Is Vocal Androgyny the Driving Force of Contemporary Rap?
Vocal androgyny has been featured in Black music since the mid-20th century. However, never has this trend been so prominent, with popular rappers like Young Thug and Playboi Carti adopting more androgynous and effeminate vocal styles.
An unreleased song by Young Nudy that featured Carti, the track was initially dubbed “Kid Cudi” because of a snippet the rapper shared on Instagram Live in March.
“Brand new pack like Kid Cudi / I smoke dope like Kid Cudi,” Carti can be heard saying in the video. Almost everything else in the hook is incomprehensible, Carti’s high-pitched delivery a melodic gibberish that’s not only indicative of how rap music has become more melody-oriented or how high rappers’ vocals have gotten, but how rappers’ vocals tread into androgynous territory — whether intentional or not.
Androgyny as an aesthetic is what’s often highlighted when it comes to artists. Little Richard and Prince wearing blouses and makeup; Grace Jones’ asymmetrical high-top fade; Young Thug‘s dresses — the connection between Black artists and androgyny usually begins with how they looked and not how they sounded.
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Vocal androgyny has been prevalent in Black music from the mid-20th century up until now. From Nina Simone’s contralto (which is the lowest vocal range for women singers) and the falsetto tenor of The Delfonics’ William “Poogie” Hart to the falsetto soprano of Sylvester and the pitched-up Prince female alter ego Camille, Black musicians have subverted ideas of sexuality through their vocals. Contemporary Black artists follow in this vocal manipulation. Nas created his own pitched-up female alter ego called Scarlett on “Sekou Story” and “Live Now” from 2004’s Street’s Disciple album. “Nikes,” the opening track from Frank Ocean’s 2016 album Blonde, begins with a pitched-up Ocean before he finishes the track in his normal baritone-tenor vocal delivery. “Running Out of Time,” a track from Tyler, the Creator’s album IGOR, also features pitched-up vocals. In Solange’s “Things I Imagined,” the opening track off When I Get Home, she repeats the track’s title several times, her vocals shifting from her distinct and angelic soprano to a burly and deep timbre.
That hypermasculinity has — and continues to be — prevalent in rap music. That might be why androgynous vocal styles weren’t as prominent until now. They exist on a micro and macro level, from Cakes da Killa and Mykki Blanco (both openly gay men) to Big Freedia — the only openly gay rapper who has received some mainstream recognition — to Lil Uzi Vert, Young Thug, and Playboi Carti. Still, some rappers — and fans — adhere to archaic ideas of what a rapper is supposed to look and sound like.
This changed in the late 2000s as Auto-Tune became more prominent in rap music. Artists like T-Pain, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West showed the artistic capabilities of using Auto-Tune, the audio processor making them sound more bionic. This is best showcased in West’s 808s & Heartbreak. Centered around the death of his mother, Donda West, and the end of his 18-month engagement to Alexis Phifer, the album is poignant and tragic, embodied not only in its cold and sparse production but West’s detached and robotic vocals.
For West, Auto-Tune served as a conduit to articulate his heartbreak. The chorus of “Love Lockdown” or “Coldest Winter” resonates as strongly as they do because of the melancholy melodies attached to them. On 808s, West explored sensitivity and vulnerability through his vocals in a way that was unprecedented in rap music. He blurred the lines of how a rapper was supposed to sound and what they were supposed to say, and ushered the ongoing experimentation of Auto-Tune by the rappers who’ve succeeded him.
“If people have a major problem with Auto-Tune or me singing or me getting my ideas out then that’s too bad,” West said in a 2008 interview with DJ Semtex. “I’ve had a lot of melodies in me and I would not do them and I’d just say ‘Well, I’ll rap because it’s safe’…I need to express exactly what I wanna do when I wanna do it.”
There’s one rapper though who, between the mids 2000s and early 2010s, was experimenting with their vocal delivery as a means of inventing their own world of musical alter egos — Nicki Minaj.
Alter egos aren’t uncommon in rap music, from Eminem’s Slim Shady to Tyler, the Creator’s Wolf Haley. But they’re often used more by male rappers and maintain that rapper’s sexuality. Minaj’s alter egos were both women and men, with her most well-known being Roman Zolanski, a gay man from London, England.
“I feel like Roman represents a lot of people…he’s a crazy little boy,” Minaj said in a 2012 interview. “I love him because he says what no one else will say.”
“He’s really not based on anyone. Like, I never saw someone and thought, “Oh, this person should become a character in my head,'” Minaj added when asked about the inspiration behind the alter ego. “Roman just kind of came to me in the booth, in the studio.”
Roman wouldn’t be who he is without the vocal delivery Minaj gave to him. His most memorable appearance on a song is “Monster,” the third single from West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Minaj shifts between Roman and her Harajuku Barbie alter ego a heterosexual woman from Queens, New York — during the verse, which is the track’s last. Where Barbie maintains a more feminine-sounding voice throughout, Roman’s voice is a blend of both feminine and masculine, and is more abrasive in comparison to Barbie’s light and playful delivery.
Minaj’s Roman is reminiscent of Prince’s Camille and Nas’ Scarlett in that it finds them all using characters with sexualities different to their own as an expression of their artistic creativity.
In the mid to late 2010s, rappers continue to find new ways of experimenting with their voice with and without Auto-Tune, crafting distinct deliveries that have become integral to their music. Future’s throaty warble; Young Thug’s frenzied yelp; and Playboi Carti’s high-pitched baby babble. The vocal styles of Thug and Carti, in particular, tread more into androgynous territory.
Thug has transformed his voice so many times throughout the past several years that it can be difficult to recognize him on his own tracks. Twenty-thirteen was a breakout year for Thug: he released his critically-acclaimed mixtape 1017 Thug through Gucci Mane’s 1017 Brick Squad Records label, and dropped his commercial debut “Stoner.” Both offer examples of how Thug plays with gender through his vocals.
“Picacho” was a standout from 1017 Thug; its hook showcased the rapper’s imaginative wordplay and melodic ear as he compares his diamonds to the yellow, electric-type Pokémon Pikachu. What makes the hook memorable though is Thug’s delivery. His high-pitched yelp fluctuates in intensity; the second time he says “My diamonds they say Pikachu,” it’s said in a franctic screech that sounds feminine.
That same year, Thug appeared on “Intro” and “Extacy Pill” from Gucci’s mixtape World War 3: Lean. It’s apparent just how high Thug’s vocals are compared to the low baritone of Gucci’s on the former track. Thug is unrestrained as his vocal range ascends throughout his triplet flow delivery, making for a show-stealing feature that’s indicative of just how different the Atlanta rapper was at the time.
Thug’s voice and vocal delivery continue to evolve. In May, he released the “The London,” which features Travis Scott and J. Cole. (The song appears at the end of his recently-released new album So Much Fun.) Similar to Gucci on “Intro,” it’s immediately evident how high Thug’s voice is compared to his peers. He could easily be classified as an alto — the highest adult male singing voice and the lowest female singing voice — when he begins to sing during his verse.
There have been other notable androgynous vocal performances from rappers recently: Swae Lee on “Swang,” SahBabii on “Marsupial Superstars,” 070 Shake on West’s “Ghost Town,” and, of course, Playboi Carti on “Pissy Pamper.”
Carti’s baby voice has been the subject of countless chatter. Some fans think it’s the “sound of the future” while others think it’s “trash.” Debates aside, there’s no denying that it’s a continuation of rappers experimenting with Auto-Tune, Carti’s infant-like delivery mumble rap in its most playful and purest form.
“If I’m a tough rapper I’m not using a deep voice anymore…I’m gonna use this kind of voice, this baby voice,” Dr. Sharese King, a post-doctoral scholar and linguistics instructor at the University of Chicago, said about Carti’s voice in an interview with Genius. “It totally redefined the landscape for what hip-hop looks like from this vantage point.”
King’s statement reflects not just the phenomenon of Carti’s voice but where rap music is as a whole. Rappers are adopting more androgynous and effeminate vocal styles — challenging ideas of masculinity in the process.