How the Sad Robot Became The Dominant Sound in Rap

Essay by Dan Adu-Gyamfi, art by Brad Beatson and captions by Son Raw. T-Pain’s use of Auto-Tune influenced many to follow their singing dreams even if their vocal chords refused to go along. A...
By    February 20, 2014


Essay by Dan Adu-Gyamfi, art by Brad Beatson and captions by Son Raw.

T-Pain’s use of Auto-Tune influenced many to follow their singing dreams even if their vocal chords refused to go along. A new rap subgenre was born: “Sad Robot Music.” The phrase was coined by site founder, Jeff Weiss, and rapper, Nocando, on their Shots Fired podcast in late 2012. Lil’ Wayne was the demo version of the sad robot when his song “Prostitute Flange” leaked in 2007, and helped rappers realize that no matter how erratic the singing got, the device would help you sound okay. Since then the Mount Rushmore of sad robots, Mount Sadmore, was formed by four artists that are pushing the sound to continue to influence music.


“why did you GooooOOOooOOOOooooOOO?”

Version 1.0 of the sad robot appeared when Kid Cudi released “Day ‘n’ Nite” in February 2008 (but recorded in 2007). In an interview with Complex, the Man on the Moon explained, “A lot of people don’t know this but Geto Boys’ ‘My Mind Playing Tricks on Me’ is the song that inspired “Day ‘n’ ‘Nite.” ‘My Mind Playing Tricks on Me’ is my favorite song in the world, I love it so much that i wanted to make my own version of it. And ‘Day ‘n’ Nite’ came out of it.” His mixtape, A Kid Named Cudi, was released on July 17, 2008 — it became the first sad robot project. Cudi used autotune sparingly on the mixtape and his singing displayed the pure stress of the sad robot while still being able to have fun when not wallowing in his misery. Inspired by the project and Cudi’s songwriting, Kanye West invited Cudi to come to Hawaii to work on some albums and version 2.0 of the sad robot was underway.


 “No one man should have all these power chords”

The passing of his mother and the ending of an engagement made West very depressed and he decided to record his catharsis via 808s & Heartbreak. Cudi helped write four songs on the album, including the 5x platinum single “Heartless.” On a conference call in November 2008, the 21-time Grammy award winner stated, “What’s good is that this is therapeutic for me, it’s better than suicide to just keep on putting out music and art. I got a lot of backlash for the medium that I wanted to do this in. I created a thing I call Heartbreak, that’s like a mixed drink. It’s autotune meets distortion, with a bit of delay on it and whole bunch of fucked up life. And that’s what I call my Heartbreak. And that’s what every record basically has.”

The album displays the most fully realized version of the sad robot combined with the humble-brag lyrics of a defeated millionaire. In Canada, a former child actor and his engineer/producer were influenced by the project and decided to use 808’s & Heartbreak as a template to make them stars.


“I know that Rocky and Kendrick were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that is something I cannot allow.”

Drake became version 3.0 of the sad robot and originally wanted to work with Cudi to remix his biggest song to date. “Drake had been wanting to do an official “Day ‘n’ Nite” remix early on. He was one of earliest supporters; that’s why I fuck with Drake on another level than just being a new artist.” Imagine if I would’ve let Drake remix “Day ‘n’ Nite” when he wanted to back in ’07. That shit would’ve fizzled out; no one would’ve cared. Luckily we let it live and it worked out,” said Cudi to Complex Magazine in 2009.

On February 13, 2009, Drake released his third mixtape, So Far Gone. The project had Cudi’s influence of rapping on tracks from other genres while following the 808s wallowing humblebrag formula. The OVO leader didn’t use (much) autotune because he could actually sing, but the the influences were obvious of whom he was trying to copy. His producer, 40, told Vibe Magazine in 2010, “There are more similarities between me and Ye on 808s and So Far Gone than on Thank Me Later. Ye cussed me out one day about jacking his sound. ’40, I don’t think you should be in the studio right now because you might just hear my new shit and subconsciously steal my new shit and it wouldn’t even be your fault.’ I can’t even be mad at him because the last CD I listened to was 808s & Heartbreak before I started doing So Far Gone.” What took the 27-year-old to another level were the simp lyrics he perfected, that manifested in the mountain-top whine of “Marvin’s Room.” In the South, someone began to merge the sad robot with the energy of trap music to travel to Pluto.


“That bitch gotta go, I’m just being honest.”

Version 4.0 is Atlanta native, Future. Being a part of the Dungeon Family brings pressure, and originally, Future said that its members didn’t approve of his autotune use. In an interview with Shaheem Reid last year, the Astronaut Kid explained how the crew eventually bought in: “They understood it when I used it for the gritty and grime of my voice and they understood me. I used to listen to Pac sometimes. He didn’t use autotune, but the way he said it with his aggressiveness, you know what I’m sayin’, you feel his words and I feel like autotune makes you feel my words,” said Future Hendrix.

Before his arrival, the sad robot was not as raw or angry. The purest sad robot song ever recorded by the new king of hooks is “Deeper than the Ocean,” appearing on his Astronaut Status mixtape. On the song he details how he wished he stayed in school, contemplates suicide, recognizes that the drugs game is dirty and how they affected him. Since Future entered the game, he’s influenced many artists and the sad robot has conquered the country.


“Fine! I’ll start my own party! With autotune and turnup!”

In Chicago, rappers like Chief Keef, Lil’ Durk, King L, and Fredo Santana add auto-tune to their street tales. They’ve adapted the apathetic feeling of drill music to the sad robot to make the “numb robot.” In the ATL, artists like Cash Out, Rich Homie Quan and Young Thug are singing on their trap anthems. They added the futuristic swag that was popular in the A in 2009-10, inspired by J Money, Young Dro and Yung L.A., to follow Future’s footsteps on how he’s expanded the sad robot.

New Maybach Music Group signee, Fat Trel, from Washington D.C., followed the footsteps of his Chiraq comrades on his latest mixtape, SDMG. On his song, “Niggaz Dying,” he even shouts out Lil’ Durk, whose interpretation of the sad robot mixes Future with the stoicism of his Windy City homies. Houston has Kirko Bangz incorporating the H-Town chopped & screwed feel to the sad robot, while Baton Rouge’s Kevin Gates puts his own spin on it. In many interviews, Gates has stated how much he has been influenced by reggae and dancehall music and you can hear it in his delivery. He has great wordplay, storytelling abilities, and is a balanced artist compared to many of the newer sad robots who wield something more one-dimensional. Out of all the new sad robots, Gates has the potential to last the longest.


“Hasta La Vista, whoadie.”

With Kid Cudi working on his Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon and Man on the Moon III album, West going back to his sad robot roots on Yeezus songs “Blood On the Leaves” and “Guilt Trip,” Drake doing full-blown ballads like “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” and Future’s second album Honest on the way, the sad robot is thriving and transforming rap. The genre doesn’t seem to be fading away anytime soon, and with more rappers open to experimentation, maybe someone will create the newest version and push the sad robot to yet another galaxy.

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