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Quantifying emotional lyrics in

Emo rap




Last month I was listening to Spotify’s Rap Caviar, and for weeks the top track was “Lucid Dreams” by 19-year-old Juice Wrld. Unlike most hip hop, this track transported me back to high school, feeling my feelings.

I still see your shadows in my room

Can’t take back the love that I gave you

It’s to the point where I love and I hate you

And I cannot change you, so I must replace you, oh

Easier said than done, I thought you were the one

Listenin’ to my heart instead of my head

You found another one, but I am the better one

I won't let you forget me

If you’re old enough to remember, Juice Wrld’s song sounds like quintessential 2000s emo: Dashboard Confessional lyrics, but over a hip-hop beat. This emerging subgenre is known as “emo rap,” and Juice Wrld’s lyrics feel just as emotionally vulnerable as Dashboard’s, the poster band of mid-2000s teenage angst.

I wondered: Who has the most emotionally vulnerable lyrics, emo rappers or Dashboard Confessional? Has Juice Wrld out-emo’d emo bands?

To find out, I used the same approach that identified Radiohead’s saddest track, calculating percent of each song’s words associated with sadness or fear (my proxy for “emo” lyrics of the 2000s emo-pop era).

For example, here’s the chorus of Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3.” 33% of the words fall under the sadness/fear list, which is very high on the emo scale.

*we remove common words that generally don’t evoke meaning, e.g., articles such as “the” and “a,” pronouns, prepositions, and basic verbs such as “is”

Now let’s look at how emo rappers stack up against Dashboard and other 2000s emo bands (as well as some mainstream hip hop, like Lil Pump, and rock, like Radiohead and the Smiths, for good measure).

Average of Album’s Track Lyrics that are EMO*

*emo words = lyrics strongly associated with the emotion sadness and fear.

My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade comes out on top, but Juice Wrld’s Goodbye & Good Riddance and XXXtentacion’s ? follow closely behind. For what it’s worth, both emo-rap albums are far ahead of Dashboard, Fall Out Boy, and Jimmy Eat World.

Dashboard Juice Wrld Most Emo Least Emo

As expected, artists such as Lil Pump and Migos appear lower on the emo scale, which means the data is roughly measuring what it’s supposed to.

We’ve also charted three of Kanye’s albums, from least to most emo: The College Dropout, 808s and the Heartbreaks, and Ye.

Finally, let’s use our emo data to rank each artist’s tracks:

songs, ranked by emo* words

*emo words = lyrics strongly associated with the emotion sadness and fear.

There are sad, depressing songs that should be on this list but are excluded due to their reliance subtext. For example, “Cancer” by My Chemical Romance is off-the-scale sad, but since I’m measuring emotion via word usage, the analysis overlooks the song’s undertone.

“Pain” by XXXTentacion is interesting as the top song. It already seems out of place on a hip-hop album and could comfortably belong in any emo band’s oeuvre. The song is a minute and half in length, the lyrics are basically 6 lines, and, most appropriately, Travis Barker (of Blink-182) is on drums accompanying a live, guitar-filled instrumentation.

This song is on an album that is arguably one of the most popular of 2018, especially among the teens. It’s unapologetically about depression, and it has outpaced the popularity of most emo bands of the 2000s or early-2010s. When Juice Wrld’s “Lucid Dreams” had similar breakout success, it felt like something bigger than just genre fusion between hip hop and emo.

After hearing “Lucid Dreams” for the first time, my mind immediately went to the national conversation about mental health. The past 12 months have seemed to advance this conversation, especially when NBA stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozen opened up about their experiences with depression and anxiety, and both were universally praised for doing so.

Emotional music has always existed, and hip-hop heads will point to the 10 year-old 808s and Heartbreak as celebrated sad-rap. Yet, at least among popular hip hop, it seems that emotional introspection is gaining ground in a space otherwise occupied by hip-hop tropes: money, violence, misogyny, and drugs (the latter is still pervasive among the emo rap crowd). And if heartbreak is replacing sexual conquest in hip hop, it feels progressive in a way that emo didn’t.

A darker reading is that the trend toward 2000s emo pop isn’t all sunshines and rainbows. Tom Breihan wrote about this for Stereogum in Juice WRLD Turns SoundCloud Rap into Toxic Emo-Pop (emphasis mine):

The SoundCloud rap kids are doing something else. They’re not treating women as objects; they’re treating them as actively hostile forces. Every broken heart, every wounded feeling, is the fault of some conniving, disloyal, unfaithful, manipulative woman. It’s a whole new generation of male rappers embracing their own victimhood, and as someone old enough to be their father, it’s scary to witness.

Breihan goes on to reference Jessica Hopper’s Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t: “Emo was becoming a repository for wounded-male feelings, a place where women, never welcome onstage, only exist as catalysts for boys’ broken hearts and pent-up rages.”

The apprehension here is that an emo makeover of hip hop would produce the same issues that plague 2000s emo. Breihan’s essay goes into the differences between the two genres (particularly that hip hop has historically more gender parity than emo) and is absolutely worth a read.

Lindsay Zoladz wrote another take on emo rap in The Ringer, explaining the nuance in how emotional lyrics can feel relatively progressive but still preserve toxic masculinity:

At times it does feel genuinely progressive for so many male artists to be expressing and embracing sadness — it is, of course, often difficult for men to express emotion without being labeled “soft.” But the steely armor of Auto-Tune, the company of their mostly male cliques, and the welcoming codes of a shared aesthetic have all recently made a certain kind of “sad boy” attitude not only acceptable, but au courant. And yet, while these artists are revising and often expanding stereotypes about masculinity, their attitudes about women are old-fashioned, objectifying, and often plain antagonistic.

Both authors also go on to address the morality of even listening to some of the artists mentioned in this article (specifically XXXTentacion), with Zoladz accepting the likelihood that XXX will (posthumously) have imitators.

But the trend toward emo might be a natural consequence of Soundcloud rappers channeling their emo upbringing into hip hop. Juice Wrld concedes that he had an obsession with emo at a young age and that he’s proud to incorporate the genre into his music. In an interview with Pigeons and Planes, emo rapper Lil West says, “This [emo-rap] is the new emo...This generation is full of kids that grew up on this type [of] shit and are finding new ways to not just rap and sing over trap beats, but are smart enough to blend what they grew up on with trendy trap shit in today's rap.” In 2018, hip hop is pop, and an 18-year-old who grew up on Fall Out Boy is more likely to rhyme over beats than croon over a guitar.