You can hear a song countless times on countless occasions without ever reflecting on the emotional weight or context behind it. We sing along at parties and on crowded dancehall floors without so much as a second thought, breathlessly buying into the surface level euphoria of whatever the DJ throws into the mix.
But closer inspection inevitably peels back the rhythmic cheer to reveal a synchrony that captures the essential nature of catharsis. When given a moment to spell out what’s being said by our go-to mood maestros, it becomes abundantly clear that tracks like Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO TOUR Llif3,” with its unforgettable emo refrain, should be accompanied by an advisory sticker warning listeners of the power ballad death-courting. For the song’s now ubiquitous creator, “Push me to the edge/All my friends are dead” isn’t just operatic posturing or a figure of speech: Uzi openly acknowledges the loved ones that he’s lost (Ninety, Chico, Wee, Doo Dot) and the toll that it’s had on him throughout much of Luv Is Rage 1.5. It seems almost grotesque when considered from an outsider’s perspective: how could such a potent funeral drone, haunted by repetitive chants about our ever-taboo mortality, become an international phenomenon, and in the sacred embrace of the club at that?
It’s no surprise that sad music is self-medicating, but the manner in which some artists are capable of secretly disguising their intentions has a funny way of making for the most exhilarating, party-ready bops. Uzi’s sky-scraping elegy has resonated with millions, as if the exquisite electronics he utilizes somehow cover up the unnerving realities summoned forth from the nether realm. In truth, they aid in bringing his demons to life: “XO TOUR Llif3” now stands as a definitive millennial record, its maelstrom of emotions driven by a paired sense of intimacy and misery that is at the very heart of the hip hop zeitgeist.
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The song’s cartoonish exuberance and clockwork quotable aren’t singular: a great number of music’s most popular contemporary hits are heavy forays into love and loss, and the ever-lurking fear of never attaining true fulfillment or happiness. SoundCloud rap’s rise and fall in particular has brought with it a bountiful harvest of tragic whomp whomps full of rousing hooks and lyrical content structured around anxiety and despair. XXXTentacion’s biggest hit finds him dredging up suicidal ideation and (controversially) threatening to end his life if his one-and-only doesn’t heed his wishes. Roddy Ricch’s “Die Young” wrestles with the paranoia that nips at the heels of hip hop’s young, rich, and famous. Lil Peep, who was on the cusp of full-blown superstardom before his life was cut short by a drug overdose, nurtured the fraught minor keys and dulled senses that are ideal for dimly lit dive bars on tracks like “Awful Things” and “The Brightside.” Post Malone’s disgruntled moping and fixation on spurned love (“Better Now” and “I Fall Apart”) earned him the title of one of the most-streamed artists of 2018. And Juice WRLD, whose entire musical existence is based on weaving heartbreak into trap tapestries, has watched the formula pay off in dividends with smash records “Lucid Dreams” and “All Girls Are The Same.”
“Sad bangers,” for lack of a better descriptor, have been in business for as long as humanity has had reason to drown its sorrows in music. Although sonic emotion often gets scrubbed clean through years of widespread commercialization, few genres are as well-suited for complex expression as hip hop. For artists like trap renaissance man Future, the embrace of hip hop’s sadder side beyond the threshold of velvet entry ropes and brawny bouncers is colored by an underlying hurt. His twisted dispatches reek of hedonism and self mutilation, his vocals always on the verge of cascading into emotional overload, as if he’s the surrogate for every departed soul adrift at the bottom of the bottle. On “Thought It Was Drought,” crisp 808s and Gucci flip flop flexes mask the fact that Atlanta’s answer to Phil Collins is more scared to lose the dirty swirling in his styrofoam than the possibility of human connection. Magnum opus “Codeine Crazy” unleashes his best songwriting to date over distortion leaks that amplify the listless arousal and sexual frustration within. It’s an existential crisis counting down to zero in big digitized drips and moans.
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Beyond the woozy synths and pounding percussion that animate people to pursue their most primal instincts, what makes such songs so sticky is the way that the yearning for closure quivers against the silence, the embodiment of words unspoken in writhing throngs of partygoers. It’s as if doubling down on the melancholy while under the influence of the beat helps “drag us out of the mire.” Indeed, club music takes on added meaning when fueled by something deeper than material pinings, expanding its range of expression to encapsulate the torment that underlines the need for an escape. Isolation and the insecurities it breeds are shown to be a universal struggle, celebrated through a clarity that is deeply affecting when wielded properly.
Pop culture’s proliferation of the sad banger isn’t just a frivolous trend, but instead the realization of refuge amidst colorful strobes and the churning bodies of strangers. When Future and Chief Keef croon about finding release through illicit means, or perennial favorite Kid Cudi details how childhood trauma and the throes of addiction have pierced every facet of his existence, they capture what it feels like to be the last one leaving Folly’s on a Thursday, ears ringing, shirt splattered with gin and sweat stains, head spinning with loneliness. Even in this abstract combination of sadness and ecstasy, seeming emptiness is replaced by a joy that both distracts from and pinpoints the reality of the moment. It’s music that acts as a portal to a world of nostalgia, transcendence, and wonder where negative emotions are mercifully capable of consolation, and Lil Uzi Vert’s bipolar antics suddenly don’t feel so out of place.