by Laurence Li
Twenty One Pilots say they’re not hip-hop, but they are. In true hip-hop mixological tradition, they blend synthesizer and drums with brutally honest lyrics on their 2015 hit Stressed Out. Kanye exerts significant influence, although Twenty One Pilots would never admit it. The song’s mixture of synthesizer with self-criticism is at the heart of 808’s and Heartbreak, and the last verse, with its drastically lowered pitch, is influenced by Kanye’s forays into voice modification (See Blame Game and the end of Blood on the Leaves).
Of course, Twenty One Pilots are far from imitators. There’s an element of desire for the past, which Kanye, in any of his albums, has never considered. They declare in the chorus, “Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days, / When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.” The Pilots are conscious of their reminiscing, however, knowing that their desire is just a wish. The “we’re” in the chorus is important, as it lets the listener know that the song is not just a tale of personal failing. There’s also a surprising economic concern that gives the song its depth and takes it away from solely self-conscious confession. Perhaps the song has become so popular because it’s in tune with the current era of economic and social uncertainty. Many millennials have thought the opening lines to themselves: “I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink / But now I’m insecure and I care what people think.” And virtually all millennials can relate to the song’s ending shout: “wake up, you need to make money.” Everybody can relate to economics, and so everybody can relate to Stressed Out.
Stressed Out doesn’t really have any major composition issues, and it fills its function of generational mirror perfectly. However, a great song either is radically new, or uses the old in an exceptional way. Although there’s no real flaw in the song, there’s no real sublime moment either that elevates Stressed Out to the level of Twenty One Pilots’ greatest song, “House of Gold.” It’s good, but in a garden-variety way. Four stars.