Juice WRLD and the Rise of Emo Rap

On March 8th, rap artist Juice WRLD (who gained popularity from his single Lucid Dreams) dropped his latest album, called Death Race for Love. The album cover is what caught my eye; it’s in the style of an old PlayStation 2 video game, which made me feel a major sense of nostalgia for the older days. I gave it a listen, and I was surprised to find that it started off strong, with catchy hooks and simple instrumentation. And then I realized there were 22 songs on it. Who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to make an album with 22 songs? Not to mention some of the songs are incredibly short, and the average is about 3 minutes, which is nothing to boast about. Needless to say, I got bored around the halfway mark; I couldn’t distinguish one song from another and I couldn’t even tell you the names of them. It got me thinking though; what is the appeal of an album like this? How is it supposed to be listened to? And that brings me to the recent trend of emo rap.

The pioneers of this movement were XXXTentacion and Lil Peep, who have both passed away within the last two years. They were known for simple, melodramatic music, but more importantly for their personalities and presentations. They both gained a large musical following, and their deaths were incredibly tragic. However, rappers like Juice WRLD have carried on what they started. Namely, music that combines the simplicity and lyricism of rap with the themes and ideas of emo culture. Emo culture is a topic in itself entirely, so I won’t try to engage that too much, but basically these rappers appeal to the sadder side of people.

Taking this into consideration, it’s easier to see why Death Race for Love is so long and uninteresting musically: the emphasis is on developing a gloomy, mournful, and emotion heavy atmosphere. It’s something you put on in the background when you’re feeling a little down, or on a rainy day when you’re stuck indoors. It’s consistent and without surprises, which makes it perfect for background music. To me, this is a shame; no music should just be reduced to background music. Music is art and should be appreciated as the center of attention. However, viewing the album in this way helps me better understand its appeal, and actually enjoy it. I can’t say there’s anything inherently wrong with Death Race for Love, or really any other emo rap album that has this appeal. They have a purpose and they achieve it well, even if it’s a bit self-deprecating. In the long run, I don’t think these albums will be classics, they’re just too forgettable. But I do think they’re part of a unique movement, and I’m sure it will only get more interesting in the future.

(Image Credits: Google Images)

Idris is Coming! Idris is Coming!

Tomorrow is a very exciting day for me.  Really, for all of Ann Arbor.  For myself, I get to see my good friend Idris Goodwin for the first time in nearly three months. He will be coming from Iowa City, where he’s pursuing an MFA in playwriting, to read from his New York Times acclaimed book These Are The Breaks.  He has been featured on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, has produced some rap albums, and his latest play, How We Got On, about three suburban kids who find their identities and forge friendships through hip-hop in 1988 was produced by the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.  That is where we met, and I think we both had one of the best summers of our lives.  For the benefit of the rest of Ann Arbor, tomorrow night he’ll be joined at the Tea Haus with friend and fellow author Kevin Coval.  I don’t know much about Mr. Coval, but if he’s a friend of Idris’s, I’m sure he’s worth checking out.  His website says he is an educator, poet, the co-founder of Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Teen Poetry Festival, and a regular contributor to Chicago Public Radio (you caught me, I’m an NPR nerd).  I’m sure this will be a great night at a small venue in one of my favorite parts of Ann Arbor.

It still kind of amazes me that I am lucky enough to call Idris a friend.  I had one of the best internships available to theatre students this past summer.  I was privileged enough to work in the literary office of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.  The O’Neill presents four conferences during the summer: the National Playwrights Conference, National Music Theater Conference, National Puppetry Conference, and National Cabaret and Performance Conference.  I realized it was a big deal as it was happening, but it wasn’t until I got back to school that I realized just how big.  Just as a quick idea of the caliber of plays and musicals presented at the O’Neill, here are some notable alumni: Fences by August Wilson, Uncommon Women and Others by Wendy Wasserstein, Fuddy Meers by David Lindsay-Abaire, In the Heights by Lin Manuel-Miranda, Avenue Q by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and [title of show] by Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen.

I was a literary intern, a position that I will cover when I do my overview of dramaturgy, but most importantly for our purposes today, I was assigned as the literary representative to How We Got On, as well as Quiara Alegría Hudes’s The Happiest Song Plays Last.  The team I worked with on How We Got On absolutely changed my life.  I know that sounds like such a beginning career 21-year-old thing to say, but it is 100% true.  The respect that I received throughout the process meant the world to me and has given me the confidence necessary to work in a field as tough as theatre.  Am I still terrified to graduate in May?  Absolutely.  But do I feel worlds more prepared than many of the other people trying to pursue the same career I am?  You bet.

Idris is a playwright.  At the O’Neill, playwrights are demi-gods.  At some theatres, they worship the actors.  At others, the directors.  At the O’Neill, the text is what is sacred.  Idris could have very well written off this teeny non-hip-hop girl from the middle of nowhere, but instead he embraced the idea of a lit rep immediately.  We bonded over our Michiganian heritage—Faygo and Better Made chips, “I don’t have an accent,” and Bell’s brewery.  Rather than being his assistant, we worked as a team.  The same can be said of the wonderful director and brilliant dramaturg.  I’m still not sure what I did to deserve such a creatively satisfying work environment.  One of the first days at the O’Neill, the interns were told that everyone there wanted to help them become the next generation of theatre professionals.  I smiled but on the inside I sort of rolled my eyes.  It seemed cliché and just a nice thing to say.  I never expected the love, friendship, and respect that I left with in August.  My experience altered me not only as a dramaturg but also as a playwright and reader.  On top of what I learned about myself as an artistic individual and the field more broadly, due to the nature of the play I also got to learn about fun things like hip-hop and rap in the 80s, WWF, and watertowers.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned that summer was from Idris.  I learned how to rap.  But he still does it better.  Come see him do his thing tomorrow night at the Tea Haus.  I know I will.