Can Hip-Hop Age Gracefully?

What's happens when hip-hop's first big superstars start creeping towards senior citizen status?
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At 32-years-old, soon to be 33 in December, I’ve been frequently thinking about if I still have a place within hip-hop music and culture anymore.

I don’t know what it was exactly that caused me to break away from hip-hop music and culture. For years now I've struggled to pay attention or keep up with the current events. Musically, there isn’t really anything happening that speaks directly to me. There are bits and pieces that I catch here and there, but overall I just no longer feel connected to the new music and artists. It’s not a personal thing - a case of the old underground MC purposely hating everything that happens because he’s bitter and insecure. When a new artist makes something undeniably dope, I’m on the train wholeheartedly playing the shit out of that EP or album, dissecting every lyric and sound obsessively until it becomes a part of my DNA. But unfortunately for me, those moments have been few and far between for quite some time now, and they're becoming fewer. 

Maybe I should just listen to the music and turn my attention away from the hip-hop media. Between confusing speeches from Kanye West and awkward moments between Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus (both of which happened at the same event) I find myself in a constant state of cringe when I do tune in to the current events. Delusion seems to be the dominant theme in hip-hop. As my Instagram feed fills up with “Drake bodied Meek Mill” memes, I’m left reminiscing over the days of real battles between MCs. I just don’t care about what Drake said to Meek Mill or what Meek Mill had to say in reply. Neither of those artists do anything that interests me and the thousands of memes popping up as I scroll through looking for cool MMA pictures are annoying me more than anything. I miss the days of MCs trading darts back and forth on DJ Clue and DJ Whoo Kid mixtapes. A time where we would rush to get the new Clue tape and hear what Beanie Sigel was coming at Jadakiss with this week. Drake and Meek Mill? Shit, back in the day…

Oh fuck. I just said used the dreaded “back in the day” phrase. It's the first sign that you’re old and have outgrown the culture you once called home. Hold up, let me take that back. Actually, no, fuck it. Let’s ride this out for a minute.

I first came in to hip-hop right at the tail end of the Run DMC/Juice Crew era. While I could listen to and appreciate artists like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Slick Rick, they were the generation before me, and my heroes were Nas, Wu Tang Clan and Dr. Dre. If I were to go back in time further than the late '80s the music would just sound old. Although I have nothing but the utmost respect for the artists who paved the way for the rest of us, I have never spent any time other than for historical purposes listening to hip-hop from the early '80s.

I think maybe that’s what’s happening now, but unlike the previous periods in hip-hop; we’ve reached the first true era of the legacy artist. While the aforementioned MCs, producers and DJs from the '80s could and should be considered legacy artists, the same can now be said of Jay Z, Nas and Eminem - the difference being that Jay Z, Nas and Eminem can still pack stadiums, as opposed to their predecessors who largely now pack small-large sized clubs.

There was a time in the early 2000s where everything that Jay Z touched turned to gold. He had a clothing line (Rocawear), a shoe deal with Reebok (S. Carter), vodka (Armadale) and a long list of other shit that I can’t remember right now. You could literally walk out of your house and wear, drink, breathe and speak Jay Z and Roc-A-Fella all day, and we did because Jay Z was the pinnacle of cool. From 1998-2003 Jay Z reigned as king from the top of the cultural mountain and we loved him for it. But after The Black Album his popularity and influence slowly began to slide. He still had more than a few high points, but they were generally relegated to collaborations with younger artists (Rihanna, “Watch The Throne” with Kanye West) or huge concert events that only an artist who has been loved and appreciated as long as Jay Z could pull off.

Now, Jay Z seems to be more of an elder statesman in hip-hop than a current artist. His recent missteps (“Occupy All Streets” t-shirts and the Tidal launch to name a few) show that his influence is nowhere near the size of what it once was, but also that he’s become disconnected from the youth of today, and in all honesty, I can relate to that. I have no idea who Fetty Wap is (I actually just had to Google his name to make sure I spelled it right) and words like “bae” have never and will never enter my vocabulary. When I log on to social media or visit blogs I feel lost a lot of the time and often find myself going into long internal “kids these days” rants in my head.

But maybe that’s just how it’s supposed to be. Jay Z could easily go the Barbara Streisand route, do a weekly show in Las Vegas and pack the house every time, raking in millions in the process. The same goes for Eminem. While Jay Z has seemingly taken a step back from music, Eminem has done the opposite and gone into full God MC mode. He’s reached a point where his songs are so packed with rhymes and metaphors that you almost have to slow it down to half speed just to understand what he’s saying. Listening to Eminem in God mode at full speed sounds like ten different songs playing at the same time and right as you can make out what one of the songs sounds like it switches to a whole new song and makes your brain explode. This is by no means a bad thing, I mean the dude is literally the human incarnation of rhyme- Rap’s very own Lawnmower Man, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I don’t miss the days of his “simple” two or three multi-syllabic rhyme patterns. His rapping is impeccable, but is he still making great music? 

My dad (a musician and master pianist) once told me that music should grow with you. What you create should always be a reflection of where you are at that period in your life. It makes no sense for a man in his thirties to spend his life stuck in his twenties. Nobody wants to be the old guy hanging around the nightclub chasing after twenty-year-old girls and desperately trying to be “down” with what’s popular at the time. When you’re 32-years-old, you do 32-year-old man shit. That’s just how it goes. The fact that I don’t connect to what’s new and popular is a good thing and it says that the music I create will have maturity and level of introspection that the music created by the same version of myself ten years prior was lacking. When I really think about it, I’m happy to be where I am in life right now.

So can hip-hop age gracefully? I think it can, as long as the artists and the listeners accept that we’re getting older. When I look around at hip-hop heads in their thirties and forties trying to keep up with the youth at large it comes off as pathetic. We’re fathers and mothers now. We have jobs, bills and lives to take care of. Fetty Wap doesn’t speak to us and he shouldn’t. Drake and Meek Mill rapping about each other makes us cringe because we know better. We’ve lived through and seen enough to know exactly what that is, and rightfully so. The point is to get old and embrace the wisdom that comes with it, not spend that time desperately trying to hang on to what was. We find fulfillment in things that the younger generation won’t understand until they become us and that’s ok.

We need to let go of the past and move on. It’s time.

[Jason James is an artist, freelance columnist and writer for DJBooth.net. You can read/download his free eBook, "This Is My Rifle" and listen/download his most recent album, "Pyramids in Stereo." You can also contact him here and here.]

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