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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24 comments
JONNY_5
JONNY_5

Try telling Freddie Foxxx he's soft-
It appears the net you've cast for research, as far as MC's, fell a bit short...or you have very limited knowledge on what exists other than what is popular in mainstream media. There are many...they are seasoned <40 may have been "old" a couple of decades back..now's a bit different>...and they continue to be the "gifted storyellers" you mentioned...
Most, if not all of them <"old people MC's"> pretty much have opted to keep their dignity, their craft, and most importantly their souls away from the <lower level consciousness> subject matter that are popular topics for the masses.
If one is really involved in the culture (Hip-Hop), not merely the hype surrounding it, one knows:
a. Hip-Hop is not on the radio- <period>
b. Regardless of what anyone says or how they feel about Hip-Hop, it's not dead.
c. Hip-Hop is for EVERYONE...but sadly not EVERYONE can be the best most seen, or heard MC, Turntablist, Graffiti Artist, Breaker/Popper, or Beatbox.
You battle for those titles-
No dis to anyone mentioned in your article. Everyone loves money, and I agree some of em don't spit like they used to because things change...but that's on them...not time nor age.
The craft is the craft-
Respekt-
5
p.s...DMX?




koorb86p
koorb86p

WHY IS IT RAP IS THE ONLY GENRE THAT HAS AN AGE LIMIT. BLACK THOUGHT'S OTPUT HASNT DECLINED, LETS NOT FOR GET MOS DEF.  IMHO Jays output has delined drastically, quoting BIG, doesnt sound inspired to me.  Hopefully all that will change.


digitalpharaoh
digitalpharaoh

Perhaps one should look at it this way:

In the 1950s, Miles Davis played jazz. In the 1980s he still played jazz - but - his music had evolved, matured, changed. He still sounded like Miles but he wasn't playing the same music he was in the 1950s.

In 1977, Prince released his 1st album. On subsequent releases his music got bolder, funkier and more sexually charged. In 2013, sure - he still plays some of his older material but his sound has matured & evolved more than where he was in the 70s & 80s.

Is it wrong to think that, given the fact that a lot of these cats are in their 40's, that their lyrical content would've evolved and matured ?

MannyFaces
MannyFaces

I'm not sure how this isn't a contradiction. To say Nas had mature material on Life Is Good (which he did), to look at Jay's MCHG content (I'm still nice, but in places you can't even imagine doing things you can't relate to), it would appear that the elder statesmen in hip hop HAVE changed the content, and rather successfully (some would say way more than was recognized, in Nas' case particularly). So what exactly is the writer suggesting we wait for? What is much more important is to realize that there are a BUNCH of artists, young and old, veteran and indieground, who are ALREADY making hip hop music that satisfies the older half of hip hop's audience. Modern, yet sometimes nostalgic, without sounding dated, focused on lyrics, life and speaking grown-up talk. These artists and their content require media support, not for media to give the impression that such artists or material don't yet exist. 

digitalpharaoh
digitalpharaoh

I'm curious - what's the ages of everyone that's commented so far? After reading the article and reading the comments I really can't respond until I know that.

mogulbarron
mogulbarron

Jay-z new album is fucking dope ! you guys know nothing about real hip hop the guy is the elder statesmen of rap music and is a straight up boss man that shows you can look up to. Some one that inspires you to know that it is possible to become a game changer from scratch still even today in this harsh world. + American Gangster, Blueprint 3 & Watch the Throne were all amazing!

valguilford1
valguilford1

It figures that the Voice would have some guy with the last name of O'Shea criticizing Rap Legends. Why do you feel that you know what black artists should be doing, or feel you have the cred to critique a culture that is not your own? Maybe you think you know best what the natives should be doing, listening to & liking. I guess American Gangster, Blueprint 3 or Watch the Throne never existed.

Your opinion is about as valid as uhhmm NOTHING. 


I should start critiquing art forms or cultures I am not a part of or have a limited knowledge of, and maybe that will qualify me  for a job at the Voice.

chilambalam
chilambalam

On MCHC (the name is as ghastly as the beats): "...the album only reinforced the notion that Jay hasn't been worth listening to since 2003's The Black Album."

Isn't 2003 around the time that Jay-Z and Beyonce started dating? Just sayin'.

areandare
areandare

Written by the british artist and designer Chris O'Shea. What's he know about hip-hop anyway? Oh I made a rhyme!

He's a child. I looked up his site. He's never done anything in regards to music- not an authority anywhere I've found. He makes childish art installations (afraid of losing his own youth I suspect, terrified his world will end when he turns 40) I personally have respect for elders and a lot of the dudes he trashed. Shame on O'Shea!

Aaaand he's just repeating most of what The Voice has already written

http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2013/07/why_raps_superstars_stay_relevant.php

Maybe it's not O'shea at all. Maybe the voice is anti-hip-hop

Kzm Ufc
Kzm Ufc

You have a "r" too much up there!

DarrenB
DarrenB

So "Jay hasn't put out an album worth listening to since the Black Album" but you're awaiting DMX's return? Clearly you haven't heard American Gangster, Watch the Throne or DMX's last efforts to make that statement. 

zeezeezed
zeezeezed

@valguilford1 Oh, you trashing him cuz he's white (or has a white name)?  Shut your five-dollar face before I make change.  Know plenty of white folk who do hip-hop justice (some of them run the best shops in the country), and who are trusted by the likes of Nas, Ghostface, and others for their taste.  They know how to roll.

Get it out of your head that understanding hip-hop's some blacks-only club (and FFS, Watch the Throne was made for rich white folk, don't get me started).  You wanna start some dumb bull on race?  Go to Fox News, they'll love you there, especially now they claim that school bus beating in Florida was a race thing.  I don't agree with everything O'Shea says (you can still play to youth if you play it right, you don't have to suddenly be all old people rap), but I don't dismiss him cuz he's white.

ChrisOShea
ChrisOShea

@areandare Chris O'Shea seems alright to me. 

However, you've got the wrong Chris O'Shea. Don't worry, I get that a lot.

Linx
Linx

@DarrenB I was thinking close to the same thing!  While I will be the 1st one to say that Jay has spells where he just wants to remind us all how broke we all are compared to him, songs like Oceans show just how far he has come.

valguilford1
valguilford1

The only thing that you will change is your health status if you step to me. If you even dream of getting physical with me you better wake up & apologize. I dismiss his opinion because obviously hip hop originated in the black culture, that is not a race thing, that is a fact. I'm trashing him because I don't respect his opinion. Now how you tied Fox News & their opinion into all of this, that's your thing.You can attempt to appropriate other cultures & maybe do a good job & understand it, but no matter how hard I try, it will difficult for me to fully understand it if I have not experienced it or lived it. Example, I can study or listen to as much Chinese or Russian music, art, books, eat the food, adopt the traditional customs, hang out & be friends with Chinese or Russian people all day, but I will never be able to fully understand what it is like to actually be Chinese or Russian. The same premise is why the vast majority of coaches have played the sport that they are coaching. The vast majority of drug & alcohol counselors are in recovery or clean & sober themselves. Sure there are a few exceptions, but for the most part that holds true.

valguilford1
valguilford1

The only thing that you will change is your health status if you step to me. If you even dream of getting physical with me you better wake up & apologize. I dismiss his opinion because obviously hip hop originated in the black culture, that is not a race thing, that is a fact. I'm trashing him because I don't respect his opinion. Now how you tied Fox News & their opinion into all of this, that's your thing.

You can attempt to appropriate other cultures & maybe do a good job & understand it, but no matter how hard I try, it will difficult for me to fully understand it if I have not experienced it or lived it. Example, I can study or listen to as much Chinese or Russian music, art, books, hang out & be friends with Chinese or Russian

valguilford1
valguilford1

And you are obviously a highly evolved intellectually deep thinking individual.

 
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