Last Saturday's edition of the New York Times featured a profile of the Atlanta rapper and singer ILoveMakonnen, who has become an unlikely budding star of sorts thanks to his off-kilter club jam "Tuesday." All the way down in the 24th paragraph of the story is a revelation that could count as a landmark moment for hip-hop:
“The rap world thinks I’m gay,” he said. “A lot of people out there do. They think I’m a homosexual, which is not a problem. I don’t want to say I’m gay, I’m straight, I’m bisexual or any of that, because that’s just. ...” he said, trailing off. “Who cares? All that’s doing is dividing us.”
There are a number of ways to read this quote from Makonnen talking specifically about his sexuality and more broadly about how he—an oddball—fits into the rap world at-large. To me, this seems to be an admission of queerness. But even if it's not, Makonnen and fellow Atlanta rapper Young Thug are (through visual presentation, but as crucially through sound) helping to push rap towards an inevitable future where an openly gay rapper is accepted and incubated—so that a gay rapper doesn't break into the mainstream as much as he is naturally absorbed.
Makonnen would not be the first openly gay or bi male rapper, of course, but he would be the first to be inside rap's mainstream. He's far from the prototypical rapper—his music is wobbly, broken, and morose, and he talks about being a quiet loner who loves indie rock—but he's also had a song played endlessly on rap stations in between tracks by people like Lil Wayne and Big Sean. Drake—one of the most popular rappers in the world, and someone whose own music continually takes a sledgehammer to traditional ideas of masculinity—signed Makonnen to his label and shot "Tuesday" to popularity by remixing it. Makonnen's new mixtape has verses from Gucci Mane and Migos, guys who visibly resemble what we understand rappers to be, and like those artists, Makonnen has entire songs about selling drugs.
Makonnen is undeniably a different dude, but he's nonetheless been accepted into rap's inner ring. Whereas an openly gay MC like Le1f is still forced to operate at a distance from contemporary rap—collaborating with producers, rappers and labels that have no direct, or often sonic, connection to the sort of rap music you hear on the radio and see performed on TV—Makonnen has made a statement about his sexuality from inside the fortified walls of one of America's strongest bastions of hetero masculinity. (Frank Ocean, a singer who also avoids labels but who has written about at least one relationship with a man, keeps mainstream rap and R&B at arm's length by choice.)
But Makonnen is not the only new artist challenging rap's traditional values. Even more popular is Young Thug, who—like Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz, and Future before him—has emerged from Atlanta as the most in-demand new collaborator in the business. He appeared on several top 40 hits in the last year, and is so exciting that it's rumored that Lil Wayne's falling out with his longtime label Cash Money Records was in part precipitated by his boss, Birdman, becoming enamored with Thug's music, and his potential.
Aside from being a go-to hitmaker, Thug is also an iconoclast who sticks in the craw of rap fans invested in the genre upholding heterosexuality. There is no evidence that Thug is gay or even bi—he raps frequently about having sex with women, has several children and has never spoken on the record about the subject—but he also seems to take a certain delight in tearing away at masculinity.
For instance, on Instagram, he frequently refers to other men—including famous faces like Rich Homie Quan and Birdman—as "hubbie" or "my love". He also does things like painting his nails and wearing a leopard print shirt that looks like a blouse (pictured above), eating away at rap fans who expect their rappers to look a certain way. The latest mini-controversy that resulted in homophobes calling Young Thug gay stemmed from his new video "Check," in which he dons the same Hooters tanktop worn by the restaurant's waitresses.
Visually speaking, Thug, and to a lesser extent Makonnen, are upturning rap music, but they're also following a path charted by artists—Andre 3000, Kanye West, Lil Wayne—before them. Those rappers rejected masculinity in their own ways—through style, too, or in the case of Wayne, by rapping proudly about a photo of him kissing Birdman—in the process moving rap, socially, to where it is now. Nonetheless, Makonnen and Young Thug feel like an acceleration point, and it's not because of their fashion, but because of their songs.
Young Thug's biggest solo single to date is "Stoner," which was put into rotation on rap radio in early 2014. The song is unstructured, spaced-out and fidgety. Thug treats cadences like a pile of junk to be rummaged through. At times he murmurs imperceptible lyrics, at others he sings softly or growls or converses with himself. The radio edit, which adds shards of silence to the mix, feels especially like a static dispatch from another planet. "Stoner" has strong connections to years of underground Southern rap, but it's also an undeniably singular and bewildering song.
Thug was the driving force behind "Lifestyle," a duet of sorts with Rich Homie Quan, billed under Birdman's amorphous Rich Gang moniker, that was one of the enduring rap hits of 2014. By Thug's standards, "Lifestyle" is an exceedingly normal, breezy song, but it also climbed up the charts despite, or perhaps because of, many of its fans being unable to decipher what Thug is saying. At the height of its popularity, Vine was populated by clips of people making fun of the song's garbled chorus, yet that only seemed to make both the track and artist more lovable.
"Lifestyle" was also an indication of how Young Thug could smooth his edges a bit as his music begins to reach a wider audience. But it also showed that he's still hanging on to the ethos of his early mixtapes, which treated rap like a funhouse meant to distort, surprise and spook you. On 1017 Thug, his breakthrough full-length from 2013, Thug uses his reptilian squeal and skewed point of view to alter and elevate familiar rap tropes like drinking lean ("2 Cups Stuffed"), smoking weed ("Condo Music"), and bragging about his jewelry ("Picacho"). The mixtape is full of songs that feel like a slight but newly discovered mutation of Southern rap club hits.
Makonnen is less electric and exciting, but he is twisting rap, too, albeit more quietly. Though he uses hip-hop to structure his songs, he often barely sounds like a rapper—in the Times, writer Joe Coscarelli accurately describes Makonnen's voice as a "gooey Broadway baritone" that splits "the difference between singers like Morrissey and Nate Dogg." Where Southern rap has long used Autotune to harden rapper's singing voices, Makonnen lets his amateur warble float over beats unadorned with no hint of menace or testosterone. His new mixtape Drink More Water 5 is a combination of boisterous anthems and introverted, mumbled ballads that feel like the doodles of an undiscovered recluse.
Thug and Makonnen are in their own ways altering how rappers are supposed to look. But their lasting legacies might be their ongoing queering of how popular rap sounds. Makonnen, nodding off into in his own bloops and bleeps, could slide perfectly onto a Le1f album track; Young Thug, constantly bending his voice into new and unrecognizable shapes, would have sounded at home on any of trans rapper Mykki Blanco's albums.
It's possible that mainstream rap's first openly queer artist will be a gay man whose music is nonetheless conservative and easily digestible. Maybe that person will look and sound as straight as J. Cole while also admitting in interviews that he sucks dick in the bedroom. But if we go by how gay rappers sound now—arty and uncompromising—it's more likely that mainstream rap will have to accept the queer underground's freaks and weirdos.
Young Thug and Makonnen, each in their own way, are making that future a reality right now. They may or may not be the first openly queer mainstream rappers, but I'm willing to bet that whoever is will look and sound a hell of a lot like them.
[photos via Getty]