How To Age Gracefully In Hip Hop
Hip hop has shifted dramatically since the turn of the century. It’s now an international phenomenon that has grown exponentially to the point that the entire entertainment industry has become obsessed with hip hop’s culture capital. The label-radio-industrial complex has undergone radical restructuring, while the production and distribution model of old has been replaced almost entirely by the music streaming sector. As with all things in the modern age, hip hop has had to find ways to adapt to the immediate interconnectivity of the internet and social media, a gigantic filtering mechanism that requires would-be music entrepreneurs to maximize their exposure. Shock and awe is the go-to marketing tactic, and high drama is the new currency for artistic brand management. The once formidable barrier of entry has been shattered, creating boundless opportunities for those willing to get their hands dirty. Styles and trends have changed, and so too have the faces.
With this rapid growth has emerged the realization that hip hop is now in the throes of a midlife crisis, one that is seemingly relegating some former stars to uncomfortable shelf life purgatory. To quote Rodney Carmichael of NPR, “perhaps no other genre in contemporary music grants artists enough rope to lasso their dreams or hang themselves.” As much as individuals such as Tom Brady would like you to believe otherwise, Father Time is undefeated, and the hypercompetitive constraints imposed on the elder statesmen of hip hop have made it near impossible to come away unscathed from the ticking of the clock. It’s like that wonderful bit of dialogue from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
This inescapable reality has presented itself in different ways for those testing the waters of the current music landscape, some cringeworthy and detrimental, and others more benign. Eminem, arguably the greatest emcee that the genre has ever seen, his become his own kryptonite in recent years at a time when most youth have likely only ever listened in full to Curtain Call and aren’t interested in what Marshall Mathers has to say on pop-rap singles from Pink and Nicki Minaj. The magnetic DMX, who in his prime made hundreds of thousands of people bark the words to “Ruff Ryders Anthem” at Woodstock ‘99 and was on the cusp of joining Hollywood elite, has been in and out of rehab and jail. There’s Andre 3000, the noncommittal fringe observer who seems content to occasionally toss his eccentric Peter Pan hat into the ring, play a quick flute ditty, and dip. Ice Cube graduated from “F**k tha Police” to Are We There Yet? Snoop Dogg underwent a Rastafarian conversion, rebranded “Drop It Like It’s Hot” for Hot Pockets’ commercials, and has since found his niche cooking with Martha Stewart and narrating clips of Animal Planet. Ice-T, an industry OG with extensive hip hop credentials, is now someone who most people under the age of 25 would only recognize for his feud with Soulja Boy and role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The same goes for LL Cool J: his breakthrough album Radio marked a pivotal turning point for the genre, and yet the majority of people in 2019 would only be able to pick out the “Mama Said Knock You Out” rapper as the beanie-wearing host of Lip Sync Battle.
All of this is to say that the playing field and rules of the game have changed. The models for aging gracefully in hip hop are few and far between, and some have managed to maintain pace better than others. Hip hop’s framework has always thrived on the power of the fountain of youth. It’s a genre that squeezes every last drop out of youthful exuberance, which is why the stigma regarding age continues to present challenges that don’t appear in other art forms. Struggle to fight it or make artistic decisions out of desperation, and you’ll do more harm than good. Let it slide and you’ll find yourself sinking aimlessly into the pit of irrelevance. In hip hop, you typically don’t get a second chance unless a Billboard darling like Ed Sheeran is feeling benevolent. It’s a daunting task needing to justify why you’re still around when the easy way out is to hang up your cape once you’ve reached your peak so as to keep your pride intact. But even this retirement route is filled with pitfalls, namely needling memes that draw comparisons to Dr. Nefario. No one wants to be the bitter, washed-up rapper spewing salty tirades and Don Julio in the club on Tuesday, or worse, the old head doling out scoops of lyrical rappity-rap. Trying to maintain appearances by imparting condescending wisdom is no less ridiculous and alienating, and only contributes to the poisonous intergenerational battle pitting the pioneers versus the hungry youngsters now reaping the rewards.
On the other hand, one can empathize with how the older generation might misconstrue the current state of the genre as a project of disinheritance. Skittles-colored mascots bespeckled with face tats, anarchic pop-punk adolescents, and amphibious rap-singer hybrids who can put together chart-topping songs featuring a cohort of 30 different credited songwriters are the next phase of the zeitgeist. Some of its most recognizable tastemakers are a “big roiling mess of contradictions.” It’s a media-enforced dynamic that has created mutual antagonism that is just now starting to become a point of contention.
It’s healthy for a genre to be youth-based. Such stature means that it’s a popular, living art form with plenty of potential. Most teen and twenty-something rapscallions, still wet behind the ears, aren’t concerned with what their career will look like when they reach the half-century tally. Thirty seems like it’s an eternity away, and they’ve got nothing to lose given the way that irreverent fanbases froth at the mouth for child prodigies and fresh-faced upstarts that have been deemed the new rockstars. Even Drake has insisted that he doesn’t want to be rapping once he turns 35 for fear of feeling out of place in a young man’s game. But for those already mired in hip hop’s infatuation with expiration dates, recapturing a moment without retracing one’s steps is an increasingly tall order.
One of the few to successfully pull it off is none other than Jay-Z, Brooklyn’s savvy music mogul and multigenerational star whose career spans three separate decades. Although Jigga’s accolades as “a business, man” continue to pile up, his musical output since 2003’s The Black Album has yielded muddled results. He found himself between a rock and a hard place after the lukewarm reception to Magna Carta Holy Grail, a feeble attempt to stay current that was advertised with eye-rolling cliches and clips of a shoeless Rick Rubin nodding off on a couch to Timbaland beats. The trepidation that preceded 4:44 was duly measured as a result.
And yet, the 10-song confessional and companion piece to Beyonce’s Lemonade was anything but lackluster. It was inward-looking without busying itself with navel-gazing, reimagining hip hop’s parameters through a veteran’s perspective. The album didn’t chase hot guest stars or the bubbling popularity of trap drums, earworm hooks, and habit-forming beats; it was universally appealing across all ages, both for longtime fans and those hearing Jay-Z in a new light. The moments of personal transparency were fresh and relevant, characterized by reflection on topics such as race, fatherhood, marriage, infidelity, and legacy building. Rather than scraping the bottom of the barrel for nostalgic musings of being young, dumb, and rich, it was built on music that mirrored where he found himself in life at that particular moment, specifically his regrets surrounding the mistakes he’d made as a husband and a father. 4:44 wasn’t a Jay-Z album so much as it was a Shawn Carter album.
What the commercial and critical success of 4:44 reinforced is that there is in fact room at the table for those willing to forgo the act of remaining a hot commodity. Acknowledging and accepting the truth that comes with age is infinitely more compelling than the instant gratification that feeds DJ Akademiks’ Instagram page. As The Voice’s Chris O’Shea astutely noted in an article detailing the graying of hip hop, “age could bring an abundance of rich material to (older artists’) repertoire.” Imagine the untold tales of the now mythical Detox, or what Lauryn Hill might be able to tell us about her disappearance from the public eye post-Miseducation.
Aging artists don’t necessarily have to be shackled by the expectations of mass popularity, or the indignities that stem from growing old. Clan cultists still flock en masse to throw up the “W” at anniversary and reunion tours as the iconic group looks to connect with an audience that may or may not have been alive to experience the fervor of 36 Chambers. Acts such as the Wu-Tang Clan understand that their longevity rests on the timelessness of such canonized records. Others like Killer Mike and El-P linked at different points in their respective careers and have come into their own as creative partners with the success of brainchild Run The Jewels, sparking mosh pits and praise from both ends of the spectrum. West Coast gangsta rap kingpin Dr. Dre has parlayed his skills into other entertainment mediums and has grown into his role as a mentor to the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak.
Rather than scratching and clawing to stay in touch with the sounds of the moment, such artists have taken steps to reinvent themselves without compromising their identities or sacrificing their artistic integrity. They’re a testament to durability in hip hop at a time when it’s easy to be led astray by the perpetual frenzy of fickle, “plugged in” audiences. Clocking in and out of the limelight doesn’t mean that the pendulum of good favor is now irrevocably out of reach, or that creativity is permanently stunted. For all the brouhaha that hip hop is only interested in the constant stream of flashy content and can no longer accommodate its vibrant legacy, the genre and its progenitors continue to find ways to blossom in the ripeness of age.