Excerpt from The Ballad in American Popular Music: From Elvis to Beyoncé

Interlude IV: Hip Hop Ballads

For the man who declared himself “the greatest living artist and the greatest artist of all time,” it did not come as a surprise when Kanye West struck a kinship with Picasso in his album The Life of Pablo. That bond, like most of his braggadocio, met with derision. We should not, though, be so quick to laugh off the connection with Picasso. There is a bond there, not just with West but rather with hip hop in general.

Picasso scavenged. He collected newspaper scraps for his collages and stove pipes for his sculptures. The debris, of course, became art, but it also remained debris. Picasso could wield it so that we can both read a newspaper headline and become entangled in a collage. Hip hop artists scavenge far and wide. They dig into street noise and the beats and vocals of classic recordings. Talented musicians like West can pull off Picasso’s double feat. They are so sure in handling sampled sounds that we can hear the singular wail of James Brown and at the same time a prick of ecstasy in a packed mix.

Then there are ballads. Whether it is in sampling a past song or creating a new one, ballads are not easily controlled. They resist. What makes ballads unwieldy is that hip hop had little to do with them in its original bedrock forms. Smooth melodies, romantic lyrics, and warm voices were not part of that foundation. Yet they have found their way into hip hop through ballads, and it is because they are so different that difficulties arise. The ballad bits in a track can stick out, being more ballad than hip hop. It is as if we see more a stove pipe than a Picasso sculpture. For hip hop musicians, ballads pose risks.

It is rare that we can unearth the exact origins of a type of song, but those of the hip hop ballad are not hard to find. With his 1987 recording “I Need Love,” LL Cool J brought together what no one else had brought together or thought could be brought together: hip hop and ballads. In his rap, he does not boast about beats or rage against rivals, he instead tells us that he has found a girlfriend and that he is ready for – no, that he needs love. As for the music, LL Cool J had no models upon which to draw and turned to slow jams by such artists as Isaac Hayes and Barry White. In their songs, they talked over repeated sultry grooves. LL Cool J gives us a repeated fourbar groove, played not with the slinky bass lines of 1970s slow jams but rather with 1980s trappings of drum machines and synthesizers. In lieu of a growled sermon on seduction, we get a rap, which has all of LL Cool J’s flow. It is fitting that this rarity for hip hop at the time was also a rarity for the ballad: a ballad without singing.

The singing would come, as would more ballads. Inspired by the success of “I Need Love” on the pop charts, LL Cool J put three ballads on his following album Walking with a Panther (1989). “One Shot at Love” goes a step beyond “I Need Love” by having the title line sung as a hook in the chorus by a female backup singer. When it comes to singing, “Two Different Worlds” lives up to its title. It puts LL Cool J’s rap side by side with extended vocals by Cynde Monet. A division of labor takes shape that would become standard for most hip hop ballads: rap in the verse and vocals in the chorus. LL Cool J would build upon that plan in “Hey Lover” (1995) and “Luv U Better” (2002), two of his biggest hits. The all-rap rap ballad was an original but quickly forgotten plan. Like “I Need Love,” though, the later ballads deal with LL Cool J’s struggles to accept or prove his love for a woman.

The success enjoyed with ballads was probably reason enough for LL Cool J to take on the risks that came with using the genre. At the time that he released “I Need Love,” another unexpected genre grafting was taking place, one that raised similar challenges: heavy metal power ballads. As hip hop and heavy metal show us, the further a genre is away from the ballad, the greater the challenges in drawing upon it. One danger is sinking into sap. As we saw in Chapter 3, heavy metal musicians spun out clichés about sweethearts and home sweet home. LL Cool J dipped into sap: kisses, flowers, and an “ocean of love.” Such lyrics may not seem treacly in a pop ballad where they are at home, but they come across as such in genres that had kept romance at bay.

Worse than sap, romantic lyrics and tuneful melodies could amount to blasphemy. They not only supposedly had no place in either heavy metal or hip hop but they also violated the ideals of both genres. Heavy metal fans mocked the romantic strains of ballads and also railed against bands that took them up the pop charts for selling out. LL Cool J never faced such harsh opposition, but questions were raised about his ballads. A Rolling Stone review of Walking with a Panther accused of him hiding from all the stuff “happening on the streets,” like the difficult social issues taken on by Public Enemy and N.W.A. LL Cool J confronted such accusations and perhaps his own unease with ballads by playing up his hip hop credentials. His albums surround ballads with tough tracks, including battle songs. Just as heavy metal bands flaunted their metal mastery in videos for their ballads, those for LL Cool J’s ballads pitch plenty of woo but with winks at all the women he could have if he wanted to and shot after shot of the bling fruits of celebrity.

Ballads are not just love songs. They are also spickets for painful emotions. The same goes for hip hop ballads, especially those of Jay Z. He turns to ballads to express feelings that he believes that he cannot or should not express. He finds himself in that predicament with “Song Cry” (2001). His wife has asked for divorce, and he can understand why. She helped him build his career, and then having ascended to stardom, he has enjoyed all that comes with it, including other women. Finally recognizing what he has lost, he wants to break down and cry, but he cannot. All he can do is imagine the tears running down his face. Tears do not fit the rough, street persona that he has created. He cannot even cry by himself or in front of his wife, let alone his fans. Johnnie Ray – where are you?

If Jay Z cannot cry then he will make a song cry. Or songs. There is the ballad that he is performing, which has a loose medium-tempo beat on top of which he raps about how he failed his wife. Then there is Bobby Glenn’s “Sounds like a Love Song” (1976). Jay Z does not sample Glenn’s recording. He instead has a female R&B singer perform lines from it. Glenn’s song is the first thing that we hear, as if Jay Z had been listening to it before breaking out into his rap. The recording gives us the title line and then a four-bar melody that appears throughout the track. So there is a ballad in this ballad, and one well suited for “Song Cry.” Both “Seems like a Love Song” and “Song Cry” deal with feelings inside us and the songs that they could become. Glenn hears a melody inside his girlfriend and to him it “sounds like a love song.” Jay Z dwells on the sorrow in him, and unable to release it through tears, he turns it into a sad song.

Jay Z continues to lament the woes of fame in “Holy Grail” (2013) and once again uses a ballad to do so. Actually, he uses a lot of ballad. “Song Cry” took bits from “Sounds like a Love Song.” “Holy Grail,” in contrast, consists largely of a new ballad sung by Justin Timberlake. We do not get just a hook thrown into the chorus of the rap. This ballad actually has verses and choruses. If anything, Jay Z is slotted in between those sections. Ballad and rap describe a tortuous relationship with fame. Its glories and luxuries are a reprieve from an ongoing ordeal. The ballad appropriately depicts fame as a love relationship, in which Timberlake puts up with his partner’s abuse for a few moments of bliss. Jay Z rattles off his suffering: betrayal, lack of privacy, and a hounding fear that he will end up like other victims of fame, MC Hammer, Mike Tyson, Kurt Cobain, and Michael Jackson.

“Holy Grail” reveals another danger for hip hop musicians in using ballads: they can take over. Timberlake’s song does just that in terms of territory, making up around two thirds of the recording. The bigger danger is that ballads can be more musically and emotionally compelling than the rap sections. Such is the case with “Holy Grail.” Jay Z’s rap is an uninspired entry in what has become a tiresome refrain in contemporary hip hop: the tortured genius and mega-celebrity rap artist bearing the burdens of fame. He adds to that litany rage and shout-outs to other suffering celebrities. The Timberlake ballad, in contrast, draws us in through minor chords on the piano, passionate singing, and scenes from an abusive relationship.

Another way for a hip hop artist to do a ballad is to do what neither LL Cool J or Jay Z do – sing. Some hip hop musicians do sing, but few have mixed singing and rapping as consistently as Drake. His albums ricochet between sung ballads and rap tracks. It is usually one or the other, but he combines singing and rapping in songs. In “Marvin’s Room” (2011), he not only sings and raps but also speaks, all part of the musical, emotional, and psychological layers that show how rich a hip hop ballad can be.

“Marvin” evokes Marvin Gaye. The song was supposedly recorded in a studio owned by him. The title is not so much a musical homage as it is a way of setting the scene for a troubled musician. Gaye struggled with mental illness and addiction. Nothing as dire in this song, but Drake plays a musician coiled in need and doubt. Drunk at a club, he calls an ex to hook up with her for the night. He tells her to forget the guy that she is seeing and that she can do better with him. Or is that better than him? “Marvin’s Room” may be the only drunk dial ballad. It is a welcome addition to the woe-is-me celebrity rapper tale, giving it rare moments of vulnerability. Drake tells us about how many women he has had and all the parties he has been to, but those boasts give way to insecurities. Loneliness stalks him and makes him question the excess in his life and his own behavior, like how he turns women into “monsters” after he breaks up with them.

The move from rapping to singing tracks the slide from brashness to vulnerability. Drake begins the third verse by rapping for the first time, appropriately so as he brags about all the porn he has and the “bitches” at fabulous parties. He realizes, though, how meager all of that is and that he actually has little to “believe in.” When he tells his ex that he needs her, he switches to singing. Rap will not do here. Singing has the intimacy and directness that he wants in begging his ex to stay on the phone with him. As he tells her, he has slept with several women that week, but he realizes how empty that is compared to talking with her and telling her about his problems.

Vulnerability is one of the risks of singing – yes, singing – a hip hop ballad. People can hate you for it. In the days of social-media hyperbole, “hate” has become the word to express that you do not like someone, usually a celebrity. There are websites that list all the reasons that people hate hip hop stars. Drake has several such sites. His singing is often singled out, not just whether it is good or bad but rather that he sings at all. Hip hop artists should not sing, or to get to the heart of the hate, they should not sing about tender feelings. Drake is just too sensitive. A posting on a mock Twitter account has him always crying: “whats so cool about getting teardrop tattoos i get teardrops on my face every time i leave my bedroom.”

As we have seen with Johnnie Ray, Barry Manilow, and 1980s heavy metal bands, singing highly emotional ballads can lead to swipes about being effeminate and gay. The swipes get especially nasty in hip hop, which, from the beginning, has been filled with masculine bravado, the womanizing and gangsta lore. Not fitting into the tough guy crew of hip hop, the vulnerable balladeer is mocked. Drake has been accused of putting out “bitchmade” stuff and has also been called “sus,” or gay. The Genius website devoted to hip hop listed Drake’s most emotional or “girly” songs, the two terms being synonymous. The Twitter site drakethetype has readers put in a punch line to the lead-in “Drake the type of nigga that.” For one contributor, the answer is the one who comes on to other guys in bathroom stalls. Radio personality Charlamagne Tha God said that there are “three sexual orientations”: gay, straight, and Drake. As for that new category, “Drake” means sensitive.

“Marvin’s Room” has been caught up in that flak. DJ Supreme joked that Drake must have been wearing “panties” when he wrote Take Care, the album featuring the song. He targets the line in the chorus in which Drake tells his ex to forget the guy she has been dating and that she must still be remembering him. According to DJ Supreme, that is “lame,” typical of the “soft” lyrics on the album. A history of the ballad, though, tells us that far more people love soft, romantic ballads than those who mock them. Such is the case with “Marvin’s Room.” Some of the haters love the song too, a point made by critic Ernest Baker. He admits that it is “entertaining” “to make fun of how soft [Drake’s] songs can be,” but that his soft stuff can get to everyone. To make his point, he sets the stage for an archetypal ballad scene – a moment when we need a ballad. The “dudes” who may ridicule Drake online are the same guys “who listen to ‘Marvin’s Room’ and cry out their eyes at 4 a.m.”

Listen to the "Hip Hop Ballads" Playlist