This might be an article about the new, weird wave of Sadness that’s permeating the outer rims of hip-hop, but don’t get it twisted: Rap has been sad ever since somebody called the cops on a block party in the Bronx in the 70’s, and it’s gonna stay sad until the sun engulfs the earth, when some rapper will make his last act as a sentient, non-melting being to step in the booth and record a hot 16 about death. The Geto Boys had a thug candle set up in their room and fought imaginary monsters in “Mind Playin’ Tricks On Me,” Tupac contemplated suicide every ten minutes, and Trae and Z-Ro have been actively trying to alienate humankind for over a decade. People fuck with Future so heavy in part because he’s got a direct, AutoTuned line straight into his tortured soul and isn’t afraid to subvert the conventions of molly-fueled ATL strip club music and vomit out some feelings. Rap being sad is nothing new. Sad Rap, however, is like nothing you've ever heard before.
As far as I can tell, the hip-hop microgenre of Sad Rap has two practitioners: Young Lean, the sullen Swedish teenage white rapper whose incredible music we helped introduce to the world, and Little Pain, whose SoundCloud contains three songs, all of which are completely mindblowing. Little Pain came to my attention last night, after he me asking me to post his music on Noisey. This happens to me every single day, and most of the time I just ignore that shit because life is too short to listen to struggle rappers. And yet, for some reason I opened the email. Maybe it was because his Gmail handle was “Sobbin Williams.” Maybe it was because the subject line said “Sad Rap Music Submission.” Maybe it was because his email was like a sentence long so reading it didn’t seem like too much of an investment. I ended up giving his shit a listen, and OH MY GOD. LITTLE PAIN MAKES INCREDIBLE MUSIC. SAD RAP IS THE REALEST MUSIC EVER AND SOON THE WORLD WILL BE BATHED IN LITTLE PAIN’S TEARS.
The second after I regained my composure from the intense, beautiful sadness I’d been smacked in the face with, I responded to Little Pain’s email and asked him if we could talk on the phone. Ten minutes later, I was talking to a 21 year-old kid who lived in Crown Heights and who, though he’s only been rapping since February, makes sure to point out that he’s been Sad all his life. I ask him if he’s got a job or is in school. “No,” he says. “Those are the reasons why I’m sad.” I ask him what he was like as a kid. His response? “Sad.” As for Sad Rap, he says, “There are different types of Sad Rap,” Little Pain explains. “There’s me, and there are different types like Yung Lean—he gives more of a Sad vibe. There are actually producers out there like Karman or Little Sad who have been making Sad beats. They have been on this Sad Wave. Anything that just makes you Sad or gives you a Sad vibe I would classify as Sad Rap. It doesn’t necessarily have to have sad lyrics.”
Indeed, Little Pain often wears Sadness as a suit of armor in his music, talking about how he’s leaving some tears up on your girlfriend’s blouse or how he’s proud of his sadness, as if “Sad” is just an empty signifier that could just as easily be “Smoking Weed” or Riding Eagles with a Talking Dog.” So much of what’s communicated in hip-hop is through inflection and cadence, to the point where the actual subject matter is often secondary. Is Little Pain just fucking around? Why’s he bragging about Sadness? “There was a time when I suffered from depression. So it’s like taking control of something and trying to make it better. When you’re angry, people tell you to let it out. When you’re happy and smiling, people tell you to be happy. But when you’re crying everybody is telling you to stop. Nobody says, ‘Embrace it.’ You’re supposed to hide that like it’s a weakness, but sadness is just another emotion.”
It feels worth noting that Little Pain's original file name for this picture was toosadhighcry.jpg.
Ray the Destroyer, a noted hip-hop expert who runs Mishka’s blog and has written for Noisey before, put it this way to me via email: “Drake was the first dude to center his whole persona around ennui as the French would say, or "having feminine ways" as dudes at my barbershop on 125th would call it. The thing that's interesting about the Sad Rap wave is cats are using sadness as an aesthetic. Little Pain is out here flossin' sadness like money, and tonally Yung Lean raps like someone who's immune to the mood elevating effects of antidepressants, blowjobs, puppies, and ice cream.”
So, then, Sad is an attitude as well as a way to approach your music. It’s a sonic template, and a lens through which a young person can view the world. The comments on Little Pain’s SoundCloud are often tongue-in-cheek, the more emotive the reactions being the most positive. This is sort of like how people like to call good things “Rare” for no apparent reason. If I had to guess, one can be Sad without being genuinely sad, but it definitely helps to be bummed in order to reach genuine Sadness.
Through these linguistic mindfucks, there’s one thing you can definitely take away. It is 100% possible to be silly about something while still being totally genuine, even your sadness. One way to overcome something as crushing as depression is through owning it, and what better way to own something than subvert it and turn a weakness into a strength? Little Pain credits Lil B with introducing him to this more elastic way of thinking, saying, “My music can be different; people can take it as a joke or a gimmick. Hip-hop is not that old, and I feel like we should be able to open the doors to make music about everything. Lil B doesn’t get enough credit for pushing that limit.”
The idea of bragging about being the most fucked up probably originates with Kid Cudi, who history may vindicate as the most influential rapper who really, really fucking sucked. Lest we forget, Cudi was pretty much the reason Kanye’s lugubrious classic 808s and Heartbreak sounds like it does, which helped pave the way for feelings in mainstream hip-hop (for all the rap nerds out there, I’m simplifying pretty heavily). Suddenly, you have Drake sing-rapping about making tea and discussing his emotions like he’s speaking to a therapist instead of a mic in a recording booth. As Ray the Destroyer points out, he really made big-upping your depression possible.
Perhaps most fascinating about the Sad Wave is that despite very, very few people actually knowing about it, it’s the type of thing that sparks tremendous debate amongst hip-hop fans. Little Pain first got some shine when Pigeons and Planes profiled him (turns out he spends lots of time emailing various music blogs asking them to post his music, which in its own way is the very definition of Sad). Within days, there was already a backlash to something that barely existed.
It remains to be seen whether or not Sadness will become a wave or is merely a ripple in the wavy, wavy ocean that is modern hip-hop, but it’s certain that there’s something genuinely special about Little Pain. His music is great, and it’s not just because of his unique way of looking at the world. As Pain and I end our phone conversation, he tells me, “If you get a chance shed a couple tears later. Let it out.” Still, he can’t always be sad, even if he’ll be Sad forever. Shortly after our conversation ended, he sent me an email that said, “Thanks. Broke down in tears of excitement as soon as I hung up the phone.”
Little Pain's When Thugz Cry mixtape is dropping sooner than you think. Until then, find him on SoundCloud.
Drew Millard is Sad as fuck. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard