How To Age Gracefully In Hip Hop

Youth is wasted on the young.

Hip hop has shifted dramatically since the turn 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 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 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 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 a midlife crisis, one that is seemingly relegating some former stars to uncomfortable shelf life purgatory. To quote Rodney Carmichael 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 hip hop have made it near impossible to come away unscathed from the ticking the clock. It’s like that wonderful bit dialogue from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” 

How To Age Gracefully In Hip Hop

DMX performing at the Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour, 2016 – Kevin Winter/Getty s

This inescapable reality has presented itself in different ways for those testing the waters 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 thousands people bark the words to “Ruff Ryders Anthem” at Woodstock ‘99 and was on the cusp joining Hollywood elite, has been in and out 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 Animal Planet. Ice-T, an industry OG with extensive hip hop credentials, is now someone who most people under the age 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 people in 2019 would only be able to pick out the “Mama Said Knock You Out” rapper as the beanie-wearing host Lip Sync Battle.

All this is to say that the playing field and rules 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 the fountain youth. It’s a genre that squeezes every last drop out 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 desperation, and you’ll do more harm than good. Let it slide and you’ll find yourself sinking aimlessly into the pit 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 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 the genre as a project 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 30 different credited songwriters are the next phase the zeitgeist. Some its most recognizable tastemakers are a “big roiling mess contradictions.” It’s a media-enforced dynamic that has created mutual antagonism that is just now starting to become a point contention. 

It’s healthy for a genre to be youth-based. Such stature means that it’s a popular, living art form with plenty 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 feeling out 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 the few to successfully pull it f 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 a shoeless Rick Rubin nodding f on a couch to Timbaland beats. The trepidation that preceded 4:44 was duly measured as a result.

How To Age Gracefully In Hip Hop

Jay-Z and Beyonce sit courtside during 2019 NBA Playfs – Bob Levey/Getty s

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 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 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 the barrel for nostalgic musings 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 4:44 reinforced is that there is in fact room at the table for those willing to forgo the act 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 hip hop, “age could bring an abundance rich material to (older artists’) repertoire.” Imagine the untold tales 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 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 36 Chambers. Acts such as the Wu-Tang Clan understand that their longevity rests on the timelessness 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 brainchild Run The Jewels, sparking mosh pits and praise from both ends 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 Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak.

Rather than scratching and clawing to stay in touch with the sounds 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 fickle, “plugged in” audiences. Clocking in and out the limelight doesn’t mean that the pendulum good favor is now irrevocably out reach, or that creativity is permanently stunted. For all the brouhaha that hip hop is only interested in the constant stream flashy content and can no longer accommodate its vibrant legacy, the genre and its progenitors continue to find ways to blossom in the ripeness age.