“Since I was a small boy, I never imagined a long life. Gray hairs, grandchildren, retirement homes—all thoughts that I couldn’t fathom. It wasn’t about living fast or dying young, but simply no true yearning to deal with the aches and struggles of old age.” - Yoh (2015)
My father’s tools lay across the living room carpet of the apartment, to see them without him is viewing the stars without the moon. The same tools he once used to remove training wheels are now in the hands of my brother and his girlfriend. The two are building a dresser for their room―together they are an image of a mature relationship, in that moment their union seemed holier, more future-focused. It starts with building a dresser, then building a crib, and before you know it, you’ve built a life together; a life that ends in good memories, gray hairs, grandchildren, and rocking chairs. As the drill spun, as the hammer swung, as the screwdriver turned, I saw in the present a future that was once so far away―adulthood.
Our first weekend in the apartment, a gun accidentally went off and shot through the hallway carpet. Our neighbors underneath were unharmed but we were still threatened with eviction for early signs of unruliness. We were let off with a warning, and the party we planned for our eviction became a housewarming. Each following weekend was spent carelessly drunk―more bottles than bodies, more bodies than drugs―while balancing responsibilities and chasing dreams. We were like clowns juggling vices and duty. We worked, paid bills, did taxes; you could consider this adult living but I saw us as kids pretending to be grown-ups―Peter Pan with facial hair, minus the fairy dust.
We weren’t in a rush to be our parents, but pursuing debauchery over virtue, hangovers over holy water, lust over love, today’s thrills over tomorrow’s promises―an endless cycle of turning up for the sake of being alive. The times were good, the times were fun, but what seemed to be a never-ending present slowly receded into yesterday’s memories. Two years later, the kids who were dressing up are no longer pretending. I watched as apartments became houses, boys became gentlemen, girls became debutantes―settling into the next phase of their lives began to transform people that I’ve known since the sandbox. Soon, new kids will be terrorizing the playground and this time, I'll know their parents.
Music tends to be a reflection of every point in my life, the embodiment of my soul. I first noticed a change in taste with the release of Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight. Travis Scott has never been my favorite, and the album was good, but it failed to compel my interest. Shallow, too shallow. The same feeling came as The Weeknd's Starboy filled my ears, sounding good, sounding pop, but ultimately too bland for recurring visits.
More girls, more plugs, more drinks, more Percocets―the formula for trap music had lost all zeal, and recently it has felt like being in some strange purgatory of living the same song over and over again. I can judge and enjoy it all objectively―able to perfectly articulate why Playboi Carti with Awful is preferred over A$AP, the thrill of Savage Mode and 21 Savage, the poetic prowess of Future, and why Migos are incredible together and apart―yet, most of the music hasn’t moved the spirit, stirred the soul, or inspired lasting plays. Yachty, Uzi, SahBabii, and NAV may have the teens, but their growing dominance over the mainstream has only solidified that I’ve grown out of that demographic. Knocking on the door to 26, I am not their target, I am not their audience, and so comes the early ache of age.
Khalid’s American Teen has been in heavy rotation, a well-put-together debut by a promising young star, but there’s an unavoidable realization that his music isn’t targeted to those going through the quarter-life crisis that is the mid-twenties. It’s in the title, there should be no surprise who the album is intended for. “Young Dumb & Broke,” the album's second song, is an anthem for the young, dumb and broke high school kids across the nation. Despite being fairly young, in an endless search for wisdom, and struggling with money management, it’s been almost 10 years since my days were spent in high school hallways. I’m grueling over thoughts of a reunion while he’s celebrating an escape from the woes of public school education.
The teen stars of my day have grown older while trying to maintain a place of relevance. The ones who use to play on ringtones can’t buy their way onto modern charts. With each passing year, the phrase “back in my day” grows closer to leaving my lips. Khalid’s way of singing about love and loss with a mature sensibility has made him an enjoyable musical companion, but he has songs like “8TEEN” that would appeal much more to a younger Yoh.
For every Khalid who is a voice for a generation of adults on the rise, there’s an Anderson .Paak who sings for us who remember Blockbuster and Limewire, dial-up and Internet Explorer, phones before artificial intelligence and Jordans before the resells. He isn’t the artist making songs for the girl you fall for in the hallway after homeroom, but ballads about dodging temptation on the way to your happy home, or songs for married couples who are trying to get their groove back―music about life that’s been lived and not the excitement of life to come. Anderson isn’t hiding that he’s older, but wearing age like a vibrant bow tie that's impossible to overlook.
My love for Sampha’s Process album is rooted in the same concept of life experiences―the death of his mother, facing his own mortality, self-analysis. Even something as small as using brake pads as a metaphor speaks to me spiritually. Poetic language articulating the overflowing feelings of fleeting hope and fear, confidence and doubt, pessimistic romanticism and narcissistic self-indulgence are just a few themes that I look for in music now. I gravitate toward the inward explorations and creative narratives that pull listeners into a world where the artist gives a slice of real life, a true glimpse of the beauty and ugliness of reality without VH1.
R&B is at the forefront of my personal music palette. From Steve Lacy to Sonder, Nao to Thundercat, JMSN to 6LACK, the resurgence of impeccable rhythm and blues has captured my heart and ears much more than modern hip-hop these days. I hear less formula in the singers; there are no rules to follow, but rules to be made. SZA’s “Drew Barrymore” is the sort of heartbreaking honesty that feels like claws wrapped around your soul; raw with passion and pain, the result is magic to the ears. I find it almost impossible to hear Solange’s A Seat at the Table and not feel empowered; a surge to conquer the world with grace and fortitude by thirty. Spellbinding lyrics over minimal production, A Seat at the Table is an album only a woman who has seen life in the raw could make.
Because the Internet is an album loosely about being lost in a world of strong Wi-Fi and infinite interconnectedness—the theme of my life, but it resonated strongest in my early twenties. I was in search of something deeper while balancing an existential crisis, much like The Boy. "Awaken, My Love!", Childish Gambino’s latest, speaks with a mature tone that is absent from BTI. Gambino left all the childishness behind him to become an adult singing to his son, and with each listen I appreciate his evolution more. He grew up and needed a language for this new voice. I don’t have a son, so I don’t have a child to be taken from me, but I still get chills from the passion in his voice on “Baby Boy.” AML isn’t the album of my present, but sometime in the years to come, it could be.
Divorce is a tragedy I’ve yet to experience, but Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear has filled my recent nights―a heartfelt, soulful album written and recorded while going through his separation with Anna Gordy. The number of emotions he’s able to convey, explore and bleed during this turbulent time speaks for the amazing artist he was.
A true sign of age is the backstroke through the sea of oldies, diving deeper into the artists who have lived and died, digging up their art despite bodies that have been long buried.
Hip-hop isn’t dead. It may not dominate the mainstream, but there’s an immense amount of good music coming out that doesn’t require intoxication to find enjoyment. I may be in the minority but I’m prepared to argue 4 Your Eyez Only is Cole’s most refined album. It's a bit boring, but it's some of his most piercing and mature music. There’s fear of death, love of life, cherishing wife and child, alongside bigger themes of racial profiling, systemic racism and the weight of fatherhood. Despite my disdain for the song, I couldn’t help but hear “Foldin Clothes” as my brother slid another drawer into the dresser. Cole is no longer making music for college students, but for college graduates. Sallie Mae has been replaced by admitting Santa Claus is the personification of greed to his newborn.
I’m still living some of the more bacchanal and self-reflective lyrics to be found on Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia Demo and The Sun’s Tirade while seeing a future in Oddisee’s The Iceberg and Jonwayne’s Rap Album Two. Treasures are buried underground, so many special albums lay beneath the clutter. Finding time to mix Red Pill and PeeWee Longway, Kelechi and Royce da 5′9″; Stik Figa and ScHoolboy Q; Ka with Earl Sweatshirt, Roc Marciano with J.I.D, new Young Thug with old Jay Z, and turn-up 2 Chainz with paranoid Tupac.
Don't think that I hate trap, but my favorite trap music tends to feel authentic; think T.I.'s "Still Ain't Forgave Myself"over Rich Chigga's "Dat $tick." It doesn’t get much realer than Maxo Kream’s "Grannies”―so honest the song almost seems incriminating. Trap should be pure, that’s why stories from artists like Freddie Gibbs and Starlito will always make you feel something. They aren’t selling a lifestyle, they’re telling you about life, all of its heavenly highs and hellish lows.
Hip-hop is youthful, the kids will always be the ones who will push culture forward. But kids aren’t the ones who make you look forward to getting older. It is inevitable, time is always moving us forward. Age is of the mind they say, but youth has an expiration date. Anyone who is younger, or someone in my position staring at the crossroads, will eventually have to face the fact that your lifestyle won’t always match the music that’s popular. Enjoying music and connecting with it aren’t always in harmony, and age influences how music touches each individual.
I’m far from an adequate, ideal adult. There’s nothing “grown-up” about spending an entire day typing about hip-hop and only eating Jell-O shots, knowing more about rap beef than political battles. I can’t live off American Deli and Jack Daniels forever, I need nutrients and water. Music is no different―the older I age, the more nutrients will take precedence over junk food.
Lion King taught a generation that "Hakuna Matata" doesn’t last forever. The notion of having no worries for the rest of your days is enticing, the kind of pipe dream you hope to accomplish, and even if you see that heaven for a day it will eventually come to an end. Everyone isn’t destined to be king, but Simba’s destiny is proof that the wheels of time never stop.
There’s a future for us all, a day in the distance where we are older and our plates fuller, but it doesn’t mean it won’t be fun. I have to stop seeing suits as casket uniforms, marriage as a contract of eternal compromise, and 30 as the pen pal of death. I’m fighting the cancer that is time, but I’m slowly embracing that life will be long and that I'd rather enjoy my time here than resist what will not stop. It’s becoming important to discover artists who take me to the past, who mirror my present, and who will make my eyes look forward to the future.
Here’s to hoping that I see you all there, a healthier, more mature adult than I am today.
By Yoh, aka Old Man Yoh, aka @Yoh31.