people expect us to build the same kinds of works. The idea of using family comedies or trap raps to machete our way through murky questions of identity, self-esteem, suicide, and depression is deeply discordant for anyone who hasn’t “opted in” to that approach because it recolors otherwise familiar landscapes. It sneaks into your childhood home and moves all the furniture around, but it’s only through that uncomfortable familiarity that the two aspects can be bridged and reconciled.