The Strain of the Voice: Hip Hop’s Ambient Vocalities
Abstract and Keywords
This essay attends to the sonic atmospheres hip hop invents to explore affects and scenes that may have gone underseen and undertheorized. In a disruption of the 1990s hip hop canon, I focus on Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony and DMX (rather than Pac and Biggie) in order to think with more specificity about how hip hop confronts, dodges, or disrupts what it means to feel pain, joy, restlessness, nervousness, or anxiety through its sonic investments in pauses, flinches, fumblings, boasts, growls, deflations, sighs, and tears. The voices of these artists, known for their distinct timbres and textures, refract the ordinarily cruddy and instances of its relief. They give voice to the weary-making work of enduring and the exhaustion of trying to make it to the first of the month, the end of the year, or even just the end of the album.
We tend to tell the story of hip hop the way we tell most histories—through concrete events, benchmarks, and canonized forms of encounter. Hip hop was born, legend goes, in the Bronx in 1973 at Kool Herc’s back-to-school party for his little sister. This music then moved eastward and southward to Manhattan and the other boroughs before eventually taking over the world. Essential histories of hip hop, charting its migration from the block to the globe by Jeff Chang, George Nelson, Dan Charnas, and others tend to be anchored by dates, places, and proper names.1 So too with more informal and colloquial histories of the genre replicating this emphasis on facts and events—canonizing an album according to how many mics it received from The Source, charting where and when a beef between rappers originated and who triumphed, and debating which singular year in hip hop was the greatest. The desire to organize knowledge about hip hop around concrete moments and geographies is visible in the genre’s most canonical analytical mode—the list—ranking the greatest emcee ever, the greatest living emcee, the greatest emcee right now, the greatest emcees from the East, West, and South, and the greatest storyteller, to name a few such categories. The form of the list is so canonical to how hip hop history has been told that it structures not one but two key books on the genre—Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists and The Rap Year Book, the latter ranked as Amazon’s all-time best-selling book on rap music.
Moreover, like any musical genre, hip hop is organized around specific canonical sonic events the listener has come to anticipate, such as the recognizable sample, the sixteen-bar verse, the sung hook, skits, intros and outros, and the bass drop. A focus on lyrics also suggests recurrences—the death of friends or family, sexual encounters, the sting of betrayal, fantasies of revenge; what it feels like to be on the brink of being shot or shooting, of imprisonment, of encounters with the police; parties and luxuries; the need for protest; moments of self-doubt and their overcoming; the “good” day and the “bad” day; and more loosely organized modes of working like hustling, slinging, and making music—that have been both embraced and ironized by rappers.
But if our knowledge of hip hop has typically been organized around particular events, and the genre itself has its own canonized forms of events, it is also the case that hip hop is the site of more ambient scenes of belonging, enduring, or expiring—some languid, some manic; some ordinary, some extraordinary—with artists vocalizing temporalities and affects less easily categorized or canonized in list form, less smoothly extrapolated into regional, economic, or political histories. This is not to deny that hip hop has much to teach about specific people, places, and things, such as the discrete political and economic conditions that produced the postindustrial city as well as their effects on those who remained within or adjacent to them. But these effects do not only manifest in concrete events or through recognizable genres of feeling and response.
The concepts of ambience and ambient music, music made for “particular times and situations” and “accommodat[ing] many levels of listening without enforcing one in particular” (Eno 1978), may seem the very antithesis of the perceived singular immutability valued by many a hip hop list-maker. But one could make the case that hip hop, first produced in and for shared urban spaces, whose lyrics attend to the atmospheric as well as the particular, articulated a similar notion of ambience years before Brian Eno formally defined the concept. At the same time Eno was creating mood music for airports and other environmental sound designed to shatter “the measurable, graspable narrative of self-contained, highly composed, emotionally engaging sound objects” (Toop 2001, 10), DJs in New York’s black and brown neighborhoods were simultaneously producing sounds that seeped into everyday settings, engaging listeners in parks, sidewalks, and recreation rooms. Similar to the Jamaican sound systems that first inspired Kool Herc, the sonic reverberations of early hip hop were rarely self-contained, instead spilling out into the open, enhancing and remapping the spaces they filled up. Given hip hop’s roots in continuous live-performance events designed to enhance the material settings of clubs and corners, and given the willingness of early DJs to cut up records to showcase buried ambient textures—scavenging break and loops from records originally designed to feature spectacular crescendos—it could be argued that hip hop, far more than ambient art music, was the genre that brought ambience to the masses.
Besides its relevance to understanding hip hop’s early modes of production, the concept of ambience can also be helpful in better understanding the various ways hip hop artists have devised for lyricizing everyday scenes of getting by and making do. From verses portraying feelings of angst, paranoia, desire, and absurdity as pervasive, inhabited atmospheres, to the proliferation of ambient gasps, chortles, groans, and screeches that are frequently heard but seldom noted in hip hop vocalizations (in fact they are no less communicative than language), hip hop artists give sonic expression to ambient scenes and senses that engulf and punctuate but that do not always lend themselves to narrative arcs of catharsis and resolution, or to historical arcs of canonicity and teleology.
What different account of hip hop might we get by attending closely to what Elizabeth Povinelli has called “quasi-events” producing what she describes as “forms of suffering and dying, enduring and expiring, that are ordinary, chronic and cruddy rather than catastrophic, crisis-laden and sublime” (2011, 13)? Or moments on wax that, as Lauren Berlant describes elsewhere, resist the normative language of empowerment to suggest instead that “agency can be an activity of maintenance, not making; fantasy, without grandiosity; sentience, without full intentionality; inconsistency, without shattering; embodying, alongside embodiment” (2007, 759)? This could also mean listening to hip hop for what Richard Iton describes in relation to other black popular forms as “minor-key sensibilities […] generated from the experiences of the underground, the vagabond, and those constituencies marked as deviant”—sensibilities, as he points out, that are just as often expressed within surreal registers as more realist ones (2010, 16). While Iton’s description of the minor key may seem like an apt description of hip hop more broadly in juxtaposition to other forms of popular music, certain strands within the genre have remained more minor than others. Both Iton’s interest in the minor-key fantastic, and Berlant and Povinelli’s emphasis on the ordinary and the quasi-event, give us strategies for theorizing hip hop that resist approaching the genre as an index of a limited range of the traumatic real. This would mean, in other words, to hear within hip hop not only the quick, the sudden, the cataclysmic as it is often typed but as a genre finding extraordinary expression for more ordinary and gradual scenes of living, enduring, and dying.
This chapter attends to the sonic atmospheres hip hop invents to explore affects and scenes that may have gone underseen and undertheorized. We have yet to take a rigorous inventory of what it means to sense, feel, and know in hip hop that is not overdetermined by other black aesthetic and political forms, past or present, real or desired. The work of Elizabeth Povinelli, Lauren Berlant, and Richard Iton expands our vocabulary for thinking about experience in ways that are not reducible to positions of being either a subject or an agent, either here or gone—making room for exhaustion, confusion, and uncodified noise. Drawing on their work, we might think with more specificity about how hip hop confronts, dodges, or disrupts what it means to feel pain, joy, restlessness, nervousness, or anxiety through its sonic investments in pauses, flinches, fumblings, boasts, growls, deflations, sighs, and tears.
Attending to the range of forms of inhabitation and endurance within hip hop—to listen in detail as Alexandra Vazquez defines her method for analyzing Cuban music’s diasporic production and consumption attentive to both “the reveal and misreveal of sonic details” (2013, 21)—requires a methodological approach that is less interested in figuring out what hip hop is, where it started, and how it spread than in all the ways it might fail to work, spread, or produce trackable (or even usable) histories and genealogies. In this, I follow Candice Jenkins’s call for critics to approach hip hop as “interpretable” in order to “hear the possibilities of hip hop beyond the most prosaic and clichéd of meanings,” urging critics to think more expansively about the “analytical tool-kit at our disposal” with which this listening gets done (2013, 6). But not only do we need a larger arsenal of methods for analyzing hip hop, I would add, but more self-reflexivity about method more generally, and how certain methods might encourage us to listen for sounds, scenes, and affects that otherwise may go unacknowledged. While agreeing with Jenkins that we must continue to approach hip hop as interpretable, I want to carve out equal space for considering how artists, if not exactly resisting interpretation, seek to render more ambient moods that never quite coagulate into something categorizable.
At the same time that I am calling for more range in how we hear and interpret hip hop, I am simultaneously weary of reifying hip hop as an index of any kind of “real”—be it political, social, or affective, in relation to either the event or the quasi-event. Black cultural production has historically borne the burden of being read first as sociological and only secondarily as aesthetic; and hip hop has been no different in this regard in both its popular and academic engagement, as both Candice Jenkins and Imani Perry have pointed out. Resisting the impulse to mine hip hop as an index of the real is further complicated, as Perry notes, by the ways certain artists welcome this mode of engagement, making it all the more important to defer this interpretive impulse and work harder to listen both with and against this impulse (2004, 34). I, too, have lamented elsewhere the lack of critical or even sonic generosity afforded hip hop’s sonic and affective worlds and the chronic reduction of hip hop to realism (Brown 2012, 266). I remain interested here in finding a practice of rigorous listening that is aware of hip hop’s histories and trajectories but that does not treat these trajectories as inevitable, overdetermining certain readings while foreclosing others. I hope that such a rangy and self-reflexive approach might avoid reproducing distinctions between artists based on uninterrogated assumptions about what counts as complexity, nuance, or value, threatening to turn hip hop as a broad discursive field into a static straw man against which the exceptional artist breaks through. If we back away from the list, the ranking, and the search for the “greatest” as our operative lenses, new forms of exceptionality and navigation of the ordinary start to emerge.
The remainder of this essay considers what new knowledge might be produced when we disrupt the canonical story of hip hop in the 1990s centered around the spectacular rise and tragic fall of its two biggest stars, instead engaging some of the odder hip hop vocalizations that emerged during this decade. If hip hop has historically been organized around events, two of the most important in its history are the deaths of 2pac in 1996 and the Notorious B.I.G. in 1997. Both were killed at the height of their careers in close proximity to the release of their respective double-disc albums, 2pac’s All Eyez on Me and Biggie’s Life after Death. Each of these artists deployed forceful lyrical styles that could be converted into something more laid-back. Biggie was more of a sustained storyteller, while 2pac’s tales were more episodic; Biggie soundscapes tipped more strongly toward the melancholic, while 2pac edged more toward the manic. Dream Hampton writes of the entangled legacies of these figures as emblematizing a generation at the end of the 1990s that was “racing toward the millennium with all of the century’s loaded symbols, its technology, its maddening war on young black bodies and our often inadequate response to that assault” (348).
While we can extract useful norms about hip hop from the short, cataclysmic careers of 2pac and Biggie, another interpretation of the genre, how it works and what it does, comes from examining the music and careers of the more idiosyncratic if less celebrated voices of DMX and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. While the former emcees have had entire books, films, and academic treatises dedicated to their work, DMX and Bone Thugs have garnered far less critical attention despite having nearly as many number one albums as their more written-about peers. In their varying commitments to sonic and scenic ambience, these artists showcase the distinct work of the voice in hip hop as compared with other musical genres rooted in singing. While there exists a growing body of work on the voice in popular music, including work by Barney Hoskyns, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Carl Wilson, and Daphne Brooks, the voice within hip hop requires a more specific rubric of analysis keyed into the different function of the voice within the genre.2
Take, for instance, Roland Barthes’s canonical theory of the grain of the voice in sung music. “Grain” is Barthes’s term for the sound of “the body in the voice as it sings” which he finds emerging from the singer’s throat rather than their lungs (1977, 188). Grain elicits a visceral reaction from the listener that is different from how one might appreciate technical control or, in the case of hip hop, lyrical skill. None of the rappers I look at in this chapter neatly exemplify grain. A case could be made that certain members of Bone Thugs have grain while DMX’s voice portrays something more like grit anchored in power and passion, which, as Simon Reynolds notes, is not the same as the more amorphous quality of grain. That said, grain ultimately proves less useful as a category of analysis within hip hop, since the throat is already omnipresent in the genre as a site of texture as opposed to genres of sung music in which diaphragm-centered belting is more commonly the norm (Reynolds 2011, 171). Vocal ingenuity in hip hop derives instead from the ability to modulate the presence of the body in the voice through speed, syncopation, volume, tone, and texture. Grain has a limited use-value in relation to a music that is almost always infiltrated with throaty grain showcasing the body in the voice.
What I take from Barthes instead is an interest in finding new ways for describing music that, as he writes, “stands a chance of exorcising music commentary and liberating it from the fatality of prediction” by “chang[ing] the musical object itself, as it presents itself to discourse, better to alter its level of perception or intellection” (1977, 180). Whereas Candice Jenkins finds Barthes’s focus on grain as “urg[ing] us toward a more complex and enlightening hearing of what voices say,” the voice is also a vessel for creating effects that may diverge from its lyrical articulation (Barthes 2013, 5). Simon Frith takes this idea further, arguing that lyrics serve as a vessel for the voice more often than the other way around. He notes, “singers use non-verbal as well as verbal devices to make their points—emphases, sighs, hesitations, changes of tone; lyrics include pleas, sneers and commands . . . It’s not just what they sing, but the way they sing it that determines what a singer means to us and how we are placed, as an audience, in relationship to them” (1989, 90). By focusing on the early albums of DMX and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, I aim to describe how their voices mark both the presence and the limits of their bodies within the ambient atmospheres they inhabit. Rather than dying in spectacularly tragic instances like their more celebrated peers Notorious B.I.G. and 2pac, DMX and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony endured in ways that did not produce mystique or beget narratives of canonization. The voices of these artists, known for their distinct timbres and textures, refract the ordinarily cruddy and instances of its relief. They give voice to the weary-making work of enduring and the exhaustion of trying to make it to the first of the month, the end of the year, or even just the end of the album.
That DMX Feeling
That’s why music is so fucking watered down right now. I miss that DMX feeling.
When Kanye West tweeted the above sentiment in the run-up to the release of The Life of Pablo, it was somewhat unexpected. Though a broad wave of Nineties hip hop nostalgia had been trending at the time, DMX had not exactly been at its center. Despite reaching stardom in the late 1990s, DMX’s musical legacy over the last twenty years has largely been overshadowed by his long-standing struggles with mental illness and addiction. And yet West’s expressed longing for that “DMX feeling” suggests that the influence of Dark Man X on contemporary hip hop is more pronounced than has been fully recognized (West 2016). DMX’s investment in rapping with and about feeling has increasingly been a hallmark of West’s. Referring to himself on his debut 1998 album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, as “a manic depressive with extreme paranoia,” DMX has been open about his struggles with bipolar disorder, approaching mental illness not merely as a response to bad times and extreme pressures but as something lived in more ambient terms. West, too, has openly battled his own emotional state for most of his career: from nervously declaring George W. Bush’s lack of feeling for African Americans after Hurricane Katrina, to recording his first single while his jaw was wired shut after a car accident so “the world could feel his pain!” (DMX’s jaw was also wired shut for some of the recording sessions for his debut album), to name-checking the antidepressant Lexapro in “FML” from The Life of Pablo (2016). West’s wistfulness for “that DMX feeling” seems to mark both a desire for a specific mode of feeling associated with DMX—most often described in terms of a rawness, gruffness, grittiness—as well as a more general willingness to risk feeling at all—even if that feeling is often out of the artist’s own control—which has been a trademark of both artists’ vocal performances.
I sketch this connection between Kanye West and DMX to insist on DMX’s importance as a crucial touchstone for tracing a genealogy of hip hop affect. L.L. Cool J’s “I Need Love” has been credited by some for introducing a softer affect to the genre, seemingly doubling its emotional range overnight. But beyond this moment, there has been little attention to hip hop’s affective landscape, and the relationship between its norms and deviations, in ways that would allow us to approach the genre’s affect as something nuanced and dynamic, changing over time and over individual careers. Whereas Jay-Z had to “make the song cry” because he could not, only coming to experiment with different vocal textures and affective ranges fairly late in his career, DMX openly sobbed, laughed, yelped, growled, and whispered on his debut album. And while 2pac and Biggie were masters of melancholy, with a tinge of somberness undergirding their most joyous and effortless sounding tracks, DMX’s vocal strain consistently gestures toward the intense effort informing all of his articulations. The cultivated break in the voice we find in DMX’s early records, I would argue, has gone on to inform the sound of emcees like Eminem and Kendrick Lamar, who mark their affective and lyrical ingenuity not only through their complex rhyme schemes and tangled syncopations, but also in their ability to modulate their voices to produce the kinds of intensities DMX pioneered.
“I merely say what’s in my heart, and you call it a style,” DMX proclaims on his 1998 debut album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. The lyric is a useful summary of what made his appearance on the mainstream hip hop scene in the late 1990s so distinct. Emerging seemingly from nowhere to push Garth Brooks from the top of charts, DMX’s first album sold 250,000 units in its first week before going platinum four times. Devin Lazerine usefully situates just how disruptive DMX was to the hip hop status quo when he arrived on the scene: “Just as DMX’s style and flow can be read as a gritty antidote to mainstream hip hop’s blinding shininess, the production on his early albums seemed like a direct rebuke to the lazily sample-based beat biting of Puff Daddy. The beats DMX generally spit over were hard, gloomy, and synthetic, the product of synthesizers pumping out angry assaults of noise” (2008, 301). DMX encapsulates such a sentiment on the album’s lead single, “Get at Me Dog,” when he says, “let my man and them stay pretty and I’m a stay shitty, cruddy,” before informing listeners that getting by for him means “nothing more than an occasional meal and getting high,” and that he has given up chasing his dreams. It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is far from the yachts and fish-eyed lenses of the Bad Boy era and the confident defiance of the Suge Knight–helmed Death Row. DMX was approaching thirty at the time of his debut, selling himself neither as a sex symbol nor a mob boss but as a grizzled vet with a lot to get off his chest.
DMX’s brand of hip hop in the late 1990s was not aspirational, glittery, or political. It was not strictly “gangsta” either—though it certainly abounds in violence—given his lyrical disinterest in celebrating fame or the spoils of street victory. There are no brand names mentioned on his first record, no mention of luxury aspirations now fulfilled. DMX is hungry, but not only in a metaphorical way; hunger informs the album’s language, its sound, and its feel. The listener is continually on edge, cresting along the cord of his voice as it threatens to snap and break. There is a sparseness to the production, yet each track feels exhausting. Guest verses are limited to two tracks, undoubtedly the most forgettable songs on the album, which only regain some spark when DMX reappears. DMX yells at himself for much of the record, throwing his voice to play several characters in the same song, even performing different versions of himself at times. His voice is aggressively antimonotone; you never know exactly where he will pitch the next word. The few moments of stasis on the album come from brief bouts of quiet.
The album opens with X’s deep voice, often described as gravelly, repping his Ruff Ryders Crew in his distinct singsongy cadence without musical accompaniment. Despite the obligatory crew shout out, none of its members feature on the track that follows. The album’s intro is all DMX, rapping hard over a gothic-sounding track produced by Irv Gotti. DMX and Gotti cut through the glossy atmosphere of the late 1990s to make the listener sit up and pay attention to this stark “something new.” But some of the more subtle aspects of “Intro” are easier to miss. Nested within the track is sampled dialogue from the 1995 Spike Lee–produced horror anthology film Tales from the Hood, coming in at the bridge atop the song’s primary sample, taken from James Mtume’s soundtrack for the 1986 film adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940)—a tale from the ’hood for a prior generation. DMX matches these sonic references to generation of black struggle, affect, and cultural atmospherics with his vocal performance—all grime, aggression, growls, grunts. It is not surprising that Mike Tyson walked out to the ring to this track before his bouts.
In fact, Tyson and DMX’s public personas share some key aspects—they present themselves to the public as intimidatingly tough while at the same time harboring deep vulnerabilities; both are precociously loquacious yet prefer to speak just as often through clipped forms of aggression. They wield their rage with a self-awareness of its status as barely masked hurt. And both have capitalized on this trope of hurt rage, controlling its performance at times to great success, while achieving notoriety at others when that control spectacularly fails. Through an examination of DMX’s music we might begin to think about the limited repertoire black male mental illness has been granted within American culture, yoked to fears regarding the unhinged black male body typed in the past (and at times in the present) as lacking the facility for mental control. Whereas racist science at the turn of the twentieth century insisted that black men lacked the inherent ability to control themselves as a byproduct of evolution, by midcentury the language of science was being replaced by that of “culture” and “pathology” in order to justify increased surveillance, heightened policing, and mass incarceration of black bodies. The discourse of black urban pathology has, in fact, been largely embraced by hip hop, as the popular refrain of rappers claiming to be “raised by the streets” attests. While many emcees have reclaimed a sense of agency on wax, producing narratives of mobility about how they lifted themselves out of these streets, DMX does not chart this redemptive trajectory on his albums. He instead holds onto his pathology while carving out space at the record’s end for spiritual rather than economic redemption.
DMX’s interest in his own pathological formation most distinctly emerges in his infatuation with dogs. In canine form, DMX marks the loss of his humanity but at other times positively signals his transcendence beyond the human. DMX’s interest in the dog as a figure for “bare life” is complicated by his sentimental attachment to these animals, attested to by X’s ornate back tattoo of his pitbull Boomer (as seen on the CD’s back cover). DMX continually barks, growls, and whimpers across It’s Dark, performances that could easily verge on melodrama in less sincere vocal cords. These sounds punctuate the record, existing as a sublanguage as important to the record’s feel as its more decipherable lyrical content.
In this way the DMX we meet on the first third of the record is both the hardest man in the room and also the strangest—there is an underlying unpredictability to his temperament that the production intensifies. His lyrics are rarely anchored in actual events, stories, or people, but more generally testify to his skill and power. X spends most of the album telling you what he wants or what he is going to do to abstract enemies or marks. His raps are largely antisituational, expressing feelings and desires detached from particular spaces or consequences. Whereas other rappers will often orient their listeners within specific moments and mindsets, DMX tends to presents the listener with looser emotional states, states that are felt rather than studied, directly experienced more than they are explained or understood. Even a relatively straightforward narrative like “Crime Story” trades primarily in archetypes—the criminal, the police, the revenge plot—with a paucity of context, personal detail, or motivation.
Although It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is not usually talked about as a concept album, it has a definite developmental arc and an overall cohesion. The most well-known cuts off of the album are mostly variations on the “Intro.” “Ruff Ryders Anthem,” “Get at Me Dog,” and parts of “Stop Being Greedy” mimic the opening track in their staccato beats and the proliferation of punctuating growls and adlibs. DMX’s rhyme schemes are not particularly complex, but there is a musicality in his cadence, present even in his speaking voice as showcased on these earlier tracks. Such tracks do not invoke any specific events, times, places, or persons. There is, instead, a more ambient sense of pain and violence. The speaker in these songs possesses little interiority. Aggressive actions and emotions blur into one another while the rapper’s voice keeps morphing to exemplify scenes of destructive energy.
But as we crest toward the middle of the album, a softening occurs. On songs like “Look thru My Eyes” and “Let Me Fly” DMX is less in pitbull mode, rapping instead in a more confessional and vulnerable fashion with his vocals imparting equal parts rage and pain. “Look thru My Eyes” opens with a dog whimpering. DMX proceeds to rap about the toll that inhabiting such an ugly psyche takes on him. This emotional intensity comes to a lyrical head in the third stanza with his delivery of the lines “I bear my soul, niggas wouldn’t dare” before referring to himself as “a nigga [with] a heart of gold, but with a hole.” The song ends with DMX speaking rather than rapping, asking his listeners to feel the pain and joy “of a man who was never a boy, for real.” “Let Me Fly” features DMX earnestly crooning the hook—a leap to melody that feels like a natural evolution from his generally musical cadence.
The middle tracks are storytelling songs, but stories that function more as allegories than indices of reality. On “Damien,” DMX voices both the conflicted layman and the devil to whom he’s sold his soul. “How It’s Goin’ Down” is the only prolonged moment on the album where DMX discusses women, a tale of a sexual fling that ultimately comes to a mutual and respectful end as X acknowledges the relationship “wasn’t right for me” before pledging he and his ex-lover will remain “the best of friends.” “Crime Story” and “ATF” are clipped stories of violent encounters with police ending in mutual destruction. “The Convo” is the complement to “Damien” featuring DMX voicing both sides of a conversation, this time between himself and God. Even the single, “Stop Being Greedy,” is polyvocal in its delivery, a harsher and more openly brutal vocal taking over from his more high-pitched and laid-back articulation at the start of each verse. On these polyvocal and narrative-centered tracks the lyrics do not ground the listener in a more detailed world, but instead they are even further abstracted from reality, leaving the listener stuck in a world sustained only by X’s vocal efforts.
The album’s climax is “Prayer,” a spoken word track with no musical accompaniment. Its lyrical content is more or less straightforward, featuring DMX addressing God directly in the form of a rhymed prayer. The a cappella track allows him to display the virtuosity of his musical cadence and emotional delivery. But this performance ultimately sounds less like a sermon and more like DMX’s effortful attempt to find self-coherence in an anchored lyrical subjectivity. DMX comes to the Lord more animal than man—hungry, tired, seeking food and rest—before going on to ask for more complex forms of nourishment. He is most calm in his delivery when asking for salvation for others, and attesting to the feeling of Godly love. During these moments of calm, in his flow and vocal timbre DMX sounds most like 2pac, as if he is unable to use his own cadence to rap about serenity. But the track ends in turbulence with DMX crying out to God to give him “pain ’til I die” if it allows for his “brother to see the light.” In the end, the track is more passion play than meditative reflection.
A concept album never recognized as such, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot has more in common with later albums like Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City than those of his late-1990s contemporaries. Besides sharing an arc of personal redemption, DMX’s vocal experiments, with his voice as the site of bravado and vulnerability, seemingly influenced Lamar’s own willingness to alter his voice for a range of effects. But while Lamar marries his vocal performances with lyrical ingenuity, synthesizing these forms to produce a sense of considered control, with DMX one has the sense that the voice exists on a plane either distinct from or parallel to his lyrics, doing work that the lyrics cannot. Over the course of the album the listener swims in X’s feelings, feelings that are not anchored in particular times and places but circulate in more ambient ways. The intensities experienced with, and through, DMX are ultimately exhausting. While Lamar carries his listeners with him to a place of rest, DMX’s attempt stalls out. His prayers end up being just as fitful as his entreaties to violence. The record features DMX perpetually “feeling out” into the world. In light of historical sociology that casted African Americans as lacking the ability to modulate emotion, DMX inhabits this trope until it hurts both him and us. It makes sense then that DMX has openly professed his dislike of Drake, a vocal chameleon quick to adopt others’ flows and vocal tics, performing ingenuity in a way that at times feels more like a dodge rather than a skill. In reciting the list of things he dislikes about Drake in a 2014 interview, DMX first lists his voice—a critique we should take seriously, given DMX’s particular investment in this realm. Ingenuity in hip hop is often treated as being synonymous with lyrical cleverness, dictating methods of listening and valuation that produce familiar hierarchies. But X’s power lies in his growls, whimpers, and the insistent beat of his cadence. The effort of articulation in his work often feels more powerful than the articulation itself.
Guided by Voices: Bone Thugs-n-Harmony
The Notorious B.I.G. was reportedly quite keen to record with the Ohio collective Bone Thugs-n-Harmony for his 1997 album Life after Death. “Big understood how important the Midwest and South were at the time,” Sean Combs has said about the collaboration, noting how much the New York rapper admired these Midwesterners’ melodic flow. The members of the group featured on “Notorious Thugs,” the first track on the second disc of Biggie’s Life after Death, having laid down their vocals in a single evening while Biggie studied their process. “There were a lot of things that he wanted to know about us and about our flow,” Krayzie Bone recalls about the collaboration, noting how Biggie asked them questions about their flow and production process. In fact, Biggie deferred recording his vocals in the group’s presence, wanting to first study what they had recorded before attempting to step into their lane (XXL Staff 2014). Bone Thugs brought a hurried yet controlled flow out of Biggie, enduring as one of his most distinctive verses.
While borrowing their speed, Biggie stops short of attempting to replicate Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s trademark melodies as featured on their debut EP, 1994’s Creepin On Ah Come Up, and debut album, 1995’s E. 1999 Eternal. Both were executive produced by Eazy-E, whose own song-like delivery and gangsta’ profile made him a fitting collaborator. The production style is distinctly West Coast, complete with high-pitched G-funk whistling synthesizer and languorous beats with a horrorcore edge. Lyrically, there is nothing all that distinctive in an average Bone Thugs song. Like DMX, Bone Thugs primarily stick to describing more abstract and ambient scenes of hustling. Though they rap more insistently about drugs and alcohol than DMX ever did, they share his emphasis on violence. The group’s music is often categorized as gangsta rap, mixing West Coast production style with the rapid flow distinctive of Midwestern “Chopper” rappers like Tech N9, Twista, and, later, Eminem.
But it is not the speed or the production that makes Bone Thugs so distinct; it is the melodicism. How do you describe the Bone Thugs-n-Harmony sound? Doo-wop meets melancholic speed-rap; Gregorian chants laced with staccato rhymes; hard and soft; sweet and dark; insular and expansive. Their singing is not at all reminiscent of crooners like Nate Dogg or T-Pain, who draw on the vocal stylings of funk and R&B. Bone Thugs are generally at their worst when attempting to belt like R&B singers, to which a song like “Buddah Loverz” from their first LP attests. The group’s vocal distinction emerges, rather, from their ability to blend winding melodies and unison chants with sharp syncopations and fast flows. Producing this wall of sound requires a layering of voices, lending their status as a group a different function than other rap collectives. Unlike, say, the Wu-tang’s form of assemblage—ready-made to produce individual breakout stars—the stylistic consistency of each of the members of Bone Thugs makes their partnership more genuinely collaborative. The Bone Thugs members have voices that are distinct enough in timbre and flow that you do not confuse them, and this allows them to blend their voices more like a barbershop quartet at times.
The group’s breakthrough was their first full album, E. 1999 Eternal, released four months after the death of Eazy-E. This album produced the huge crossover hit, “Tha Crossroads,” introducing their trademark chopper-style delivery and occasional lush harmonies to a mainstream audience. Saving the song from novelty status was the gravitas of its eulogy to Eazy-E and other departed close ones. Though speed-rapping is not often yoked to mourning, “Tha Crossroads” presents mourning as something to be rushed through, with Bone Thugs delivering their vocals as if they are on the verge of tripping over their own tongues. While the song’s chorus delivers the somberness one expects from a song about death, the verses bounce and flitter, touching down in light, breathy sighs of loss. The group voices a desire for arriving at a crossroads—a place typically imagined as a site for temporary encounters, reworked here as a more enduring site of reunion. While the chorus marks a desire for a utopian space of reconnection with the dead, the verses describe the reality of the dead’s absence, marking a tension between the need to accept death and a failure to understand its frequency. The group’s layered voices create a scene of accompaniment mirroring the lyrics’ depiction of the afterlife as a site of reattachment.
E. 1999’s other standout track is “1st of Tha Month,” which describes a better-than-average day in the life of a dope slinger on the day when welfare checks arrive and the money circulates on the block. Though the comedian Chris Rock has described the song as a “welfare carol” in his (in)famous “Black People vs. Niggers” stand-up routine, nothing all that great or celebratory seems to happen on the day. You can finally get your hair braided and the corner is a little busier, but that is about it. Layzie Bone even raps about taking the bus. The song is less about spectacle than a naturalistic ode to everyday survival. Much less dramatic than Ice Cube’s “Today Was a Good Day,” where the day’s exceptional lack of violence is constantly received by Cube with surprise, none of the narrators on “1st of Tha Month” express surprise or even relief. The song is both exuberant and melancholic in content and delivery.
Though the members of Bone Thugs implore us to “wake up” at the song’s start—an allusion to Marvin Gaye rousing his partner at the beginning of “Sexual Healing”—what follows ultimately sounds more like a lullaby, suggesting the porousness between waking and sleeping when you are waiting for the first of the month. From there we stay in a hazy scene of weed and hustling, a sleepiness that even the arrival of a check fails to really puncture or punctuate. In the video, the figure of a middle-aged white banker tries to sweep both the good and bad aspects of black life off-screen. But the Bone Thug members sit with all of it, making melodic malaise out of their surroundings. And yet, despite its ordinary subject matter, “1st of Tha Month” is also undoubtedly a work of intense vocal artifice. When we first hear the group’s voices on the track, it is in the form of a complex rolling harmony telling everyone to wake up and “cash your checks and come up.” Setting the mood for a singular yet cyclical event, Bone Thugs are the pied pipers of the ’hood who both instigate and represent the day’s actions of maintenance.
While Bone Thugs’ melodies and harmonies produce effects we might categorize as lovely, charming, or even beguiling, the affective register of their voices is harder to parse. In blending their voices, they often remove grit or thrust from their individual vocalizations. Moreover, they rarely reference feeling in any direct way in their lyrics. Even on “Tha Crossroads”—a song explicitly dedicated to mourning—there are few mentions of actual emotions. The Bone Thugs empty out their voice of affect to conjure unromantic scenes of endurance, presenting the first of the month as something not to be celebrated or bemoaned, but simply acknowledged for how it shapes the rhythms of everyday life. In this sense, Chris Rock mischaracterizes the song: the first of the month is neither exceptional nor abnormal in the hands of the Bone Thugs. They ultimately emphasize the day’s banality over its festiveness.
Bone Thugs-n-Harmony use their voices to make the ordinary sound divine and the mundane sacred, granting the quasi-event of “check day” a vocal grandiosity belying the paucity of the scenes to which these vocalizations are attached; offering scenes of mourning that cast doubt on their own vision of the hereafter as a site of repair. Though there is an ornateness to the group’s vocal performances, their songs operate according to a tightly controlled economy of sound. There is rarely a stray note, moan, grunt, or utterance outside of the choreographed harmonies and slightly detuned monophony, with seemingly no sound unaccounted for. Whereas DMX populates his songs with chatter and noise flowing into and over the formal stanzas, there is a machine-like efficiency to the Bone Thugs sound. While DMX’s voice is diffuse—overextended, freighted with motion and emotion in excess of the actual detail provided, a voice released rather than harnessed—the Bone Thugs aesthetic revolves around the collection and organization of voice in response to events that are hard to collect or organize. By producing melodies that are not sweet, barks that are equally sentimental and aggressive, both artists use their voices to inch toward the sonic fantastic, punctuating scenes that refer to the experience of the mundane real.
If black women’s voices have historically been “called upon to heal a crisis in national unity as well as provoke one,” as Farah Jasmine Griffin has written, the distinct voices of these male hip hop artists are too diffuse, too ambient, to situate their subjects in specific spatial or civic rubrics (2004, 104). These voices instead root themselves in hyperlocal geographic spaces—Cleveland’s E. 1999 for Bone Thugs—and hyperspecific psychological spaces as with DMX, rooted in a sprawling and at times incoherent self. Given their vocal distinctness, these artists cannot easily be claimed as speaking for others, or for the otherwise unheard, and thus appear resistant to standard analysis and to institutional canonization. It is difficult to parse the vocal performances of a DMX or a Bone Thugs-n-Harmony in large part due to “the strain of the voice” which, counter to Barthes’s formation, is disembodied, often thrusting against relationality. Strained voices do not elicit empathy so much as they invite us to marvel at their dynamism. Few fantasize of actually being DMX or Bone Thugs-n-Harmony—neither trucks in the glamour expertly cultivated by other rappers. Their intense vocal artifice keeps the listener at a distance, discouraging us from swallowing words and making them our own. And yet, strain can produce a different kind of identification. Inviting us to feel around with them as they perform effort rather than cool, their penetrating voices call attention to the ongoing work required to “stay cruddy.” Even if listeners do not want to be these artists, there are millions who feel them on some level. Attending to these feelings allow us to approach hip hop not through measurements or rankings but as something that surrounds, immersing listeners in atmospheres that cannot be reduced to maps.
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(1) See Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York: Picador 2005); Nelson George, Hip Hop America (New York: Penguin, 2005); Dan Charnas, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (New York: NAL 2011); Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1994); and Mark Katz, Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).