Fill in the Blank: Masculinity in hip-hop is a changing landscape

Dariel Filomeno | Daily Trojan

Since its humble beginnings in the 1970s, hip-hop has been identified by many as a man’s genre — and particularly for a “man’s man,” if you will. For much of its history, these conventional definitions of masculinity have been reflected in the genre’s most popular and influential artists.

First, I must admit: I love a great deal of this music. Artists like Big Daddy Kane, N.W.A., 50 Cent and countless others have contributed to some of the genre’s most essential, and unapologetically masculine, records over the years. Find me someone who can’t get down to 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” and I’ll show you someone who’s allergic to infectious production and a timeless chorus. Even so, the sheer amount of misogyny, violence and excessiveness in their music is painfully obvious to the average listener, and these flaws have been consistently derided by the public.

Recently, this notion of masculinity in hip-hop has been turned on its head because of artists like Young Thug, Brockhampton and Tyler, The Creator among many others. The quintessential image of the street-hardened, sexually promiscuous man weilding a duffle bag and pistol is no longer an accurate depiction of the genre. In fact, hip-hop has transformed into a genre that transcends race, gender, sexual orientation and economic class — something that represents far more of humanity than its past iterations.

For many, Tyler, The Creator represented a kind of toxic, callow masculinity. Lyrics containing mindless violence, homophobic slurs and off-putting vulgarity fueled Tyler and the Odd Future collective’s initial breakout in the late 2000s. Their demographic more or less reflected this content, with sold-out shows comprised mostly angry, misfit teenage boys following their viral success.

Yet, in the decade since Odd Future first made waves in online chatrooms and music forums, Tyler has grown up before our eyes. His most recent project, “Flower Boy,” wasn’t so much a departure from the rebelliousness and angst-ridden masculinity that created him, as it was a moment of growth and self-acceptance. The media frenzy over Tyler’s alleged homophobia swiftly transformed into a media blitz on his sexuality. All the while, Tyler has laughed his way to the bank and the Billboard charts.

Unsurprisingly, Young Thug has been one of the hip-hop’s skirt-sporting torchbearers, eschewing traditional definitions of masculinity for women’s clothing and painted fingernails. Young Thug has built an incredibly successful career in a male-dominated field like trap music by defying both gender roles and conventional sounds. The rapper is comfortable with his outlier status in a brand of hip-hop defined by homogeneity and expectations, and continues to defy them in his career.

In addition, Young Thug’s genderbending philosophy extends far beyond aesthetic value. In an advertisement for Calvin Klein in 2016, he proudly proclaimed that he doesn’t believe in gender, saying that one can be a “gangsta with a dress” just as easily as one can be a “gangsta with baggy pants.”

Most recently, the all-American boy band Brockhampton has paved the way for a new generation of hip-hop fans by penning verses about current social issues such as mental health, queer issues and rape culture. The group of young men from San Marcos, Texas, has built an enormous cult following through its particular focus on vulnerability and unity, a stark departure from the ego-driven masculinity of last decade’s hip-hop topics.

While Kanye West makes bigger headlines for his M.A.G.A. hats and erratic behavior, he deserves plenty of credit for contributing to this sea change in the mainstream. At the height of hip-hop’s bling era in the early 2000s, West famously burst onto the scene rocking a pink polo and a backpack with “The College Dropout.” The album’s unapologetic nod to “backpack rap,” conscious hip-hop and suburban audiences was almost unprecedented in the genre’s history, sharing stories about university life and apologies to his mother.

In fact, in September 2007, West engaged in a friendly sales-off with 50 Cent for the respective releases of “Graduation” and “Curtis.” Many in the media saw this as a showdown between 50’s bling-era masculinity and West’s personal, introspective lyrics in the court of public opinion. When the dust settled, “Graduation” heavily outsold “Curtis,” and critics accepted the former as the new cultural zeitgeist.

Yet, this change is not to say that toxic masculinity in hip-hop is dead — far from it. That attitude continues to sell records and fill seats to this day, but things are changing. Hip-hop culture has effectively become the mainstream culture and, in turn, new artists, sounds and attitudes spanning every sect of the population arise every day. Toxic masculinity may be the hurdle for hip-hop, but it will be far from the last.

Matthew Philips is a junior majoring in journalism. He is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Fill in the Blank,” runs every other Monday.