If you were a teenager in the 2000s who prioritized your love problems but never had Valentine’s Day plans, then there’s a strong chance that you went through an emo phase. As an emo child, you might remember pulling out posters of Pete Wentz or Hayley Williams from Kerrang! magazine and creating a collage on your bedroom wall. You wore band tees that were two sizes too small, and although they barely reached your belly button, you just had to flex your new studded belt with an oversized buckle. And while you got grounded for swearing at your mother after she refused to buy you Taste of Chaos tickets, you got your best payback by stealing her black nail polish. Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, indeed.
Over the past few years, 2000s emo – in its most mainstream and recognized form – has become just old enough to be appreciated in nostalgic fashion, and has received an unexpected resurrection in the hip-hop world. Artists of the SoundCloud generation have been referencing emo, metal and pop-punk from the era, all while taking cues from the moody soundscapes and half-rapped, half-crooned delivery of rap albums that came in its wake, like Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak and Drake’s Take Care.
XXXTentacion, Triple One, and the late Lil Peep are just some of the frontline hip-hop acts bringing an alternative aesthetic on board. And while rap’s flirtation with the darker, heavier side is nothing new – just listen to the gothic fantasies championed by Gravediggaz and Geto Boys – the latest wave is perhaps the most pronounced in its expressions of vulnerability and self-doubt. Who could’ve predicted that there would be a hip-hop artist called ITSOKTOCRY gaining momentum in 2018? In many ways, it’s the complete opposite of the hard-headed, hyper-masculine street raps that have dominated previous decades.
Which brings us to Princess Nokia’s self-proclaimed “emo mixtape,” A Girl Cried Red. In an interview with Dazed, Nokia separates herself from the pack by describing her latest work as “real alternative music,” as opposed to “a little touch of [emo] or it blended into hip-hop.” The project may also serve as a history lesson for those who dismiss the idea of a hip-hop artist taking on guitar-heavy genres. “Black people created punk – the band Death was way before The Ramones. Same with Bad Brains. If you think about it, the wool has been pulled over our eyes. This is our shit,” Nokia explains to Dazed.
Despite being an emo mixtape, the cover for A Girl Cried Red features Nokia wearing a shirt from metal band Slipknot, who penned charming, family-friendly anthems like “People = Shit”. With her middle finger proudly raised and a studded cuff wrapped around her wrist, the image looks like it would’ve been picked as a Myspace profile picture a decade ago, and the mixtape follows suit, with throwback sounds explored through a contemporary lens. A Girl Cried Red features plenty of pensive guitar that wouldn’t sound astray on a Punk Goes Acoustic compilation album, combined with cloudy rap beats and Nokia’s vocals that replicate the elongated, desolate delivery of emo.
Mixtape opener “Flowers & Rope” takes popular emo imagery (we’re pretty sure that everyone in the scene had flowers, rope, nautical stars, hearts, or angel wings tattooed on them) and injects it into the catchiest tune of the bunch, conveying the feeling of bedroom boredom despite being quite upbeat. “Your Eyes Are Bleeding” works in the weird space between adulthood and childhood, with lyrics you would’ve scrawled in a high school diary next to a sketch of Bert McCracken; “Everyone I love leaves me when I need them most / My little heart is broken and the world will pay the cost.” The accompanying video sees Nokia in a car, spliced with grainy footage from her previous tours, evoking the sense of on-road reflection and a yearning for better days.
“For the Night” is a stoner’s lullaby that rap fans will find among the easiest to stomach from the mixtape (even with its heavy use of autotune) while “Look Up Kid” sounds like a gritty DIY demo that was recorded in a garage, in a good way. “I know it gets scary but you will be fine / You won’t have to deal with the voice in your mind,” Nokia sings on the track, where she offers solace to the listener and sparks a defiant fire on the otherwise bleak mixtape.
The final track, “Little Angel” is the most complete and sincere song on the project, speaking on youthful innocence that was taken too soon, and providing an overcast ending to a mixtape that works its way through different shades of grey. With eight tracks running at 20 minutes long, A Girl Cried Red feels intentionally rustic, but a little rushed at times, not allowing its core tracks to flesh out and reach their potential. “Interlude” is the best instrumental on the project, and one can only imagine how it would evolve into a fuller track.
Nokia ticks many boxes on the emo checklist with this mixtape, though some may find the lyrics a little too teenage and melodramatic to swallow. Her connection to emo and other mascara-heavy sounds, however, does feel authentic, and she’s presented a brave homage to her early influences with A Girl Cried Red. For emos past and present, it’s a depressingly-fun stroll down memory lane, conveying those same feelings of suburban loneliness with Nokia’s unmistakable twist.
There’s no doubt that this will be one of Nokia’s more polarizing projects, although that might be part of the point. She’s never been one to stay in a safe zone – from the brash electronica on Metallic Butterfly, to the soulful disco of Honeysuckle, to the everyday New York grittiness of 1992. And with Nokia being one of contemporary rap’s unapologetic commentators and a voice for the voiceless, we couldn’t think of anybody more appropriate to embrace the role of an emo, outcast anti-hero who stands against the world. A Girl Cried Red is ideal to listen to in your bedroom, loudly, while reminiscing about the time when you thought that getting a septum piercing would be a good idea; if that doesn’t sound appealing to you, it might not be worth a spin.
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