Emo Rap’s Ascent to the Mainstream

One of music’s blossoming rap stars is a suburban white 20-something hailing from the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. Several tattoos coat his face, like battle scars marking emotional turmoil like permanent tears.

You may think I’m talking about Post Malone, but I’m actually talking about Lil Lotus.

They’re one year apart in age and grew up a half-hour drive from one another, but Lotus — real name John “Elias” Villagran — has more in common with fellow “Lil” namesake Lil Peep than he does Malone. That’s because he’s another burgeoning player in the alternative underworld of emo rap.

Gustav Ahr, who went by the stage name Lil Peep, was hailed as the Kurt Cobain of the current generation before his passing in 2017, not long after the release of his first full-length, Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 1. That is, he gave a voice to the voiceless with his brooding vocal layers and hauntingly dark lyrics about drugs and death. Now, his potential to push his crossover stylization of emo and rap sits in the hands of other talented do-it-yourselfers like Villagran.

What makes “emo rap” a contender in a constant battle of genres and subgenres is this DIY characteristic. Gone are the days of infighting between band members with different visions, as well as the necessity for expensive instruments and studio equipment in order to have your voice heard. Lil Peep became a star from the helm of a laptop, and Lil Lotus is following suit — a recent pioneer of the style who emerged on the scene in 2017 with his Body Bag EP.

Until now, the independent status of emo rap has given it a sense of purity, which has allowed the tunes to reach young listeners’ ears unfiltered and uninfluenced by men in suits. But like all major musical movements, from pop-punk in the early 2000s to metalcore at the turn of 2010, it’s starting to receive backing from indie labels dedicated to giving emo rappers a larger platform.

Epitaph Records has signed four emo rap artists since December 2019. Clockwise from top left, they are: Guccihighwaters, Lil Lotus, smrtdeath, and Nascar Aloe.

Epitaph Records has gone all in. The traditionally punk and hardcore label added Lotus to its roster in early 2020, and he’s not the only addition from the genre: Guccihighwaters, Nascar Aloe, and smrtdeath complete a quad of signees who are ready to take their careers to the next level after years of underground Soundcloud success.

Don’t let the “underground” aspect fool you. Lotus’ “Body Bag” and smrtdeath’s “Everything” both have garnered over two million views on YouTube. They’re impressive numbers for any Epitaph artist, but they did this all years ago before “Epitaph” was a familiar term, even in the tombstone sense.

The songs are expert mash-ups of emo and rap, appealing heavily to disaffected teenagers (the prototypical emo audience) and 20-somethings who grew up when punk was in the mainstream in the 2000s. “Everything” samples Silverstein’s “My Heroine,” a post-hardcore song with opening guitar plucks that any scene kid should instantly recognize. “Body Bag” utilizes a slowed-down sample of “One Eight Seven” by another 2000s emo artist in Senses Fail, gently strummed chords also setting the track’s base layer.

On top of the songs, the rappers have placed trap beats and sliced-up rap vocals, like demolishing an old house and rebuilding it from the same foundation. They’re giving new life to a scene that has come and gone. But don’t get them wrong: They may be rappers by profession, but they’re emo kids at heart, unafraid to unleash their highly personal diaries of unrequited love, nonconformity, mental health issues, and alcohol and drug use.

The last topic is one of utmost importance to Lil Lotus, who dealt with drug addiction for years before he got clean. Now, he sees a future where the possibilities are endless with his recent marriage with Epitaph.

Reflecting on his troubled past, he said, “Once I got sober, I realized a lot of the problems I was dealing with when I was coping with drugs were surfacing even more, I felt like I could never get away.”

Thus, “Never Get Away” became his introduction to the Epitaph family. It instantly acclimates you to Lotus’ style, maximized by sugary autotune, shimmering instrumentation, and a repetitive chorus that instantly gets stuck in your head. In the song, he uses a “high-speed chase” as a figurative representation of his substance abuse. Take out the 808s and rap vocals, and you might think you stumbled upon the lyrics of a lost 2000s emo anthem: It’s honest, sad, and relatable, all at once.

Guccihighwaters, a New York native, also made his Epitaph introduction earlier this year, and he did so by channeling distinct memories of high school in the aptly titled “Highschool.”

The song is painted with vivid moments: reflecting on the way everyone else perceived you (“I used to be cool”), getting to know your crush (“We could hold hands”), and losing her to college guys (“They don’t really care about you like I do”). It’s an adolescent hymn in the vein of Blink’s “Going Away to College,” holding together a string of social experiences through the lens of a single relationship. Plus, it highlights the creative mindset of Gucci and his friend Jay Vee, who laid a distinct bell synth as the musical base.

Gucci’s Morgan Murphy grew up in Ireland before moving to NYC, so he’s always stood out whether he longed to or not. He doesn’t quite fit in with his emo contemporaries, tugging a little tighter to his pop sensibilities and minimalistic production with every single release (the latest, “Smother,” is comparable to a piano ballad). His lyricism is less dark by tendency than it is confessional by necessity. Its tenderly romantic, brutally honest nature follows in the footsteps of emo Shakespeares from Adam Lazzarra to Chris Carrabba.

It’s clear thematically that his tunes are easy to relate to, and its sentimental feel is the cherry on top. Murphy reflects the youth’s longing for the past, a voice for a generation more nostalgic than the generations before it. The love he speaks of in “Highschool” is the perfect embodiment. “At first, it’s amazing and everything is perfect, but after time passes and you graduate, everyone grows up and people change,” he says about the song’s themes.

Together, Lil Lotus, smrtdeath, and Guccihighwaters are an unlikely trio. Put them in a blender, and you’ll get a unique concoction of long dyed-red hair, face tattoos, and nose rings. The three are trailblazers whose paths have all converged on the same label, but it started before the Epitaph days: They all shared the same stage (and same van, which you can explore in the Bus Invaders video below) on the Afterlife Tour in 2019.

Keep in mind, too, the economic efficiency of three emo artists only relying on one van. Back in emo’s heyday, a bill with three bands would require separate vehicles and likely additional trailers per band. Emo rap has cut the clutter. It also has three dudes who grew up in different countries (smrtdeath is Canadian) finding common ground amid cross-country drives.

More than anything else, emo rappers need each other to keep this passionate underground scene connected. The nine-person collective GothBoiClique, started by former Tigers Jaw member Wicca Phase Springs Eternal all the way back in 2013, features some of the movement’s biggest rising stars (including Lil Peep, before his death). Members of this tight-knit unit have thrived off digital collaboration, sending recordings back and forth and even crafting an entire mixtape together.

Support like this is vital. Emo rappers hadn’t gotten it from labels until recently, and they aren’t exactly getting it from fans of these labels — the ones Epitaph is putting their new music in front of for the first time.

Like all movements before it, emo rap has its haters. Go to any of Epitaph’s Facebook posts promoting their recent rap signees, and you’ll see nothing but distaste and disappointment from old-school punks. Some of the comments they’ve left on posts about Gucci and Lotus: “Remember when Epitaph had good artists? “Isn’t this a punk label, or am I mistaken?” “Another label bites the dust.” Let’s not even get started on what folks are saying about Nascar Aloe…

At first, I was a hater, too. I hated the vocal trends of mumbling and autotune. I hated that trap beats overtook punk instrumentation. I hated the face tattoos (well, I still do, but to each their own). But I’ve slowly warmed up to this new emo style. Some of it was the realization that I had waited my entire life to find hip-hop music I could relate to the way I could my favorite Taking Back Sunday and My Chemical Romance tracks, and that moment has finally arrived.

In recent months, it’s The Punk Rock MBA’ Finn McKenty who has urged me to pay closer attention to what’s going on in this new emo movement. The YouTuber gave a thoughtful analysis of emo rap in his video reaction to Epitaph’s December signings of Lotus and Gucci.

McKenty is a Seattle punk with plenty of street cred (consider this a plug for his credible content channel, which is deservedly pulling in tons of views). At ‘90s hardcore shows, he moshed alongside the demographic hiding in the label’s comment sections. But he sees emo rap with a much more open mind — and that’s not a character judgment. He literally says, “I don’t think they’re rappers at all,” later saying in the video, “There’s nothing rap about it. It’s rock.”

Remember the songs that used Silverstein and Senses Fail samples? It’s proof that these “emo kids at heart” are not simply channeling the spirit of emo in their new rap form. They’re also quite literally progressing emo in a sonic sense as well.

The emo rap McKenty specifically talks about in his video is what he calls “emo with 808s.” That’s because, instead of slapping the “rap” moniker on the style for parallels to emotional hip-hop predecessors like Kid Cudi or Drake, he finds these artists to have more in common musically with Blink-182 or The Story So Far. At its core, emo rap is wholeheartedly emo, but with 808s instead of guitars (or, in many cases, there are guitars).

“I think it’s the most interesting, forward-thinking stuff happening in rock right now,” McKenty goes on to say. “This is exactly what the scene needed in a time when most pop-punk, metalcore, and emo bands are really just uninspired.”

This is emo rap’s selling point, and many punk gatekeepers aren’t buying.

Emo rap is a lesson in “out with the old and in with the new,” and that’s always going to turn off the purists stuck shopping at garage sales. There’s truth to the fact that some people just can’t accept change — whether it’s the surge of Green Day in the ‘90s, Fall Out Boy in the 2000s, or Lil Peep in recent years. So, please, take McKenty’s advice, and give it a chance before you end up missing out. Epitaph Records sure is, and I am too.

Listening to Lil Peep reminded me of the first time I listened to Family Force 5 and Slipknot — two other acts who meshed genres, broke conventions, and — to the dismay of many — turned the mainstream upside-down. It made me uncomfortable, because it was different from what I traditionally listened to. But for some reason I kept coming back. There’s something invigorating about artists who shake things up, and Peep converted that stuck-in-a-box seventh grader in me. His shiny production and incorporation of real instrumentation made his style a sleek and inviting take on emo — a style I had never heard assembled in such a brooding manner.

Lil Peep became known for his face tattoos and painted fingernails, and he even dabbled in modeling. But his style came with substance too: Both of his full-lengths hit the Billboard charts (Alex Reside).

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see where Peep could’ve taken his career. Publications from Alternative Press to Kerrang! didn’t merely crown him king of the emo rap scene. They went ahead and put him atop the entire alternative world. He was a superstar in the making, prepared to take emo rap to the next level. Who’s left to fulfill the task at hand?

Guccihighwaters and Lil Lotus are certainly names that come up. But I have another artist in mind, who has already put music out on a major label: nothing,nowhere.

Vermont’s Joe Mulherin has nothing,nowhere. down to a science. He doesn’t overwhelm listeners with rap vogue, nor does he rely too much on maximalist production (don’t take it personally, Lotus). In fact, he has found the perfect balance between emo and rap. In his songs, guitars twinkle and bass beats pound, vocals seamlessly transition between rap verses and sung choruses, and lyrics slip out like Dashboard Confessional sing-alongs with an ounce of hop.

Mulherin even featured Carrabba on his song, “Hopes Up,” and it’s a match made in heaven. If that’s not enough, he collaborated with Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker last year, leading to another triumphant effort streaming from the emo rapper in Bloodlust EP. The handoff from old school to new school has never felt more natural. It helps that Barker is a hip-hop drummer by nature, so he deserves plenty of praise for the end results too.

nothing,nowhere. is the perfect embodiment of McKenty’s “emo with 808s” description, down to the Blink namedrop in his video. Bloodlust practically sounds like someone rapping over the band’s self-titled album, and it’s a sight (er, noise) to behold.

Mulherin is an artist by trade. He’s been making music under his current moniker since 2015, when he emerged on Bandcamp with two EPs and his first LP. Before that, he showed interest in filmmaking, attending film school and creating an award-winning short film. You can see the fine-tuning in his packaging, which consistently features worn childhood polaroids and grainy handheld camera footage.

Unlike many emo rappers, he doesn’t alienate his work under obscure lingo or left-field production, nor does his balance of emo and rap ever fall too far out of whack (though he is slowly moving more toward full-band instrumentation, following a similar career arc to Dashboard). His music is accessible, thoughtful, and connective. If you don’t believe me, just take a listen to the chorus of “Hammer,” where he name drops Bernie Sanders and Danny Phantom. What 25-year-old wouldn’t jump on that?

nothing,nowhere. released his first music with label support (2017’s Reaper) only a few months after Lil Peep did. He followed it the next year with Ruiner, another full-length and what he calls a companion piece to Reaper.

He’s the kind of artist that warrants attention to any unreleased b-side or demo, as the raw, unfettered nature (characteristic of emo rap at large) only brings out more authentic emotion and intention. Luckily, he’s always putting out new tunes. “Call Back,” a song Mulherin put up on YouTube last year upon the request of fans, is the perfect example. It’s also the most gripping song he’s ever written, inspecting every detail of a breakup down to the sights and sounds.

It’s the type of song that could be the turning point in a promising career, proof that he’s a musical visionary that can turn everyone in a room quiet the second he begins playing. Now you know why fans wanted it so bad.

What makes “Call Back” hang on the listener across its five-and-a-half minutes (apart from its gut punch of a chorus) is its gripping structure. After a rap verse, sung chorus, and instrumental breakdown, the musician then throws in another rap verse, then a sung chorus, then a rap bridge, then a sung chorus, then a rap outro. Sure, he’s emo, but he doesn’t take the traditional verse-chorus approach of a pop-punk band. Instead of relying on the cookie cutter, his formula is a tasty batch of twists and turns.

The closest comparison I can think of is Taking Back Sunday’s “Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut from the Team)”, which — instead of returning to its memorable chorus one last time — breaks convention by digging into a wordy bridge, then an even wordier outro. It’s an aspect of the song that once drove me crazy, but I’ve grown to appreciate the song’s constant barrage from all directions — one that I still feel completely to this day.

Both songs take the strategy of pummeling the listener with layers and layers of emotion, turning into roller coaster rides of unabridged heartbreak. The fact that they have hooks you can sing at the top of your lungs only adds to their power. Perhaps if you were to speed up “Call Back,” it would feel eerily similar to the Taking Back Sunday hit. Mulherin is highly influenced by the Long Island punks, even mentioning that he still “knows every word off of Where You Want to Be” in one of his songs (“Cement”).

“Destruction,” the opening song off Bloodlust, is another example of his turning the genre on its head with its unpredictability. Halfway through the song, the musicians suddenly burst into a barrage of power chords and drum fills. While there seemed to be potential to continue building on the full-band sound from there for a magnificent outro, the calm-down to a lullaby keeps the listener on their toes — and keeps the project from straying too far from the rapper’s roots.

Mulherin always manages to keep his feet on the ground (and the blood in his head, to reference a Brand New song he probably grew up singing along to).

But one thing that has kept him on the ground is his severe anxiety, which has led him to cancel shows and even tours in recent years. Notably, he sought treatment in 2018 after scrapping a summer run. It’s something that’s permeated his lyrics, assuring the utmost honesty in his output. Struggles to get out of bed and put on a happy face often sit alongside lines about longing for the good old days (“Better”), feeling unworthy (“Letdown”), and being racked with doubt (“Nevermore”).

The last we’ve seen of nothing,nowhere., he had put out a new single called “Nightmare,” and it showcases his most developed sound yet. With every release, we’re seeing Mulherin build on his previous efforts, adding additional layers of reverberating guitars and bass — and on this recent offering, live drums. The progression has been seamless, proving that The Punk Rock MBA’s description of emo rap hits the nail on the head: This is emo through and through.

But where will emo rap go next? Will it venture into the mainstream? nothing,nowhere. is certainly on the fast track, if he hasn’t gotten there already. Fueled by Ramen and Epitaph have made the first moves, and there’s a chance Fearless, Equal Vision, and other characteristically “emo” labels will follow. Yet, there’s the possibility that the bubble won’t burst, and the movement will mostly hold to the underground where it began (something The Punk Rock MBA suggests). Perhaps some of the artists would prefer it that way for the creative freedom it gives them.

We may see emo rap as the lifeblood to a genre currently without a pulse, following a mid-2010s resurrection from Modern Baseball, Sorority Noise, and other ‘90s-influenced acts. We may also only see it as a bridge to something greater, like when rock and punk make it back into the mainstream. It’s worth your attention either way, and there’s plenty to appreciate at the moment.

2020 will be remembered as the year that emo rap made a reputable ascent into the alternative music forefront, finishing the work Lil Peep had begun.

All five albums in this list came out between 2017 and 2019. Guccihighwaters, Lil Lotus, and smrtdeath have mostly stuck to singles and EPs throughout their career, or else they’d be included as well.

If we trace the movement back a bit, we could see this surge coming. Wicca Phase put out the best record of his career last year, with backing from Run for Cover Records. Guccihighwaters and Lil Lotus have been building dedicated fanbases for the latter half of a decade. I haven’t even talked about Shinigami and 93feetofsmoke in this article due to their independent nature, but they’re next in line to be snatched up by eager labels (if they can find the right fits for their heavy-on-the-emo styles).

You can dive straight into this 808-filled sea of twisted emo, or you can be another hater who sticks to his NOFX and Rancid albums. But no matter which side you stand on, the one thing I think we can all agree on about emo rap is that it won’t be the flash-in-the-pan movement many said it would be. Otherwise, it would be dead by now.

Take a listen to this introductory playlist to emo rap, featuring songs by nothing,nowhere., Lil Lotus, and many of the other artists I’ve talked about in this article:

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