Fact: I’m a total pussy, and can be moved to tears by too many things to count. (Perennially effective tearjerkers: Lucinda Williams’ “Sweet Old World,” photos of orphans with flies on their faces, that part in “Welcome to the Terrordome” when Chuck D says “God bless your soul and keep livin’,” and the last five minutes of The Last Picture Show.)
But my most recent emotionally manipulative obsession has been what I’ve come to call Crybaby Rap—those downbeat hiphop tracks featuring sweet soul samples and otherwise hard-ass rappers dealing with deeply emotional subject matter: moms who gave everything, girlfriends who stuck around during the lean times, buddies now dead.
I’ve always had a house-sized soft spot for tough guys struggling to express their emotions (Chris Cooper’s 2003 Oscar speech nearly killed me), and hard guys showing their soft sides is the essence of Crybaby Rap. It’s also something of a rite of passage for rappers, who are challenged to deploy the same intricacy and wit they’ve used to chart their crimes and kills and cars and cheese in the service of much softer and much more vulnerable subject matter. If the rapper’s as good a writer as he claims to be, the results can be tremendous. If the rapper’s something of a hype job, the results can be cheesy cheesy cheese. Please indulge me as I propose a fledgling Hall of Fame of Crybaby Rap:
Cheesiest Crybaby Rap: 2Pac, “Dear Mama.” Call me a heretic, but if he hadn’t been murdered and looked good with his shirt off, this marginally talented rapper would’ve never made it to the Hiphop Hall of Fame. Among the allegedly great rappers, 2Pac’s easily the cheesiest, and his entry into the Crybaby Rap canon captures his cheese in full stink. Aside from a sharp acknowledgment of his mother’s crack use, “Dear Mama” is a parade of say-nothing cliches, climaxing with the telling line, “There are no words to express how I feel.” (Try harder, cheeseball.)
Most Literate Crybaby Rap: Ghostface Killah, “All That I Got is You.” It’s no surprise that the most intricately written Crybaby Rap comes from Ghostface, who, like 2Pac, flexes his soft muscles in tribute to his long-suffering mom. But where 2Pac brings cheese, Ghostface brings brilliantly gritty specifics—the line about young Ghost being sent to the neighbors with a note from his mom asking for food slays me. Proof of the richness of Ghostface’s imagery: Kanye West has pinched not one but two scenes from “All That I Got is You”—the bed crowded with cousins (“two at the foot, two at the head”), and the eating of cereal with a fork to save milk. (As what’s-his-face said, talent borrows, genius steals.)
Most Cinematic Crybaby Rap: Notorious BIG, “Me & My Bitch.” Biggie’s heartfelt tribute to his ideal girlfriend, who he not only calls a bitch for the entire song, but also has whacked at the end. Still, it’s all done with that cinematic lyrical richness that makes one Biggie worth 1,001 2Pacs.
Most Conceptual Crybaby Rap: Jay-Z, “Song Cry.” Like “Me & My Bitch” (which it explcitly references), Jay-Z’s crybaby anthem is a girlfriend tribute, cloaked in a meta-song about the nature and purpose of Crybaby Rap. “I can’t see ‘em running down my eyes, so I gotta make the song cry,” he repeats, bravely. (He’s not saying he never cries, he just never watches himself cry in the mirror.)
Most Surprising Crybaby Rap: Ice Cube, “Dead Homiez”. In the early 1990s, Ice Cube was a tornado of sociopathological fury, raging against whites, Koreans, fags, women, and whatever else you got, all of which makes his 1990 crybaby rap anthem all the more amazing. The great-grandpappy of dead-friend raps, “Dead Homiez” is the most humane work Ice Cube ever allowed himself to make, and one of the greatest tough-guy-goes-soft raps ever recorded.
Crybaby Rap’s Honky Underdog: The Streets, “Never Went to Church.” The best Caucasian-generated entry in the Crybaby Rap canon, Mike Skinner’s tribute to his recently deceased dad fits into the genre somewhat klunkily. In hiphop, mourning your beloved lost father must be kinda like complaining about the taxes on your lottery win: “You knew your father?” I imagine Jay-Z and 2pac and Ghostface screaming at Skinner. “Shut the fuck up, you crybaby!” Still, the song is gorgeous, and for those of us blessed with emotionally restricted fathers, it captures something unique and true. After lamenting his lack of anything to remind him of his dead dad, Skinner realizes, “You left me behind to remind me of you.” Sob, sob SOB!
Sorry for the ramble, I’ll be more concise in the future. (And if you know any great Crybaby Raps I missed, let me know. I’m working on a blowout hiphop Sob Mix…)