Gen Z Hip Hop, Rod Wave, and Black Masculinity

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Early this year, rapper Rod Wave’s album, Soul Fly, entered the music scene with a sharp analysis of contemporary Black manhood. The golden era of Hip hop (late 80s and early 90s) is revered for its sociopolitical awareness, storytelling, and lyricism. However, when it comes to the newer generation of Hip hop artists, rappers are viewed as lackadaisical, socially unconscious, and lyrically sparse. Nevertheless, through melodic sounds and pain-struck lyrics the young Florida rapper, twenty-one-year-old Rod Wave, shows us this new generation of artists should not only be considered seriously in Hip hop but should also be viewed as contemporary Black intellectuals. Across time and space, Black folks have used oppression as fuel for creative expression. Soul Fly is a recent contribution to this resistance tactic as Wave takes his listeners on a journey through his heart, mind, and soul. Thus, Wave’s Soul Fly recuperates Black masculinity as it provides listeners with a glimpse into a Black man’s desires of love, struggle for survival, and quest for mental tranquility.

Rod Wave is known for his interconnected styles of R&B and Hip hop, and popular songs such as “Heart on Ice” and “Rags to Riches.” Despite only having one featured artist, Soul Fly reached number one on the Rolling Stones and Billboard 200 charts. While mainstream society measures Wave’s success by his record sales, scholars like myself critically examine his album for its words, messages, and his experiences of hardships and grief. 

Not only does the artist personify struggle through his lyrics, but he also embodies it in the flesh. When asked why the words “Hard” and “Times” were tattooed on his forearms Wave stated, “Hard times built me, and made me who I am and who I am becoming.” Wave’s understanding of hard times alludes to the long history of structural racism and class oppression that plagued Black American communities. As a Gen Z, he witnessed the global campaign against police brutality, mass incarceration, the movement for Black Lives, and a Pandemic. Not surprisingly, his experiences are represented through his songs, as they act as vehicles of lyrical therapy. Wave’s music provides him with freedom to express thoughts, emotions, and, in part, vulnerability. Unfortunately, many Black men do not share liberties of musical freedom and instead suffer in mental confinement. The continuity of Black bondage that has transcended time, space, and place is revealed in Soul Fly. Transcending geographic locations and prisons, Wave’s lyrics detail Black male captivity, as it encompasses the imprisonment of the psyche. 

As an attempt to reject psychological captivity, Wave dispels common misconceptions of Black maleness. Negative stereotypes have depicted Black men as brutish, hypersexual, and rapists. Wave refutes hypersexual tropes through songs such as “Blame on You” which speaks of a young heartbreak, and “Sneaky link.” The term, sneaky link, is typically used to refer to an incognito sexual “hook up” or casual relations. However, Wave alters this definition through the song’s lyrics such as, “Everybody need somebody/ When you find somebody/ I suggest you don’t tell nobody.” In his song, he speaks of an exclusive relationship known only to themselves. Wave reimagines “Sneaky link” as a flourishing relationship that is free from outside pressures and influence, not a sexual fling or hook up. Further, Wave suggests that everyone, including Black men, desire love. By doing so, he rejects notions of Black male hyper-sexuality and promiscuity. He further dismisses these views by showing Black men as vulnerable beings who desire companionship and love. Simultaneously, Wave is opposing mainstream Hip hop’s misogynistic tendencies, which glorify objectification of women and the image of having multiple sexual partners. By challenging negative stereotypes such as these and portraying vulnerability, Wave demonstrates a form of “respectable” Black masculinity: one that does not objectify or victimize women, but rather desires, and embraces women, and guards their love from humanity.

Despite recuperating Black masculinity, Wave’s emotion-filled and pain-fueled lyrics has not been free of criticism. Individuals such as PnB Rock furthered toxic misconceptions of manliness that suggest expressing emotions negates manhood. For instance, the rapper attacked the “newer generation” of artists who verbalized their emotions suggesting they were “Lil boys” who were “sad” and “depressed,” implying said artists were less masculine and, in part, more feminine than Hip hop artists of the past. Hip hop of the golden era was one approach to recuperation, albeit one that centered on a hypermasculine, overtly sexual, misogynoir politics which “mostly adhered to broader American patterns of patriarchy.” As concepts of masculinity and patriarchy intertwine, Black men seldom benefit from the white dominated patriarchal system. This realization, along with the renewed feminist organizing efforts and calls for gender equality, has compelled younger generations to complicate common perceptions of masculinity and femininity. Soul Fly promotes altering conceptions of masculinity and gender norms as it exudes trials and tribulations of a Black male. 

Common stereotypes suggest men should not display emotion or be vulnerable. Yet, Wave refutes this rhetoric by incorporating lyrics of vulnerability not only by means of love but also helplessness. In the lines, “It’s hard to get me some peace with all the sh*t that I be battlin’/So many ups and downs, sometimes I feel like I can’t balance it,” Wave expresses thoughts of helplessness and articulates frustration as it seems peace is unattainable. With factors such as higher poverty rates, an increased likeliness to die from police shootings, and increased incarceration rates, it’s no wonder Wave’s music articulates frustration. Wave utilizes his album to document his burdens while detailing the environment which he was raised, calling himself a “youngin’ come straight from out the trenches” and a “bottom boy survivor.” The album further details his realities in the lyrics “it’s an eye for an eye, nothing else/ Aint no love, it isn’t no help, every man for they self.” Through these lines, Wave provides his listeners with an even deeper analysis of the physical and mental spaces of many Black men living in impoverished communities. He details a feeling of isolation and loneliness while also depicting an environment of containment with practically no way to make it out.

In his song “Soul Fly,” Wave demonstrates a sense of hopelessness as he states “Ain’t no complaining, when it’s raining, play the hand you dealt.” Historically, Black men have suffered at the hands of white supremacy, have ultimately been dealt a bad hand, and emasculated. Despite this, Wave depicts Black masculine strength as he expressed in an interview, “When you go through certain stuff or when life takes you down a certain path… got to always be able to get up and make a way.” Through his lyrics and words, Wave portrays mental “toughness” as he suggests there is “no complaining.” Despite extreme conditions, Wave suggests one must persevere, rely on oneself, and survive by any means. 

Thoughts of survival, specifically spiritually, echo throughout the album as Wave prays his “soul [will] fly.” He furthered this notion of survival through transcendence by songs such as “Tombstone” where he incorporates a gospel-like chorus with his harmonizing flow while singing, “By the river they will carry me/ Finally I’ll be resting in peace.” Through lines such as these Wave articulates that despite recent fame and fortunes, he is still troubled as the weight of the world rests on his shoulders. Wave, like others, believes peace for a Black man cannot be realized on earth, but can only be attained through transcendence.  

bell hooks reminds us, “When the spotlight is on Black males the message is usually that they have managed to stay stuck, that as a group they have not evolved with the times.” Consequently, Black masculinity is often criticized, condemned, and misunderstood. Soul Fly acts as an imperative source that documents Black men’s physical and psychological experiences. Scholar Regina Bradley has articulated how Outkast, the 90s Hip hop supergroup, contributed to their generation of Hip hop and provided “fresh perspectives on black identity and agency.” Like Outkast and other older Hip hop heads, Wave’s Soul Fly teaches us that Gen Z rap artists are equally significant influencers to this new generation of Hip hop but also Black identity and Black thought. 

Utilizing hardships to fuel his lyrics, Wave adds to the genre of political Hip hop and the Black intellectual tradition, as he reveals legacies and lasting impacts of systemic racism, injustice, and oppression by describing his lived realities. Further, Soul Fly shows us that when defining masculinity, we must look beyond common notions or external illusions of manliness and instead embrace internal, emotional, and mental attributes of masculinity. By doing so, we can create new tropes of masculinity all while debunking stereotypes and misconceptions in efforts to create a more just, compassionate, and inclusive world.

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Mickell Carter

Mickell Carter is a doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant at Auburn University. Her research interests include Black internationalism, 20th-century social movements, and the intersections between politics and culture. Her current project examines linkages between Black men’s style during the Black Power Movement, Pan-Africanism, and masculinity. Mickell also assists and conducts oral histories for the Selma project which aims to locate and identify people involved in Bloody Sunday.

Comments on “Gen Z Hip Hop, Rod Wave, and Black Masculinity

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    Excellent scholarship! I enjoyed reading this.

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