In their music videos, you notice their youth first — then, how their eyes look dead. In his breakout single “Earl,” released in 2010, Earl Sweatshirt rapped of poking Catholics in the ass with chainsaws. In “Yonkers,” Tyler, the Creator confessed, “I’m not gay, I just wanna boogie to some Marvin,” only to snap and swear he would “stab Bruno Mars in the fucking esophagus.” Now, their approach to music could not sound more different. In August, Sweatshirt wrote that he wanted to make “pretty” music: “I hope I lose you as a fan if you only fuck with me because I rapped about raping girls when I was 15.” To Hive, Domo the Genesis said Tyler’s then-untitled follow-up 2011’s Goblin (now Wolf, out yesterday) will be “a lot more soft and beautiful than you’d think.”
Neither Earl nor Tyler have said why this is the case, but it’d be easy for journalists to draw parallels from its “soft” and “pretty” nature to recent revelations and appearances. Before he announced Wolf, Tyler voiced his support for Frank Ocean following his letter to his first love (“I was 19 years old. He was too.”); Sweatshirt decided that he would no longer rap about rape after having volunteered a center for survivors of sexual abuse. At the Grammys, both sat next to Ocean’s mother as he performed “Forrest Gump” (“You’re running through my mind, boy.”) Still, because of their visceral and hateful past, Odd Future knew to cast out a disclaimer for songs that could be considered soft.
When Odd Future arrived, some rappers still considered the word “soft” to be a valid criticism. After crying foul at XXL for including Iggy Azalea in its 2012 Freshman Class (“How can you endorse a white woman who calls herself a runaway slave master?”), Azealia Banks took to Twitter to call her label boss T.I. “soft,” as if that was enough. Common’s first single off 2011’s The Dreamer/The Believer, “Sweet,” was aimed at Drake as a twist to the very insult he fought off in the ’90s, from Ice Cube in particular.
Unlike in past rap feuds however, these accusations of being “soft” tended to fall flat: Banks’ beef with T.I. and Iggy Azalea was written off as another example of how her Twitter rambling can overshadow her music. Although “Sweet” excited rap fans at first, sales of The Dreamer/The Believer — it spent three weeks at No. 18 on the Billboard 200 — paled in comparison to that of Drake’s Take Care, which debuted at No. 1. The more that rap’s parameters expand, the more that the word “soft” loses its potency.
Michael P. Jeffries, author of Thug Life: Race, Gender and the Meaning of Hip-Hop, has studied how rap’s usage of “hard” and “soft” has evolved with rap itself since its founding days. “When [rap] turned into music that described urban conditions, what they’re describing is a code of conduct that you have to abide by someone who lives in that neighborhood,” Jeffries said. Acting “soft” wasn’t an option then, and once MTV caught on to rap, the urban code of conduct manifested into what’s now the genre’s longest-running dick joke. LL Cool J was “hard as hell” in “Rock the Bells,” then turned soft with a No. 1 R&B hit, 1987’s “I Need Love.”
Such hypermasculine standards would help define the parameters of the East Coast-West Coast feud. Mobb Deep’s Prodigy was in the thick of it; he was caught in a Western showdown with Tupac, then when he caught a whiff of Jay-Z’s “Money, Cash, Hoes,” he fired diss tracks in his direction too. The Vo1. 2 … Hard Knock Life track had asked, “What’s the dealings, huh? It’s like New York’s been soft ever since Snoop came through and crushed the buildings.” This line references the music video for Tha Dogg Pound’s “New York, New York,” where the West Coast, Death Row rapper stomped on what was supposed to be New York skyscrapers. Rap escalated into bi-coastal warfare; the word “soft” was fired like bullets.
Prodigy remembers exactly how this happened. In an 2011 interview with ThisIs50.com, he said that the biggest misconception surrounding him is that he’s soft. He does not mention when Jay-Z said, “You’s a ballerina, I seen ya,” then revealed photos of young Prodigy dressed in leotards and as Michael Jackson — the most contentious moment in Summer Jam history. Instead, he dives into the root of his beef with Tupac: the words “THUG LIFE,” as inked on Tupac’s stomach but was first repeated in Mobb Deep’s Survival of the Fittest. “I wanted to fuck that n—- up, cut him, shoot him, all that shit,” he says. Coming 11 years after that one Summer Jam and 15 years after Tupac’s death, Prodigy sounds like a high school bully reveling in his heyday. He sounds petty, especially compared to others. “You can’t be too soft,” Waka Flocka Flame once said, the day before he left for Drake’s Club Paradise tour in May 2012. He was speaking of Drake himself, of how he’s like, “Yo, thank God I hold your hand all the time.”
“You can’t be too soft,” I repeated.
“Not saying for him but for me, the man that I am.” He shifted in his seat. “Basically, it’s just hate. It’s some shit, like if a man can’t get on your level, they challenge you with words to bring you down. That’s all.”
Nearly all interpretations of “soft” still sound as if they’re intended to keep women out — with the same intention as Peter Rosenberg when he addressed ’chicks’ at the 2012 Summer Jam (“I know there are some chicks waiting to sing ’Starships’ later”) or when Lord Jamar jeers at Kanye West for performing in a skirt at the 12-12-12 benefit concert. (In “Lift Up Your Skirt” he raps, “I bet this n—- thinkin’ he look adorable / Your music’s good but your ego is horrible.”) “Even though you see ’hard’ and ’soft’ take on different meanings and bring different distinctions to light, the gendered meaning always has something to do with whatever secondary or additional meaning is being created,” Jeffries says. “So the idea that pop music is less valuable than hardcore hip hop is a gendered idea. The idea that certain forms of blackness are more legitimate than other racial identities in hip hop or alternative forms of blackness in hip hop is a gendered idea. The gendered distinction becomes sort of primary, even as it gains multiple uses.”
Hip hop’s flirtations with pop, R&B and other “soft” genres tend to meet more criticism than straightforward rap records. Common’s 2002 album, Electric Circus, wandered into electro-pop, bebop and psychedelic rock territory — a turn in production informed by Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration Information, according to Questlove. Critics were divided, although detractors did not wholly blame its producers or Common himself — they blamed the rapper’s then-girlfriend, Erykah Badu, for having too much of an influence. That same year, Missy Elliott closed the excellent Under Construction on a defensive note: “You may not feel like I’m a real hip hop artist, but I don’t have to be. I grew up on hip hop, and that’s what motivated me to do music.” As The New York Times found, Elliott represented one side of a growing divide within the genre: “Those Who Rap, Those Who Don’t,” or between artists who prioritized craft (Eminem, Nas) and those who prioritized culture — and were more likely to draw flak (The Roots, Elliott).
Yet alternatives continue to crop up. DatPiff’s most popular mixtapes of all time include Notorious B.I.G. and UGK compilations and Chris Brown’s Boy in Detention. Last spring, the preferences of Rap Genius users are torn between the West Coast’s early-20s nihilism — Black Hippy Movement’s drugged-up haze, Odd Future’s horrorcore — and Childish Gambino’s confessions of once being called an Oreo and a faggot.” When there was just gangsta rap, all of these people were like, ’Well, I like rap, but I’m too effeminate to be a rapper,’ or, ’Whatever, I’m too big of a nerd.’ But now, it’s open for everybody,” Mahbod Moghadam, Rap Genius co-founder, said in May 2012 — four months before the lyrics database site earned a $15 million investment.
Such diversity is represented in the hip-hop mainstream, too: Common’s target in “Sweet,” Drake, ended 2012 with Take Care at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. Kanye West remained in top standing long after the 2010 release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, after he bested 50 Cent in their much-hyped SoundScan clash, with about 266,000 more copies of Graduation sold than Curtis within their first week. At least two forum threads have discussed these two rappers and their “soft” attributes at length. Kanye To The asked,” Why does Kanye get a pass for being called soft?” while Rap Genius asked, “Drake gets shit on constantly because he’s ’soft.’ Why? What does being ’soft’ [have to] do with his talent?” Several responses in each thread bring up a lesson that other, older rappers have also started to realize — as Jay-Z said of Graduation’s 2007 release, “It’s a good sign that heartfelt, sincere and honest music can do these types of numbers.”
When rappers refuse to be stifled by silence, their songs can stop time. Thanks to Tupac’s “Dear Mama” and Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day,” and thanks to the output that’s piled up since, rappers feel freer to cast aside these fears of being called “soft.” One of Nas’ best-written songs is “I Can,” set to Beethoven’s twinkling “Für Elise” and formats his radical black politics as a thoughtful history lesson specially made for his daughter. In “Glory,” Jay-Z’s giddy yet stunned words celebrating the birth of his daughter, Blue Ivy, sits next to remorseful ones about a preceding miscarriage — the child who could have been his. Le1f repurposes one of Eminem’s most well-known lines, “I am whatever you say I am,” to further assert his gayness; two years prior, a sober Eminem can urge fans to come take his hand. Just as “keeping it real” often amounts to loud posturing of fantastical braggadocio, ’softer’ records can act as a safe space for rappers to confront their quieter fears head-on.
These vivid portraits of masculinity, spat with just as much passion but “soft” by archaic definition, are just as vital in hip hop’s history as the West Coast’s steely, ruthless portrayals of the ’80s crack epidemic and the resulting police brutality — “hard” records like Straight Outta Compton and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. To kick off Jeff Chang’s essential Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, DJ Kool Herc laughs off the rap saying “keeping it real” as a fad, then writes, “If we’ve got a problem, we’ve got to correct it. We can’t be hypocrites. That’s what I hope the hip hop generation can do, to take us all to the next level by always reminding us: It ain’t about keeping it real, it’s about keeping it right.”
So while Tyler, the Creator, 22, and Earl Sweatshirt, 19, act a bit defensively over their new aims to create music that’s beautiful or pretty — soft — they have little to fear. So their music won’t, as Run-DMC would say, feel tougher than leather. So it won’t inspire that same feeling of blind invincibility and recklessness as their output thus far. Based on what Odd Future’s said and done, though, recent revelations about homophobia and misogyny seem to have inspired them to face emotions that are far more grounded, yet still terrifying than what they’ve already put to song. And if fans and critics do end up dissing these records by calling them “soft,” then the term will truly be meaningless.