The Black Men Opening Up Hip-hop

It’s an interesting time for hip-hop; you have some male artists wearing eye-shadow, while others sport teardrop tattoos. After gangster rap became a global sensation in the early 90s, the traditional image of a hip-hop artist has been stuck as a black man in baggy clothes, flashy chains and grills rapping out of his million-dollar car. But there’s a new, progressive trend that’s opening the door for LGBTQ artists, giving them a platform to be vulnerable and honest.

What’s even more groundbreaking is that it’s coming from black male artists. The most relatable, emotionally honest music of our day is coming out of black communities where that openness historically lead to persecution.

Hip-hop rose up from devastated communities and quickly became a platform for advocacy, especially in the 1980s-1990s. In the early 2000s, artists started to steer away from the standard political and crime-oriented lyrics, becoming softer and more romance driven. Nelly, LL Cool J and Ja Rule were big names for this era. Their work centred around romanticism and love, with just a touch of that old gangster flare.

Rap’s divergence from hyper-masculinity didn’t stop there. Now, we have artists reveling in their vulnerability. We’ve watched some transform into this, like Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean. Others, like Aminé, have been able to make their debut a tribute to surviving depression, reaching self-actualisation and winning against all odds thanks to those that laid the groundwork for them.

Aminé’s Good for You is actually GOOD FOR YOU  

In Aminé’s Good for You, the young rapper talks coming-of-age trials and tribulations. A majority of the album deals with depression and loneliness; something most young people can relate to. 
What’s different though is that it’s coming from a black male perspective, giving his story that much more weight. Aminé isn’t shy about it either, upon the release of his album, he held a pop-up shop to give away copies of the newspaper featured on the album cover. In it is a collection of stories and poems written by him, his family, friends and even stars like Steve Lacy. 

“The main purpose of the newspaper is just to give advice and a look into my world," Aminé tells Pigeons and Planes. "I think it kind of helps people get a better understanding of who I am personally. When they listen to the music, if I can make you understand who I am more, before you listen to the music, that kind of makes me feel better when you press play." 
As a black male rapper, it’s definitely more than what was expected for his first debut. The amount of raw sensibility he put into this work can be considered daring for the young artist.

Tyler the Creator’s evolution in sound

For some rappers, incorporating sensibility takes time. Tyler the Creator has been described as a rapper for eccentric, unconventional listeners. His references to Satan and lewd sexual acts has helped him cultivate the brand Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA). His musical style has attracted loners, geeks and angsty individuals. Is it possible though that even he can be transformed into a rapper that’s capable of breaking the widely-held thug perception of hip-hop artists? The answer is yes, and we can find proof by comparing his first album: Goblin (2011) to this year’s release: Flower Boy. The contrast of the album titles says it all. Tyler went from a rapper with no hope, constantly battling with his dark side, to making a whole album about personal growth, progression and transformation.  

In his song Where this Flower Blooms he says:

“Tell these black kids they could be who they are / Dye your hair blue, shit, I'll do it too … ”

Tyler is encouraging black youth to be who they are, not let the perceptions of society force them to fit the mould. There were also many references to his bisexuality. His song Garden Shed talks about what it’s like to hide in the “woods with flowers, rainbows, and posies,” and that he’s searching for a lover that looks like Leonardo DiCaprio. Even though he’s notorious for making “gay” jokes, he’s also made serious hints that he is bisexual. In a tweet from 2015 he said:

Many other music critics are convinced that his recent album is his coming out declaration. Whether this is true or not, the soft sensibility of his work is worth noting as an important contribution to the shift in hip-hop. 

Frank Ocean transforms queerness in hip-hop

Out of all the coming-out stories from hip-hop artists, Frank Ocean has to be the most poetic. Ocean has always been an artist in the business of subverting conventions, beginning with his unique R&B, pop and hip-hop fusion. He posted his coming-out letter on Tumblr in 2012, attributing Lil B as inspiration for his support of the LGBTQ+ community. The letter stated how he fell in love with a man and how he now identifies as bisexual. 

His latest album, Blonde, has many hints to having a male partner, and expressing his sexuality. Blonde has been transformative in how queerness is perceived in hip-hop music. This highly acclaimed album embodied queerness through vulnerability. In Good Guy, Ocean sings about a date he went on with a guy, one of his first songs where the listener got a first hand account of his love life. A new step by Ocean to be open about his sexuality and normalise it. The entire body of work contributes to the ongoing trend of progressive hip-hop that supports vulnerability.

There’s a new trend dominating the scene

It took six years for Tyler to make this turn-around. The change could have happened on its own, or maybe he noticed how other artists, like his friends Frank Ocean and Syd the Kid, are flourishing in this new age of hip-hop. There is now a sub-genre for all types of hip-hop. Within each sub-genre is a wide range of audiences that are demanding for songs about vulnerability and honesty. It’s open the door for rappers like Young M.A. and singers like Syd the Kid to make music while embracing their LGBTQ identities. Something that’s nuanced in itself. 

This new trend in hip-hop has been dominating the scene. Even though mumble rap and other sub-genres glorify the superficial, materialistic lifestyle, there are artists like Tyler the Creator, Aminé and Frank Ocean who are paving the way for artists to express their vulnerability, sexuality and genuine emotions. Since hip-hop is the most listened-to genre in the world, we can only hope that the listeners take note of this and find power within their own vulnerability.