In My Feelings music & why it is so important to the culture
Author: Thelma Khupe | Thursday 19th December 2019
The bar for masculine expression is low. Lower than any bar there is. And understandably so given traditional (but also outdated) expectations of men, black men in particular, to not speak up about how they’re feeling as much as women are ‘allowed’ to. And while we’d like to think that our generations growing awareness of mental health means they’d be more emotionally articulate in communicating how they feel, it’s still hard.
That’s why artists like Drake, PartyNextDoor and Bryson Tiller are important in our community. These are black men communicating their most intimate experiences with love to the entire world in a way that resonates with and allows black men to still feel comfortable with their masculinity, to a sound they enjoy. It’s no longer the likes of Chris Brown, Bobby Valentino or Usher serenading women in the streets in baggy jeans on cheesy commercial R&B tracks, in a way that's over the top and unrelatable. These black, male artists are expressing journeys of heartbreak, betrayal, love, and infidelity on modern-day R&B-trap beats, in a way that is enjoyable, relatable, but also emotionally invasive; in a good way. To a generation that’s rejecting traditional ideas of relationships, this genre of alternative R&B is representative of how Gen Z and millennial black men (and women) navigate through love. What is it about the music that makes it what it is?
It’s in the beats…
It’s almost impossible to listen to a PartyNextDoor song and not feel anything. And that’s not entirely down to his lyrics, but also the production of his songs. Break from Toronto, arguably one of the best samples of the last decade starts with Miguel’s ‘Girl with the Tattoo’, an acapella tale of a mystery woman who’s appearance breeds deception. "That innocent smile makes it easy to trust you/if they only knew". The song transitions into a sample on a beautiful romantic-trap ensemble, an instrumental that enchants you as it plays. Alternatively, the instrumental to ‘Wus Good / Curious’ is a more amorous beat, expressive of intimate desires on his self-titled, self-produced debut album 'PARTYNEXTDOOR'. There’s something about PartyNextDoor’s instrumentals that make you feel like you’re watching the ending of a sad movie. But that movie was your relationship and the song is a summary of how it ended and left you feeling. The idiosyncrasy of PartyNextDoor’s sound is one that cannot be replicated, by anyone.
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An integral part of alternative R&B music is the use of voicemails. While this isn’t anything new to the industry (Eminem, Biggie and even Taylor Swift have all adopted the use of voicemails in their music), the way in which it's been adopted by the likes of Drake, shifted the production of alternative R&B songs. Hearing a voicemail on Drake’s ‘Marvin’s Room’ was monumentally ground-breaking for 12-year-old me. Voice notes are such an intimate and sacred form of communication in relationships. By sampling voicemails, these men are allowing themselves to be vulnerable, opening up parts of some of their most intimate conversations:
It's in the lyrics...
Drake, PartyNextDoor and Tiller have a sound that’s unique to each of them. But lyrically, there are some similarities. Their choice of words is often diversely introspective. Each of the artists use their lyrics to explore and express different aspects of love and everything that comes with it. Drake’s iconic ‘Marvin’s Room’ tells a tale of regret. On the five minute long track, Drake is drunk and reminiscing over an ex of his who has moved on. When you listen to the song, it’s clear that Drake is hurt but his toxicity also plays onto the song through his abrasive lyrics: ‘F**k that n***a that you love so bad, I know you still think about the times you had’. Toxic masculinity is a recurring theme in this music:
‘You say I’m talking like I don’t wanna’ wife I just wanna f**k, you damn right’ – Bryson Tiller - We both know.
‘I know you thought we had something special/but you don’t mean nothing to me’. – Bryson Tiller, Sorry not sorry.
‘March was good and the sex was great/But I need someone official babe/You’re just a distraction babe.’ – Partynextdoor, Nothing easy to please.
‘I need to know how the new n***a you got does the same thing/I do for a living but it’s way less wavy’ – Drake, Jaded.
Alternatively, PartyNextDoor’s ‘Belong to the City’ probes the emotional tolls of sex and relationships, ‘If I knew I was wasting my time, with all these should’ve could’ve would’ve’s’. As does Drake’s ‘Jaded’ ‘That’s why I’m not with nobody/cos’ I don’t wanna hurt nobody’. When listening to the lyrics to ‘Jaded’, the detachment from the woman he’s singing about is clear, but as a listener and through the lyrics I feel the connection he once felt.
Serenading is also a common theme:
‘Give me all of you, in exchange for me’ – Exchange, Bryson Tiller.
‘I can still get you wet and I can still make you laugh’ – Come Thru, Drake.
‘You can be his forever baby but tonight you’re mine’ – Right now, PartyNextDoor.
I asked a group of black men what their favorite song in the genre is and why:
‘We can’t all relate to having money and chains but everyone will go through heartbreak at least once. It’s relatable.’ Brian, 20 on Bryson Tiller’s ‘Self Righteous’
‘The lyrics are like a love letter to my crush. His experiences are similar to mine and I feel like this song reminds me a lot about how sometimes I ain’t shit’ – Mathew, 21 on Drakes ‘Days in the East’.
‘It’s about having the girl and showcasing your desire for her, understanding the love you’ve really got for her ‘. ‘Days in the East is gloomy, it has a feel about it where you can't get who you want. You’re showing your appreciation for her but also trying to win her over’. Taf, 21 from London on Drake’s ‘Fire and Desire’.
My favorite response was this one:
‘The track has that wintery, middle of December type feel. I love the sample used for the hook’.
‘The lyrics just kind of hit home, Like, it’s not necessarily about heartbreak but it’s an acceptance that things didn’t work out between you and someone else. But you’re still longing for them later’. Micah, 21 on Drake’s ‘Jungle’.
I also asked the same people if they’d express themselves as emotionally and as openly as Drake, Partynextdoor and Tiller do:
‘Nah lol. That can be a feeling, but how I communicate it? Wouldn’t be reflected in the same way as the song’.
‘I probably take elements from it subconsciously, but I’ve never had a problem expressing myself romantically’.
‘I listen to it and relate to it but I don’t think I could put my feelings into words the way they do. It’s just different when they do it’.
This type of dreary, emotional rap/R&B isn’t like a cringe Justin Bieber love song from 2008 or a Jodeci song from the ’80s. They’re not written to ‘woo’ the girls or to two-step to at a wedding like a Bobby Valentino or Ty Dolla Sign song. These are real-life audio illustrations of real black men with real feelings.
As I’ve grown older I’ve learned that this music means one thing when you’re young, but when you’ve experienced a relationship, and what they’re singing about becomes your reality, it hits differently. Maybe that’s why I latch onto artists like Drake, PartyNextDoor and Tiller so much (or maybe it’s the debacle of my own love life). Listening to black men sing songs about love, lust, and heartbreak in the most invasive and personal way possible is something I don’t see or hear every day. Not on my Twitter timeline, and hardly ever in person.
I do long for a time where black men are willingly and openly expressive about their experiences with love and affection. But in the meantime, it’s artists like Drake, Bryson Tiller and PartyNextDoor occupying the void.