How Does Hip-Hop Process Heartbreak?
Donna and Yoh discuss what heartbreak sounds like in hip-hop.
Heartbreak can be spectacular; heartbreak can be crushing. It's the universal emotion that puts us through the wringer, but for the most part, we become better people for having suffered through all the pain.
Heartbreak, in hip-hop, has a glorious quality to it, if only because hip-hop skews so confessional and so real. Take artists like Atmosphere, 6LACK, and Tyler, The Creator. All of them tackle heartbreak in their own way. Meaning, there is no universal language of heartbreak, but there is universal hurt, and in that way, we all connect.
This brings us to the operative question: If we had to boil it down, what does heartbreak sound like in hip-hop? We asked DJBooth Managing Editor Donna-Claire Chesman and Senior Writer Yoh to tackle heartbreak in hip-hop.
Their conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
yoh [10:04 AM]
Good morning, Donna. How are you, my friend?
donnacwrites [10:06 AM]
Good morning, Yohsipher. I am okay. I finished the completed poems of William Carlos Williams this morning. Now, I'm in my feelings. How are you?
yoh [10:16 AM]
Lol, William Carlos Williams is known for hitting directly at the heart. I just woke up three minutes ago so I'm still trying to become a functioning human being. Did WCW inspire some thoughts we can talk about today?
donnacwrites [10:19 AM]
Well, good morning to you! He certainly did, because today I want to talk to you about heartbreak. With hip-hop being the "confessional" genre, all talks of heartbreak in rap really strike a nerve for me. Heartbreak is one of the most universal types of strife, but in rap, it sounds so different moving from artist to artist. We have Future and we have 6LACK, and we have IGOR and we have Blonde, we have "ARE WE STILL FRIENDS," and we have Atmosphere's "Fuck You Lucy." The range within this one emotion is so vast.
What flavor of hip-hop heartbreak is closest to home for you?
yoh [10:30 AM]
Ah, great topic. Heartbreak is universal. There are so many different forms that appear in rap. One of the first records that instantly comes to mind is Lil Wayne's "Something You Forgot." I know our good friend Sermon will agree that the loosie is one of Wayne's best. He's vulnerable, a feeling we rarely get from the New Orleans-born martian. It's a song about the end of a relationship. He's going through the motions. Lyrics like "You give me back my girl, you give me back my life" and "What she means to me is what I mean to rap." What a pedestal to put someone on! There's a bit of disillusion tied to heartbreak. The way you see someone or even yourself can be so skewed because emotions are so high. It's the emotions that always strike me about heartbreak songs. They just hit differently.
I remember going through a situation with a young woman and Isaiah Rashad's "Silkk da Shocka" was hitting so hard. It's one of the most underrated gems on The Sun's Tirade. "I chose the world in the end." It's such a pure, honest record. He knows this person loves him, but he can't stay. This is a troubled couple. They're falling about. It's not just lyrics, but a feeling.
What are some songs about heartbreak that you really feel? Songs that take you to the same place as a good poem from William Carlos Williams?
donnacwrites [10:35 AM]
There are plenty of songs that make me cry, but SZA's "Drew Barrymore" is really how I experience heartbreak. I have such difficulty admitting when things are over and a line like "I get so lonely, I forget what I'm worth / We get so lonely, we pretend that this works" simply captures the essence of my pain. SZA really read me down with that one. The miracle of heartbreak is that we heal, and in SZA's words, I saw a light. The answer was pain.
That's how hip-hop processes heartbreak, to me, is that awareness of what ails is also the guide towards resolution. SZA understands she must learn to be alone, learn to love herself, and learn to let go of things that are past their expiration date. Facing these challenges, though, often seems insurmountable. It's the desperation of it that makes me cry. The obvious answer is not always the easy one.
For a heartbroken record or album to really strike, desperation must exist in some form. We have to get that now-or-never, last resort type feeling. For SZA, it was now-or-never to choose herself. For Zay, it was now-or-never to leave. What do you think, though? Is it desperation that sells the pain, or something else?
yoh [10:47 AM]
Desperation is relatable. We all experience the distress caused by another person and have to unpack those feelings. Heartbreak is our reaction to the end of a union. What we once had is now gone. It's not a hip-hop song, but John Mayer's "I'm Gonna Find Another You" is a perfect example. He's acknowledging that it is over, that the loneliness has started to surround him, but his silver lining is that he'll find another. It's a bit childish, you'll never find another person like the one you lost, but he has to lift his spirits. He has to convince himself that there's more beyond this person.
Future expertly showcases the extremes of heartbreak without making it sound desperate. He's too cool; too comfortable in his image to ever show us too much. But there's a bit of a difference between the Future on the mixtape Monster and the EP SAVE ME. I can't say it's a heartbreak song, but his heart is plenty broken on "Love Thy Enemies." I still can't believe Future said, "You didn't consider my feelings." That's a hurt man. That transparent pain is felt. It doesn't feel desperate, but it is raw.
donnacwrites [10:50 AM]
How would you say hip-hop processes pain best? Take the breakup epic, IGOR, on which Tyler sounds desperate and brooding. Obsessive. Hurt, too. I guess, really, what I'm asking is, what mode does an artist have to take to really transfer their hurt unto us? How do we go about feeling their pain as if it were our own, and then transposing their hurt into our own experiences?
yoh [10:54 AM]
I don't think I can answer how. We both know that heartbreak happens in stages. There's the raw, recent heartbreak which I think Wayne captures. When you're still processing. There's IGOR, the processed heartbreak. Tyler takes us through every stage of his break up. It's fleshed out in a way that is thoughtful and mature. You have the immature heartbreak, which is Drake. Listen to "Jaded," that's a guy who is irritated his fantasy came to an end. It all depends on the artists, their honesty, and how we embrace that honesty. I don't believe there's a heartbreak to do this effectively. This is about feelings, their job is to make us feel it.
donnacwrites [10:59 AM]
I'd like to add "Fuck You Lucy" into this mix as the onset of heartbreak. The rage, the anger, the festering terror of having this thing just crumble. Anger is an essential part of heartbreak because it is the moment where you take the time to realize all that you had, what you didn't have, and what you could have had. There is no mourning without a touch of rage. It is an important stage of grief.
I believe in the concept of "earned anger," which I touched on in my recent Jamila Woods piece. The importance of being mad at someone when you realize your worth. What's even more important, though, is letting your anger go and finding peace with the person you become. The best part of heartbreak is that the feeling is a promise of better days. We have no choice but to grow.