With songs like Migos’ “Bad and Boujee,” 21 Savage’s “X,” and The Weeknd’s “The Hills” gathering millions of streams and views across the online musical spectrum, the question eventually arises: “When did dark-sounding music become so popular?” Sure, sad songs have always been on repeat on the radio stations, especially for country music, but one genre in particular has been capitalizing on minor key music, hip-hop. And it’s not just about sounding sad, rather, dark. Hip-hop producer Metro Boomin is the biggest hit songwriter of 2017 so far according to Music Business Worldwide, but the majority of his beats feature ominous, eerie melodies, with lush minor chords that feel both sad and menacing. Isn’t popular music supposed to be, like, happy and fun? Well, happy and fun have found a place in dark music. For example, Drake’s song, “Energy,” is built around a dark, minimal piano line — but when he performs live, the crowd isn’t sitting there sulking; they’re jumping up and down and screaming the lyrics jubilantly. So, we wanted to dissect what makes this new wave of dark music so popular from a producer’s point of view.
First and foremost, dark music is typically emotional. It evokes feelings — from sad to scared to pensive. For example, think of a jazz standard such as “Autumn Leaves.” It might provoke emotional memories, but at its core, it’s fairly lighthearted music. On the other hand, think of Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” Its dark and eerie melodies and chord changes almost immediately provoke a visceral response. Producers who have a good sense of melody can write emotional passages of music that will lure in the listener. Then, with the use of effects like reverb, delay, and distortion, you can creatively dramatize elements of your song to be even more emotional and poignant. People love emotion — they want to feel the song.
Now, if we took a song like Future’s “F*ck Up Some Commas” and removed all of the drums, we’d essentially just have a cinematic horror track of creepy pianos and ambience. But it’s the booming 808s, rattling hi-hats, and pulsing kick drums that give the song a tremendous sense of energy. Picture some of your favorite hip-hop songs, and then take out the drums — it probably sounds like very atmospheric ambient music with maybe a few discernable instruments like piano or guitar. The heavy-hitting beats mask that dark atmospheric music from being “too dark” or “too bleak.”
Dark music also goes hand in hand with the glorified lifestyle of rappers. All of the music videos are in a dark nightclub or driving through the city at night. And while Drake has a great smile, he’s usually looking tough or at least pensive. The dark emotion a producer can capture with minor chords, brooding bass, and eerie ambient effects gives off a cool sense of style. Being happy is cool, too, but not everyone can pull it off as well as Chance The Rapper.
Represents a struggle
It’s no mystery that rap music is built on a common story: a gifted artist is born into poverty and crime, and overcomes his or her hardships by pursuing their dreams of music. But that era of struggle is often the theme of many hip-hop songs, whether it’s being told by Lil Wayne, Kendrick Lamar, Young Thug, or some of the greats like Tupac and Biggie. Creating dark beats and melodies helps communicate that feeling of struggle — it takes the listener into how the artist was feeling on their come up.
As we mentioned before, the emotion of dark music can be cinematic — and that’s a big reason why there is so much appeal to darker emotions. If you think of scary movies or particularly poignant love scenes, the music is dramatic and pulls at your heart strings. By creating symphonic-esque soundscapes, you allow that cinematic quality to exist in the undertones of your beats. Sure, a midi synth can’t compete with an orchestra, but it can emulate an orchestra. Creating those rich and lush chords and ambient atmospheres that you hear in songs like The Weeknd’s “Often” give that “movie” feel to the production. Also, hip-hop’s frequent use of sub-bass creates an enveloping experience, similar to music used in war scenes in movies. The droning bass creates an all-encompassing feeling, adding to the cinematic qualities.
Sam Friedman is an electronic producer and singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn, creating music as Nerve Leak. Praised by major publications such as The FADER, his unique blend of experimental and pop music has earned him hundreds of thousands of streams across the web.