The Unlikely Resurgence of Rap Rock

The truth about masculinity isn’t alway simple, however. For example, seen from 2017, Korn’s Jonathan Davis seems like a pioneer who never got to reap the associated cultural capital. In the middle of the big, placid strip-mall of the late ’90s, Davis was often reduced to a caricature, ridiculed in the press for his “tantrums.” But revisiting a song like “Daddy”—a horrifyingly explicit account of molestation—is to hear someone about 20 years ahead of his time. Today, exploring messy traumas on record is accepted, even commonplace.

Davis would perform “Daddy” live in one long, escalating scream, turning himself inside out in front of stadium audiences, pounding his chest and hurling himself on the floor and entering the most primal, presocial part of trauma. He also embraced a gender fluidity that no other rap-rock act would dare get near. “I’ll kiss a dude,” he told Melody Maker in 1999. “It means nothing to me because I know I’m straight. I like wearing makeup, I like dressing in girls’ clothes. I was very in touch with my feminine side and I acted upon it. But in America, it’s bad to be gay. That’s the fucking mentality.”

Louisiana rapper Kevin Gates is a clear descendent of someone like Davis, emotionally speaking. “I deal with depression, so I have to make music,” he told NPR in 2014. “If I don’t, there wouldn’t a been no interview today.” The volatile breakout star writes fearlessly about love, need, tenderness, and raw trauma in his music, often referring to crying in his lyrics. Gates is also an unabashed hard rock fan, and “Hard For,” a rough acoustic ballad from his 2016 album, Islah, could have fit comfortably on turn-of-the-century modern rock radio, right between Staind’s “It’s Been Awhile” and Everlast’s “What It’s Like.” Meanwhile, Young Thug wears frilly dresses and blouses on his album covers and announces “I feel like it’s no such thing as gender” in Calvin Klein ads. Acknowledged or not, they are striding confidently across rap-rock ground that Davis stomped on.

Of course, a man who claims to be deeply in touch with his emotions can still be a dangerous thing: Gates was found guilty of battery after kicking a female fan in the face at a Florida concert in 2015. XXXTentacion, who makes pained acoustic laments about depression and who also has been accused of horrifying, graphic, systemic, and sadistic domestic abuse, has also dipped into this poisoned well. “I’m too emotional” is usually the first plea of a domestic abuser, their only crime in their eyes being an excess of passion. Their victims are the ones who have to soak up the toxic overflow, who pay for their abusers’ inability to express and channel those emotions.

But whenever there is emotional catharsis, there is also the possibility of tenderness and hope. On Lil Peep’s “Awful Things,” he begs a woman to tell him all the worst things about her day, because it helps him connect; his stage name is a derivative of Little Bo Peep, a nickname his mother gave him when he was little; and he’s come out as bisexual and regularly takes homophobes to task on Twitter. In general, Peep’s music has little use for performative masculinity, a quality he shares with iLoveMakonnen, an openly gay artist somewhere in between rap and rock with whom Peep has worked. Makonnen’s deeply felt, tender songs mostly deal with hurt and longing, without an iota of rage or bitterness.

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