Pop-Punk and Hip-Hop: 2020’s Dynamic Duo
The unlikely alliance between emo and rap became a commercial juggernaut this year
In October, Interscope Records’ Machine Gun Kelly topped the Billboard 200 for the first time with his fifth album, Tickets To My Downfall – charting higher with guitar-driven pop-punk songs than he ever had as an emcee. Two weeks later, the top spot on the Hot 100 was secured by “Mood,” a guitar-driven emo-rap song by 24kGoldn and Iann Dior, who have since ruled the chart for most of the last two months. But those feel like only the most prominent tipping points of an unlikely alliance between pop-punk and hip-hop — one that has been everywhere in 2020, bubbling up in recent years to finally reach the forefront of popular music.
Once upon a time, hip-hop and punk bubbled out of New York City as parallel movements that intersected often, from Debbie Harry rhyming about Fab Five Freddy to the Beastie Boys transforming from a hardcore band to B-boys. But the modern lineage of mainstream punk bands obsessed with rap starts with Sublime and reached its peak visibility with Fall Out Boy’s frequent collaborations with over a dozen platinum rappers.
Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker has long been pop-punk’s premier ambassador to hip-hop, producing beats for stars like T.I., starting a group with Paul Wall and participating in countless genre-blurring all-star award show jams. And he remains at the epicenter of the current moment: He produced Machine Gun Kelly’s album, which includes “Nothing Inside,” featuring Iann Dior and co-written by 24kGoldn.
Post Malone, the biggest rap/rock crossover artist in the world right now, tends to collaborate more with classic rockers like Aerosmith and Ozzy Osbourne. But when he went a little more punk and played a set of Nirvana covers for a charity livestream in April, it was, naturally, Barker behind the drum set.
In recent years, hip-hop has reciprocated the love it gets from pop-punk more and more, primarily through SoundCloud rappers like Lil Uzi Vert, who calls Paramore’s Hayley Williams one of his biggest musical inspirations. Three Soundcloud stars with the most prominent emo roots have already died tragically young: Lil Peep in 2017, XXXtentacion in 2018 and Juice WRLD in 2019. But posthumous releases have showcased their more rock-leaning tendencies: Lil Peep’s Fall Out Boy collaboration “I’ve Been Waiting” went gold, and Juice WRLD’s guitar-driven Marshmello collaboration “Come & Go” peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 earlier this year.
However, a glance at the November 28 week on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart shows just how thoroughly the more commercial new strain of rap-rock has infiltrated rock radio. 24kGoldn’s “Mood,” Juice WRLD’s “Come & Go” and Machine Gun Kelly’s “Bloody Valentine” are all in the top 10, as is “Mariposa,” a mellower song by California band Peach Tree Rascals that combines rapping and singing. (Twenty One Pilots are also in the top 10, but with a rare single that features no rapping.) And the No. 1 for most of the last three months has been “Monsters” by the Maryland pop-punk band All Time Low, featuring pop rapper Blackbear. All Time Low have been kicking around for a decade as one of the last major bands launched to national stardom by the Warped Tour, but alternative radio had long resisted the band: They never had a top 10 hit until their Blackbear collaboration.
Emo rapper Powfu’s “Death Bed (Coffee for Your Head),” featuring rock singer-songwriter Beabadoobee, was already one of 2020’s biggest alternative radio hits, with Blink-182 appearing on the song’s official remix. And multiple Machine Gun Kelly songs are currently rising up the Alternative Airplay chart: “My Ex’s Best Friend” with Blackbear, and “Forget Me Too” with Halsey, who once shouted out Blink-182 on the Chainsmokers’ EDM-pop blockbuster “Closer.”
Beyond the Billboard charts, the past decade has seen countless acts who fuse more extreme sounds from the punk and hip-hop worlds gaining critical traction or viral fame, from Death Grips to Mario Judah. One group that mashes hip-hop and pop-punk into a noisy, experimental stew, 100 Gecs, recently appeared on the comeback single by 3OH!3, the fratty duo who brought a Warped Tour scene kid twist on pop-rap to the charts with their 2008 hit “Don’t Trust Me.”
It’s hard to say whether 2020 is an aberration or a sign of things to come. Will Machine Gun Kelly become a full-time rocker now? And if he does continue rapping, will alternative radio continue to embrace him in a way that rap radio never has? Will 24kGoldn’s next single be as guitar-driven and friendly to alternative radio as “Mood”? Will Mario Judah become a mainstream star? Whatever happens in 2021, it seems clear that the seeds planted by Lil Peep and Juice WRLD will continue to flourish long after they passed.