What Does Calling Someone “Soft” Mean in Hip Hop?

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.

Drake attends the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards, Los Angeles. Photo: Fredrick M. Brown/Getty Images

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.”

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