Kanye West and the Proliferation of Auto Tuned “Emo Rap”

Kanye West spends a lot of time publicly talking about his own influence.

This is part of the reason why he’s so polarizing; his fans love it and the rest of the world loves to hate him for it. You can choose not to acknowledge it but West has influenced hip hop, probably enough to justify him being outspoken about it.

Possibly his most overlooked impact has been on the sociocultural acceptance of rappers using autotune to create melodic verses and openly rap about their own emotional vulnerabilities.

Let’s call this genre Emo Trap, and let’s define this genre by saying that it exists when hip hop/rap artists use melodic verses and distort their voices to create those melodies.

Young Thug gets a lot (read: most/all) of the credit for the diaspora of Emo Trap that exists in 2016, but Young Thug didn’t start releasing mixtapes until 2011. Chance The Rapper gets some credit for pioneering melodic rap music too, but his first public project #10Day started in 2011. In 2016, basically all of the “hype” new mainstream releases are Emo Trap. Think about Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, and Fetty Wap and you have an idea of what this genre sounds like.

Writers on pitchfork and stereogum like to tell us that Young Thug is a pioneer of rap weirdness, but his career only began 5 years ago so where does that leave us if we consider  hip hop has been around since the 1970s?

Working chronologically backward from Thug, Chance, Uzi, and Yachty, we’re left with two of Emo Trap’s present day heavy hitters: Drake & Future. Drake’s first mixtape Room For Improvement came out in 2006 and though at times emotional, his raps aren’t exactly melodic and he certainly doesn’t sing like 2016 Drake sings. Future’s first flurry of mixtapes came out between 2010 and 2011 and Pitchfork reviewed his 2011 project ‘Streetz Calling’ by saying “He’s so far basically come as close as anyone to perfecting this thread of ringtone pop, where singing and rapping are practically the same thing, and conversing 100% through Auto-Tune doesn’t mean you still can’t talk about how you used to sell drugs.”

So that’s it; in 2006 it was culturally acceptable for Drake to write veiled raps about personal vulnerabilities, and in 2011 Future could use auto tune to singrap about how he used to sell drugs. What happened between 2006 and 2011 that made it OK for trap rappers to do both? To use auto tune on trap songs about emotional vulnerability.

In 2008 Kanye West, working closely with T-Pain, released 808s & Heartbreak. Three years before Young Thug’s first mixtape, a rapper known for his soul sampling productions and punchline laden ego rap releases an album with track titles like Say You Will, Heartless, Love Lockdown, and See You In My Nightmares. The whole thing is about heartbreak, processing heartbreak, and moving on from heartbreak. Kanye uses auto tune on every track. He sings on every track. Jay Z, Kanye’s most public mentor and “big brother”  releases a song called Death of Autotune less than a year later. At a time when rappers were shamed for using auto tune because it was for pop stars and singers, Kanye challenged the status quo as he so often does.

West constantly gets challenged publicly for what he claims he has contributed to music and this take often comes from people who only see the public figure & outrageous tweets, not from people who listen to his music.

Without Kanye West and the contextual weirdness of 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak we have no context for Young Thug in 2016.