A decade ago, Aubrey Graham was trying to break into the music industry. After 8 years playing Jimmy Brooks on a Canadian soap opera Degrassi, he finally succeeded in February 2009. Using his middle name Drake as his stage-name, he released an 18-track mix tape called So Far Gone. It was his third mix-tape, and it shot him to superstardom, causing a seismic change in the hip-hop landscape. Sounding more like a professional studio album than a collection of freestyles, it fundamentally altered the idea of what a mix tape could achieve. His songs blurred the lines between hip-hop and RnB, which have remained fuzzy ever since.
So Far Gone’s most lasting legacy, however, is that it introduced a level of vulnerability that had previously absent in the genre. Drake worried about alienation and unrequited love over wintery synths and moody beats. Say What’s Real began with the lines “Why do I feel so alone?/ Like everybody passing through the studio/ is in character as if he acting out a movie role.” These were honest and introspective lyrics; Drake was unafraid to look soft. Lil Wayne later said the reason he produced the unknown artist’s mix tape was because his music “was so honest … we as listeners we weren’t used to that yet.”
Drake recently marked the ten-year anniversary of So Far Gone by releasing it on all streaming platforms for the first time. This anniversary provides us with an opportunity to reflect on how hip-hop has changed during the last decade. Following Drake’s success, rappers are now embracing their vulnerability, shedding the aura of toxic braggadocio that defined the genre’s rise to prominence in the 1990s through the vehicle of “gangsta rap”.
During this period, the typical rapper embodied the battle-hardened survivor of gang warfare. He threatened violence if slighted and admitted no weakness. Where hip-hop artists in the 1990s did confront issues of mental health and vulnerability, they rapped about them with an unwavering indifference. Biggie Small’s voice in Suicidal Thoughts gives no hint of fear and he raps about wanting to go to hell rather than heaven because “I wanna tote guns and shoot dice” rather than “hanging with the goodie-goodies dressed in white.” Hip-hop artists needed to hide their insecurities. As Biggie Smalls’ mother said in a New York Times article in 1994, “he doesn’t want anyone to see that he’s not as tough as he thinks he is … he cried inside… but he doesn’t want anyone to see the vulnerable side to him.”
Drake didn’t just expose these vulnerabilities on So Far Gone, he built his hip-hop persona based on his sensitivity and introspection. In the decade since, Drake has emerged as world’s biggest music superstar, receiving 42 Grammy nominations and shattering just about every streaming and Billboard record in the process.
This success has inspired the other titans of hip-hop to embrace their emotional side. Jay-Z’s 2017 album 4:44 begins “Cry Jay-Z/ We know the pain is real/But you can’t heal what you never reveal.” He revealed that he goes to therapy, and in the press before its release he said the creative process involved the “killing of the ego, so we can have this conversation in a place of vulnerability and honesty.” Lil Wayne finally opened up in 2016 about a time he attempted suicide. Kendrick Lamar dedicated a whole song on DAMN. to revealing his deepest fears. J. Cole rapped on Lost Ones from his Cole World project, “I ain’t too proud to tell you that I cry sometimes.” The industry’s biggest rappers have begun to engage in a refreshing dialogue about toxic masculinity: the message to other men is that it is okay to have fears and to be vulnerable.
The last few years have seen this frank discussion on vulnerability in hip-hop extended to issues of mental health, which were rarely addressed in hip-hop before. Kid Cudi is usually cited as instigating this change by revealing that he suffered with depression in a Facebook post on 5th October 2016, when he admitted himself into rehab. He wrote “my anxiety and depression have ruled my life for as long as I can remember and I never leave the house because of it.”
Following his lead, Kendrick Lamar discussed his experiences with depression on the song u from the album To Pimp A Butterfly. Kanye West revealed that he too suffered from mental health issues with his most recent album, ye. The message “I hate being bi-polar, its awesome” was scrawled onto the album’s artwork. In 2017, Logic wrote a song called1-800-273-8255 – the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in America – directly addressing the issue of suicide and the help one can receive if they feel suicidal.
Meanwhile a new generation of hip-hop artists have emerged who put mental health issues and vulnerability as their central subject. “SoundCloud rappers” like Lil Peep, Lil Uzi Vert and XXXtacion, so called because of their reliance on the platform to gain popularity, have created extraordinarily personal music about their depression and suicidal urges.
Artists have a profound influence shaping society through the messages they share in their music. They are role models to millions of impressionable young fans. This is why it is so important that the last ten years have seen rappers drop their swaggering and invulnerable facades. A new generation of hip-hop fans will grow up hearing it is okay to feel sad sometimes. People suffering mental health issues will realise that they are not alone. Both artist Travis Scott and comedian Pete Davidson have publicly said that Kid Cudi saved their lives by creating music that spoke frankly about mental health issues, as it led them to seek help. After Logic performed 1-800-273-8255 at the VMA’s, calls to the US Suicide Prevention Hotline increased by 50%.
Hip hop has finally embraced vulnerability. We must be thankful to Drake that the toxic braggadocio that plagued the genre ten years ago is So Far Gone.