Abe Beame thinks more emo rappers should take cues from Rites of Spring.
In 2015, I, along with millions of other unsuspecting summer blockbuster fanatics, had one of the most stunning, emotional moments I can ever recall experiencing in a movie theater. Part of the surprise was the source. The film: Furious 7, a James Bond on wheels action franchise that features people lifting cars and flying between buildings in cars, and just lots of cars. In 2013, as they were wrapping production on the film, one of its stars, Paul Walker, died tragically in a horrific car crash. Walker was a decent, likeable film presence but I never had much of an emotional bond with him as an actor. There was some question as to how the franchise would handle his demise on screen. Would they kill him? Retire him? As the film came to its conclusion, director James Wan opted for what is arguably the most interesting, poetic exit we’ve ever seen on film, an elegiac goodbye that breaks the narrative and directly addresses the audience. Men and women openly sobbed.
But it wasn’t just the visuals that were so powerful, as Diesel takes a final look at his screen partner and they drive off on divergent paths, it’s scored by an equally unlikely artist. Wiz Khalifa, the gangly, wildly mediocre Pittsburgh rapper most notable for stoner anthems and having kids with Amber Rose, helms the film’s transcendent anthem, “See You Again”, with a then and pretty much still unknown generic white singer/songwriter named Charlie Puth.
I include the context for how we all experienced this song for the first time because what you are reading is an inquisition. “See You Again” is the type of song I loathe, the absolute worst dregs of a kind of mutant pop subgenre I think of as “The Rap Song with a Shitty Emo Hook.” And “See You Again” ticks many of the genre’s boxes. It’s maudlin and overproduced and over-sung by Puth. It’s become a kind of cheap cultural shorthand when a piece of entertainment wants to pull at your heartstrings. And yet, I don’t hate it. It’s syrup is shockingly sticky and I find myself revisiting it at unexpected times when I’m in the mood to feel something. I’ve probably heard the song hundreds, if not thousands of times, and I still like it.
There are any number of possible reasons why this is. Its Proustian, inextricable link to that incredibly powerful film’s ending and our relationship to Walker, my dumb, and generally bad taste because the song actually sucks, or perhaps, the song has succeeded where so many others, actually every other song of its ilk, has failed. I’m choosing to pursue the third possibility — feel free to follow along.
The marriage of rock and rap go back to the beginnings of the artform. There was Run DMC and Aerosmith, the Beastie Boys and their raging electric guitars, the Judgment Night soundtrack, Body Count, and any number of rap-rock remixes. But the trend that I’m referring to specifically has its roots in nu metal. Specifically, with acts like Limp Bizkit rubbing shoulders with Method Man and DMX at the turn of the century, and dogshit projects like Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s Collision Course.
These strange bedfellows really aren’t so strange. Nu metal has rap woven into its DNA so it has a kind of sonic logic, while corporate shills like Jay-Z have an opportunity to expand their brand base and shmucks like Linkin Park get loaned Jay’s prestige. It’s a failure of art but a triumph of branding, an opportunity for Z-100 to play rap, and every person with shitty taste to feel a bit cooler. What was hard to predict was how this would eventually give birth to a new kind of shitty rap anthem.
This is not to be confused with equally shitty genres like rappers showing up to drop a verse on a bad rock song, or the peppy mid 2000’s trend of ska adjacent bowl smoking dorm room rap practiced by products like the Gym Class Heroes, or rap that samples rock like frequent offender Lupe Fiasco’s ill-conceived Modest Mouse interpolated atrocity. It’s rap that borrows the ex-girlfriend pining patois of emo in a naked bid for crossover success with smooth brain dipshits.
The diabolical genius behind most of this shlock is Alex da Kid, a super producer and probable Nazi, who, based solely on the music he’s made, with no other biographical information besides he’s British, I’m just going to assume voted for Boris Johnson. When Alex wasn’t producing rap, he was making equally atrocious garbage for Imagine Dragons and other groups you’ve heard between segments on ESPN. Along with his industry plant henchwoman Skylar Grey, they ruined music for a brief period in the early 2010s.
Their trajectory begins in 2010 with three songs: B.o.B.’s “Airplanes,” Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie”, and Diddy’s “Coming Home”, which I’m not including here because it’s Alex Da Kid and Grey’s only triumphant, soulful song I will forever associate with the misguided hope I had that Carmelo Anthony would save the Knicks after we gave up way too much for him. The other two are fucking nightmare fuel and are the blueprint Alex and Grey will execute over and over and over again. They’re built around dramatic piano phrases, a giant wall of bubble gum that tastes like shit, angst rap, and for whatever reason, there’s always an absolutely horrific, tortured metaphor grasping for poetic depth built into the soaring, whiny hook.
The main practitioners of Alex Da Kid’s brand of swill were Eminem and Lupe Fiasco. Both were once good-to-great rappers that had this sound wind up defining their terrible late periods. Late Eminem in particular is the bard of this subgenre. Check these out, or don’t, your call.
Eminem – “Monster (ft. Rhianna)” (The Marshall Mathers LP 2, 2013)
Eminem – “Beautiful Pain (ft. Sia)” (The Marshall Mathers LP 2, 2013)
Eminem – “Guts Over Fear (ft. Sia)” (Guts Over Fear, 2014) *Don’t worry, I also didn’t know Eminem released a single called Guts Over Fear in 2014*
Eminem – “River (ft. Ed Sheeran)” (Revival, 2018)
All I have to say is if this is what he needed to get clean, Em really needs to start doing drugs again because detonating his personal life can’t be as bad as this. If you haven’t noticed, this style has largely, blessedly, disappeared from the mainstream, for everyone but Eminem, who keeps churning them out. He even got Dr. Dre to make one, and without hesitation I can say it’s the worst song in Dr. Dre’s entire historic catalog, and also the worst song ever made by anyone.
Dr. Dre – “I Need a Doctor” (I Need a Doctor, 2011)
Meanwhile, Lupe first made “Words I Never Said”, a 9-11 truthing YouTube documentary of a song, and “Battle Scars” with the appropriately named Guy Sebastian, who should be shot in the fucking face.
Lupe Fiasco – “Words I Never Said (ft. Skyler Grey)” (Lasers, 2011)
Lupe Fiasco – “Battle Scars (ft. Guy Sebastian)” (Battle Scars, 2012)
And here’s Machine Gun Kelly, who is making music that sounds like Christian Rap even though it’s not Christian Rap. The second song accomplishes something absolutely incredible. It makes me never want to watch True Grit again.
MGK – “Invincible (ft. Esther Dean)” (Lace Up, 2012)
MGK -” At My Best (ft. Hailee Steinfeld)” (2017)
Alex Da Kid was like a virus, anyone who came into his orbit came back brainwashed into making one of their own mini holocausts. Eminem gave it to Royce Da 5’9 on Bad Meets Evil’s “Lighters,” then Royce gave it to Joell Ortiz, Crooked I, and Joe Budden.
Slaughterhouse – “Rescue Me (ft. Skylar Grey)” (welcome to: OUR HOUSE, 2012)
Some seriously great rappers got in on it. Here’s T.I. with Christina Aguilera crying about how hard it is being rich and famous.
T.I. – “Castle Walls (ft. Christina Aguilera)” (No Mercy, 2010)
And here’s Nicki Minaj, who wins the distinction of the absolute worst of this impressive crop of 3rd grade poetry metaphors in the hooks.
Nicki Minaj – “Bed of Lies (ft. Skylar Grey)” (The Pinkprint, 2014)
50 Cent – “Don’t Turn on Me (ft. Skylar Grey)” (2013)
Even fucking 50 made one. This song was wisely not included on an album, but was unwisely made. If I was any of the dozens of people who he maintains beefs with because it’s his only remaining means of artistic expression, I would just repost this song everyday until he moved out of the country, which he would almost certainly do out of shame.
Kendrick Lamar – “No Make Up (ft. Colin Munroe)” (Section 80, 2011)
Kendrick Lamar – “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” (ft. Ashtro Bot) (Section 80, 2011)
But it wasn’t just Alex Da Kid. His empty taste began affecting the entire industry. My beloved Kendrick Lamar made not one, but two of these on Section 80, an album that may still be his masterpiece, and I loved so much that in spite of this blemish, I successfully lobbied for it to be our album of the year in 2011 [ed. note: it was]. Kendrick’s portions are so good they redeem the songs, somewhat, but the hooks are still trash.
Which brings us back to “See You Again.” How did Wiz fucking Khalifa and Charlie Puth pull off this great, indelible masterpiece in a sub-genre that saw some of the literal greatest rappers of all time eat shit and ruin their careers? Is it just the emotional connection we have with the source material? I have some thoughts.
Wisely, “See You Again” avoids many conventions of the genre. Blessedly, the song doesn’t feature any bad song writing. It’s simple, heartfelt, and direct. It’s slow (80 BPMs) and constructed like Alex da Kid’s monstrosities around a somber piano loop backed by a thundering horn section. But the drums aren’t packaged and it doesn’t feel like something that Duane Reade might get you to impulse buy at the register while checking out. It’s a snare that you might hear played at a military funeral. Puth’s strong vocals are allowed to do a lot of the heavy lifting — other then when they layer the fuck out of those gut punch “OHHHHHH-OH-OH”s to great effect. Finally, there’s Wiz, who has two brief, meditative verses that play like hymns. It’s not structured in a typical format and flows in this naturalistic way. It’s definitely a rap song, but one with an incredibly light touch, more of a two hander between the verses, the bridge, the hook and Puth’s little digressions. It’s much like the conclusion of Furious 7, an unconventional but inspired composition that simply works.
So there you have it. Now that we’ve laid out all the many ways rap songs with shitty emo hooks have failed, and the one instance in which it succeeded, we can begin the work of fixing the genre and turning it into good music. Or we can just let it die the death it so richly deserves and never mention any of these abominations again.