The Graying of Hip-Hop

What happens to the youth-obsessed genre when its greats reach retirement?

Andre Young is 48 years old. Gary Grice is 46, and Shawn Carter? Forty-three. O'Shea Jackson is 44 and Tariq Trotter is 41. Nasir Jones can boast that he's still in his 30s, but whatever pleasure he gathers from that ends September 14. Dr. Dre, Gza, Jay Z, Ice Cube, Black Thought, and Nas aren't the only rappers pushing through midlife, but they represent what is a unique situation for hip-hop: Its best are getting old.

Is this a good or bad thing? The early signs aren't too comforting.

Magna Carta ... Holy Grail—Jay's 12th album—felt aged before it was even released. The Samsung ad featuring Rick Rubin, Jay, Timbaland, and others was intended to get hip-hop fans excited about the return of an icon. Instead it was mostly embarrassing. Here were several titans of industry, playing make-believe and spouting clichés. Jay said that MCHG was going to "change the rules," that the album was about "this duality of how do you navigate through this whole thing, through success, through failures, through all this and remain yourself." Timbaland bobbed his head, and Rubin relaxed barefoot on a leather couch. My takeaway from the spot was not that Jay was about to unleash another classic, but that he was trying way too hard. And Rubin had remarkably pedicured toes.

Nas: Old school
Nas: Old school

While MCHG was innovative in its release, it didn't go well. People complained the app required too much personal information from its users. Others said it didn't deliver the album on time. It was more embarrassment, another sign that Jay was attempting to bathe in the fountain of youth, but was instead getting dunked. Critics panned MCHG for being repetitive. Jay was still rapping about how great he was and—though he did mix in sporadic thoughts on religion and fatherhood—the album only reinforced the notion that Jay hasn't been worth listening to since 2003's The Black Album.

Jay's peers are also experiencing this inevitable problem called aging. Though Nas deserves credit for his mature material on Life Is Good, most wondered how good life really was, considering he felt it necessary to feature his ex-wife's wedding dress on the cover. Dre's Detox continues to be more urban legend than anything else. In 2001, Scott Storch proclaimed that Detox would be "the most advanced rap album ever," but Dre is almost 50 now, and after countless delays, the fear that it's destined to become hip-hop's Chinese Democracy—poorly executed and not nearly worth the wait—is growing. Not much is expected from Ice Cube, either. In fact, his fans don't even want another album; they just want him to stop participating in Coors Light commercials.

This midlife crisis is understandable. Rap, more than any other musical genre, is obsessed with youth. It is the music of the young and strong, not the old and frail. If you're more concerned with locking down your 401(k) than your block, you're on the outside looking in. This is what's happening with the icons of the '90s. Their lives are different now. They have kids. They are wealthy. They have moved beyond what concerned them in their youth, yet those same subjects remain core to hip-hop—declarations of power and outright bragging are what fans expect to hear.

"For a music that pulls from the specific energy of not just youth, but young maledom, [getting older] makes it a little hard," says Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic and hip-hop fan. "It's especially hard for the over-35 person who used to be a big fan. The artists that should be your peers are clearly still talking to 16-year-olds."

So what, exactly, are the elder statesmen of hip-hop supposed to do? There appear to be two choices: quit, or change the material. Ending their careers would be the safer route. No one will miss the same old songs of days gone by, and the rapper would preserve his or her legacy.

The idea of an icon of rap changing content may, at first blush, sound ridiculous—no one wants Jadakiss to start rapping about Lay-Z-Boys. But with time comes experience, and since these guys are, at day's end, gifted storytellers, age could bring an abundance of rich material to their repertoire. By changing it up, they could change the game.

DMX—if he can get himself together—could certainly produce some stirring insight into the uncomfortable realization that people's worst enemies often lie within. There are definitely people out there who would love for Lauryn Hill to explain what she has been through since the late '90s. Nas and Jay could both fill volumes exploring the complexities of fatherhood.

By accepting the reality that they are older, these MCs could alter rap forever. Rapping about raising kids might make them seem soft, but at 40 years old, you are soft. As for the theory that this type of material wouldn't sell, most of these rappers have already solidified their place in history—why not take a chance?

The longer the icons of the golden era of rap wait to make their decision, the more pronounced their advanced age becomes. However, if they decide to lead a change, hip-hop will follow. Rap has never been a game for the easily intimidated—perhaps Father Time just needs to be reminded of that.

 
 
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