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Fade to Black: Why Can't Rappers Actually Retire?

From JAY-Z to Hopsin, Lupe Fiasco to Kid Cudi, rappers constantly claim they've retired, but almost none of them actually do.
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The last days of Kobe Bryant were like watching the Monstars steal the talents of the NBA players in Space Jam. For Kobe, it was Father Time; it’s who we blame for snatching away the speed, talent, and tenacity of someone who once appeared more than just a mere mortal on the court. Watching his current hardship is to witness the years of wear and tear finally catch up. For athletes, ultimately, no amount of willpower or desire can stop the body's inevitable decay. 

The limitations ballplayers face that lead to jerseys hanging from the rafters aren’t issues that rappers confront. The two aren’t comparable. Maybe that’s why retirement is vastly different in music—in rap, the word "retirement" is shouted more than announced. Throughout the years, there have been countless rappers who promise to withdraw from the industry. These proclamations usually last a few months, if not a few minutes. Retirement always appears to be more of a fleeting feeling than a sincere promise.

I believe Yasiin Bey’s recent pledge to withdraw from the music industry though; he will be exiting a door that his peers have only touched the handle of. Bey seems poised to become that rare thing, a retired rapper who retires because he isn’t attached to the fame or the fortune, that his actions from the last few years prove how little he craves attention. He’s not retiring from making music but eradicating himself from operating within the music industry. We may never hear another song from him after this last album, but that doesn’t mean he will cease making them. Retirement is the act of separating yourself from your business; it’s fading into the blackness without any desire to step back into the light.

When it comes to retirements, JAY-Z is the undisputed best and worst. Bowing out at Madison Square Garden after dropping a critically acclaimed album is by far the grandest goodbye any artist could hope to give their fans. But a man like Jay, who since his first album displayed a desire to live enormous, couldn’t exile himself from the kingdom he built. Kings get old or are beheaded; they don’t hand over their thrones. I imagine his first retirement days were like the final scene in the last episode of Entourage, somewhere in paradise with Beyonce without a single worry in the world and then Def Jam calls him in to be the new President. Ari couldn’t turn away Hollywood, and Jay couldn’t say no to rap.

As Nathan wrote, “Life starts feeling uncomfortably quiet when you've spent years living for applause.” Hova's rap retirement officially lasted three years, and if he didn’t announce it, you wouldn’t have noticed. It would have only been a hiatus in between albums. Memphis Bleek was recently on The Breakfast Club and dropped a little bomb that Jay may never drop another album. Unlike the man that he was back in 2003, the Jay of today it a bit older, with a wife, child and multiple businesses that he’s tending to. I’ll never expect him to make another public service announcement about hanging up his mic; you never know when he’ll get the itch again.

A lot of retirement announcements come from frustration. The overwhelming industry that eats hearts and devours souls can push an artist to think that minimum wage would be less stressful. I remember when Waka Flocka Flame swore he would instead work at Wal-Mart than continue to rap. Back in 2011, he claimed that the game was too fake and that he would quit at the year’s end. Then he dropped the strip club anthem “Round Of Applause,” got a Drake remix and he hasn’t mentioned retirement since.

Right before the release of his now acclaimed debut album, Kid Cudi took to his blog to quit being a solo artist. The drama in his life had become too much to bear, he wrote. “Ima drop out of this shit before niggaz try and crucify me,” he wrote in the rather personal post. We all know that he didn’t, but imagine if the only Cudi album was the first Man On The Moon? I think he loves the spotlight a bit too much to go where it’s dim.

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Lupe (more than once), B.o.B, T.I., Hopsin, Nicki Minaj, and Azealia Banks all walked the same path and came running back. The list of rappers that cry retirement but are still here, still releasing music, more popular than they were before, is longer than Santa's. The last retirement I took to heart was Lil Wayne. I truly believed that Tha Carter V could be his last album—four mixtapes later and we’re still waiting. Could Birdman also be worried that his golden goose has only had one more Platinum egg in him?

There’s another kind of retirement in rap, one that’s more common, one where the artist decides to cease running in the race without dropping out entirely. Music isn’t their primary source of income; they can live reasonably comfortably selling records or having to go on tour. Artists that exist in the background and are content with operating without being at the absolute center. They may go long stretches without releasing music, they’re still active, but only in spurts.

Dr. Dre spent more than a decade without a new album, but his secrecy puts him in a class of artist with Ludacris, Q-Tip, Lauryn Hill, Ice-T, Ice Cube and, of course, Andre 3000. These artists haven't officially turned in their keys to the office but can go months or years without stepping foot in the building. This is where Mos Def was, in that limbo between returning to the game and playing on the outskirts. Retirement is going even further out, where you can’t be seen or heard, and you’re okay with living in your silence.

Vince Staples is a special case who has expressed his desires to retire in two years. He looks at rap as a job, no different than anyone else that works a 9 to 5. I can see him taking a leave from the game; he doesn't seem affected by the adoring fans and newfound minor celebrity. He is a simple man that wants to live a simple life.

It has to be hard to let the game go. How do you just quit? How do you walk away from the microphone that doesn’t judge when you speak your soul into her? How does one step away from the white-hot spotlight and the high that comes when the crowd applauds and cheers? It’s not the same for those that work conventional careers or jobs, to retire is to beat the game. Retirement is the pot of gold you receive for reaching the very end of your employment; the point in your life when you can leave your job or career a little older, a little wiser, maybe a little wrinkled but mostly relieved to cross the finish line. It’s the future that appears too distant to touch, but you know it’s always there waiting to reimburse your years of hard work and endurance.

For most artists, though, retirement is death. Creating stops when the heartbeat does. While Yasiin might retire after this last album, it won’t be the end of his artistry. Even if our eyes don’t see, if our ears don’t hear, I believe he will continue to create. The same way when the ESPN cameras are no longer rolling, when the stadiums are no longer full, Kobe will be still shooting in the gym. There will always be one more shot to shoot, one more song to record, one more breath to take.

The only actual retirement for an artist is the brief moment of peace in-between ideas. 

By Yoh, aka A Kid Named Yoh. aka @Yoh31



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