The Fluid Nature of Masculinity and Authenticity in Hip-Hop

Hey guys- This is another essay that I did for a class last year. It is another attempt to showcase my writing style when it comes to hip-hop in a non-review form. The essay was written while focusing on 6 songs (listed below) in an attempt to go through how masculinity and authenticity have been ever evolving since the birth of hip-hop. Hope you enjoy!

Songs Used:

  • Boyz-in-the-hood – Eazy-E Eazy-Duz-It (1988)
  • Dear Mama – Tupac Me Against The World (1995)
  • Soldier – Eminem The Eminem Show (2002)
  • Where the Hood at – DMX Grand Champ (2003)
  • Marvins Room – Drake Take Care (2011)
  • Thinkin Bout You – Frank Ocean Channel Orange (2012)


“Cuz the boys in the hood are always hard, you come talkin that trash, we’ll pull ya card, knowin nothin in life but to be legit, don’t quote me boy cuz I ain’t said shit” is one of the most definitive and well known hooks in hip-hop history. It birthed a new genre, gangsta rap. It also set the standard for what was masculine and authentic and what wasn’t in the hip-hop community. You had to be hard, you had to be willing to kill at a moment’s notice if you were dissed or saw someone you were beefing with. You had to represent at all times. Finally you were not allowed under any circumstances to snitch, “Don’t quote me boy cuz I ain’t said shit” illuminating this fact. Masculinity and authenticity have always been tied to the founding beliefs of hip-hop, however the definition of both have been fluid over the years with the rise of new artists and genres within hip-hop.

The attitude of being hard and gangster continued through the 1990’s, with artists such as the Notorious B.I.G., Ice Cube, Nas, Jay-Z, and Tupac rapping about topics including killing others to assert dominance, which coast was better, what was real rap, and living the life of a gangster in the inner-city filled with money, drugs, and women. Included in the aforementioned criteria established by Eazy-E and NWA, being a man included a persistent and vehement opposition of homosexuality. Being gay was something that was unacceptable in the hip-hop community. This came about partially as response to disco and the feminization of the artists and culture that had occurred during that era. Hip-hop wanted to be seen as hard and tough coming from the inner city, and homosexuality had no part in that. The word “fa**ot” has long been casually thrown around, often with venom behind it, within hip-hop. A prime example of the viewpoint towards homosexuality in the minds of rappers and especially those who were trying to be the toughest of the tough came in the first verse of “Where The Hood At” by DMX. Within this verse he attacks rivals who he perceives to be homosexuals, using harsh words/slurs and metaphors to feminize them and ostracize them. In the minds of many artists, being homosexual represented everything that they did not want to be. While obviously opposed to loving another man, rappers also were against the weakness, dependency, and emotional vulnerability that was associated with homosexuality at the time. It went against everything that had so far been integral parts of hip-hop; the hyper-masculine and hyper-sexualized lyrics and culture that were in every song and video.

When NWA released “Boyz-n-the-hood” they began not only gangsta rap, but also pioneered using lyrics to report on life in the inner city.  They discussed how they were living, glamorizing a lot of their violence, drug use, partying and women. This new style of rapping was dubbed “Reality Rap”. To be authentic, you not only had to portray this image in the music and videos, but you also had to live up to it in the real world. This was a vicious cycle for many artists as they had to prove it to their fans who expected them to be the same in real life as the person they said they were in their lyrics. If you were an artist who was rapping about drugs, they expected you to be doing those drugs. If you claimed you were a gangster and hard then they expected you to be hard in real life. Many artists started out not wanting the image of a thug or a gangster but they went along with it for the commercial success. Other artists were pushed into those roles after they were caught doing something that could be stereotyped. “Soldier” by Eminem from The Eminem Show is a song that deals with this cycle, first becoming trapped in it, dealing with it, then continuing with lyrics designed to further his image. “Yo’, never was a thug, just infatuated with guns, never was a gangsta, ’til I graduated to one, and got the rep of a villain, for weapon concealin’, took the image of a thug, kept shit appealin’” opens the song, portraying an artist who didn’t intend to become trapped in the image of a thug but once he realized that’s what the listeners thought, he used it to his advantage and began to adapt. “When you’re me people just want to see if it’s true, if it’s you, what you say in your raps, what you do, so when they feel, as part of your obligation to fulfill, when they see you on the streets, face to face, are you for real, in confrontation ain’t no conversation, if you feel you’re in violation, any hesitation’ll get you killed” are from the first verse, connecting to the idea that fans would come up to you in person to see if you actually are who you say you are and if you’ll back up those words even if it begins to become violent. Further into the song, it becomes clear that while Eminem did not necessarily sign up for what his image was, he fully embraced it. When discussing authenticity in hip-hop, this is a key point as many artists who were pigeon-holed into certain types had to accept it and become that person. In this time period, as reality raps ruled, the definition of authenticity was still tied to being authentic through living your life the same as you said you were in your songs. If you were doing something else, or you were caught not living up to your persona, then you were immediately discredited as fake. Eminem also broadened the spectrum of authenticity as a white artist. Before Eminem there was never a true star white rapper that had stayed successful. He opened the door for others to follow, and managed to connect to millions of white people around the world, expanding hip-hop’s reach into the suburbs where the white youth could connect to his lyrics easier and relate to them easier than with African-American artists. Eminem also set a precedent for white rappers, he did his best to not appropriate the culture, speaking only on things that he truly knew and lived through.

The definition of masculinity and what it entailed to be a man remained relatively constant in the years after “Boyz-n-the-hood”. It was still about being hard, not showing emotion, staying away from homosexuality, getting all the women, spending money on things to show off, and being the toughest, realest man that one could be, but this tide began to turn in the mid-1990’s. One artist especially came out of the scene to truly transcend it, and allow him to do something that not many artists had done before with huge success. While Tupac had made emotional songs throughout his career, many of which eventually became classics, his effort off of the album Me Against The World, “Dear Mama” was a game-changer in the way that it was a true heartfelt momento to a female. It wasn’t a record that was trying to be hard, it went entirely against the “Thug Life” that Tupac had branded himself with and had made a career out of. It wasn’t a song that sexualized females or tried to glamourize the street life. It also was a song that began to change what it meant to be masculine and authentic. Being authentic and masculine now meant that men were allowed to open up and acknowledge that yes, men did have feelings. It wasn’t just about the feelings of loss that happen from a friend getting killed, you could also have happy feelings and feelings of joy that could be unrequited love and admiration for someone. This change in the definition of masculinity also came out of the newfound collaborations between R&B and rap artists. While it now seems like a common industry practice, it was new for the time and took a lot of backbone for an artist to produce a track on which he opened up. There was still a definitive difference, however, between opening up on a song and being that same way in real life. Tupac was still about the “thug life”, and would still release music with the same content as before but he showed that an artist can have an emotional side without destroying his image or ruining his public persona.

In the 2000’s, many artists continued the theme of releasing some songs that showed emotional vulnerability and range but then going back to their roots. Being hard and tough and true to your word was still very vital in this era for commercial success, shown by the huge successes of 50 Cent, The Game, Eminem, DMX, Young Jeezy and more. Many of the hit songs during this era were centered around themes of violence/living in the streets, having money and spending it lavishly, women and getting with them, partying, and other things that were looked upon as masculine and alpha. In this era, being masculine was about being the top dog and doing whatever it took to seem like you were the biggest baller, or lived the most lavish life. Being authentic in this era was about being in the club and blowing racks, showing out in public/stunting on other artists, being from the streets and being tough. This time period also spawned many new genres within hip-hop; trap, club raps, ringtone raps, and dirty south rap to name a few. With these new genres, the rise of one hit wonders due to ringtone rap, and the music industry’s insatiable thirst for money, masculinity, authenticity and their definitions became fuzzy, lines became blurred as to what was considered masculine and authentic and what wasn’t. It also opened up opportunities for new artists who may not have previously fit into the culturally-defined mold of a hip-hop artist. Through this opening came two artists that have helped to change hip-hop and further its tolerance for emotions, sexuality, and emotional vulnerability on songs and in the culture.

“Marvin’s Room” wasn’t originally supposed to appear on Take Care. Drake sent it out as a single beforehand to gauge feelings on it, and when it received incredibly positive and successful praise he decided to keep it. The song documented a drunk conversation between Drake and his ex. One thing that most rappers would never admit to is their failures with women. They always seemed to get the hottest girls without any issue, and rejection was something that they didn’t speak of. It wasn’t masculine to admit rejection and failure. It also wasn’t seen as masculine to call ones ex and profess their love and desire to get them back. Drake went against both of these common beliefs, talking about not only how he called her and tried to get her back while ultimately failing, but also that it was his ex girlfriend and he was succumbing to his emotions and vulnerability by calling her. While this wouldn’t have been accepted within the hip-hop community fifteen to twenty years ago, it was a smash hit in this new era. It also was another hit in the same vein as “Dear Mama”; as they both were powerful hits about emotions/vulnerability that could set a precedent that a rapper does not have to always be hard. Admitting to one’s own emotions could result in commercial success, pushing an artist towards stardom. This continued to alter the original definitions of masculinity and authenticity set by Eazy-E twenty-four years prior.

One issue that hip-hop was still very separated from was homosexuality. Hyper-sexualization of women in songs and videos was still the norm, along with the hyper-masculinization associated with the genre and America as a whole. Weakness and emotions from men, except in very specific situations, were still looked down upon. This was especially pervasive in hip-hop because as a genre that was forged in the streets, in poverty and hard times that generally defined the childhoods of the artists, one couldn’t be seen as being emotional since being emotional/vulnerable was synonymous with weakness. Frank Ocean was the pivotal man in changing this. While it had been suspected, there was never a confirmation on Frank’s sexuality until on July 4th, 2012, when Frank confirmed his homosexuality. The outpouring of support and compassion from the industry and its top stars was something that would have been unimaginable ten years before. It was as though all the old definitions of masculinity and authenticity that had accompanied hip-hop throughout the years were crumbling. Six days after his announcement, Frank released Channel Orange. “Thinkin Bout You”,  was a love song that, given the fact that Frank had just come out as homosexual, had deep implications. It could be easily perceived as a song for a man, which is something that was a first of it’s kind in hip-hop from a male artist. If the album had been unsuccessful it would have been easy to write him off as a casualty of the industry after coming out. But it’s success pointed to the fact that hip-hop and its culture was changing. Both accepted an openly gay artist and allowed him to become a star. No longer did one have to be tough, willing to get violent, hyper-sexualize women, and be hard and emotionless to fit into the hip-hop mold of masculinity. To be authentic all artists had to do was be exactly who they were. That doesn’t mean that artists didn’t continue to put on fronts, but it allowed for artists who were outside the norms of hip-hop artists and from different backgrounds than the inner city/poverty to become successful.

Over the course of the last 29 years, since the release of “Boyz-n-the-hood”, hip-hop has been constantly evolving. The definitions of masculinity and authenticity were set by Eazy-E and the way of life he had grown up with in the inner city, just trying to survive. Over the years these definitions have both been strengthened in certain areas but also have been significantly in others. With the emergence of new genres within hip-hop and new artists, what is masculine and what masculinity means to hip-hop culture has been bent in many different directions. What once might have been considered too weak, or emotional, is now much more acceptable. Being emotional and acknowledging vulnerabilities has become normal practice within the industry, and the era of being a thug/gangster has given way to newer generations. The definition of authenticity has changed less, as artists are still expected to live up to what they are saying in their songs. But as what has become commercially successful and culturally acceptable within hip hop becomes more broad, authenticity has become less about finding a persona/image that works for an artist and more about being the genuine within their lyrics and with their image.



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