The Art of the Coming-of-Age Album

The hero’s journey is the oldest story ever told.
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The Art of the Coming-of-Age Album

“Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends / Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends” —Frank Ocean, “Super Rich Kids”

The hero’s journey is the oldest story ever told. Packed with hardships, overcoming the odds, growth, feel-good moments, and a handful of useful universal truths, this form exists in all frames of art from ancient creation myths to your favorite rapper’s best album. In popular art—literature, film, music—we’re most often served the hero’s journey by way of a coming-of-age narrative. In hip-hop, if not across all genres, the coming-of-age narrative is one of the greatest and more relatable stories ever told.

We are programmed to love the coming-of-age narrative because the trope is in our multicultural DNA. From drummed-up bedside stories to hilariously embellished urban legends espoused at bars or basement parties, the rise and fall and ultimate success of a tragic hero is the most natural story to tell. We’re attracted to struggle just as well as we are to celebration.

In the scope of music, when done well, the coming-of-age narrative can help secure classic status for an album. Even middling records are saved because the process of coming of age can be a real page-turner, teeming with trials of adolescence we either relate to at present or can look back on with a fond chuckle. These albums are able to step out of time and have a permanent hold on us.

Classic projects like Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap, and, of course, NasIllmatic are all woven around a central pillar of coming-of-age raps that allow these works of art to be nothing short of timeless. Not to mention hundreds more songs and albums deploy this narrative in conjunction with their themes.

The coming-of-age narrative is central to a sprawling hip-hop tradition that reminds us the most resonant music is, word to Rapsody, “life music.” Breaking the workings of these albums down into their three essential elements, let’s take a deeper look at the threads that hold coming-of-age albums together and make them so damn good.

I. Coming of Age Is Native to Our Artistic DNA

Growing up is a necessity of being alive, much like our desire to connect with something greater than ourselves drives us to grow. In that breath, coming-of-age narratives are often the genesis of an artist's career, and our own personal entrances into the ever-elusive task of becoming comfortable with ourselves. Nas opens his opus Illmatic with this exact sentiment, down to the title. “The Genesis” is rumbling and localized, with the rattle of train tracks ushering in a flurry of voices and samples situating us at the center of Nas’ adolescent psyche. We’re wading through his stream of consciousness as clips of AZ and Jungle give us moment-to-moment vignettes of all the family and Hennessy-drinking that coagulates to form the young legend known as Nas.

“The Genesis” is brief, but packed with the youthful boasts of drinking without chasers and name-dropping that mirrors the same futile posturing we see in teen movies and young adult fiction novels. The track works in a not dissimilar fashion from Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids,” which breaks down the pomp of privilege to reveal that the sum of what makes you lucky can also make you feverishly depressed, bordering on alcoholic. Frank and Nas begin their careers as flawed heroes, and we can always relate.

There’s something to be said, too, for being able to press play on your favorite album and hear immediate allusions to your favorite films, TV shows, and books. These cross-platform threads keep us engaged because we feel a secure familiarity with the music. Even something as simple as Chance The Rapper listing off snacks eaten and cartoons watched on “Cocoa Butter Kisses” demonstrates the universality, implicit reach, and instant appeal of this narrative.

With that, these projects easily live outside of their album labels. Consider the structure and billing of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city as an audio-visual short film. What Nas accomplishes in fleeting soundbites on “The Genesis,” Kendrick extends to phone call outros and heartbreaking climaxes (“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”). His coming-of-age in Compton was always meant to translate onto the screen and the careful crafting of the record as a motion picture, down to “Compton” stepping outside of the narrative as if to say, “Let the credits roll.”

On Big L’s titular “Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous,” though it is the album’s eighth track, we’re treated to an epilogue of his manhood in much the same way good kid, m.A.A.d is the epilogue to Kendrick Lamar. “My name is L, and I'm from a part of town where clowns / Get beat down and all you hear is gunshot sounds,” Big L raps, processing through the horrors of his youth. This violence is as central to his growth as Hennessy is to Nas, as rides with the homies are to Kendrick, and stripped away from their music, each of these things is an essential prop in coming-of-age films and books. Or, as Lauryn Hill would say: “Everything is everything.”

II. It’s Easy to Get Attached to a Coming-of-Age Story

Concept albums are rightfully beloved, and as far as execution goes, the coming-of-age narrative is an accessible form to follow. Lauryn Hill uses the plain-stated quality of this formula to provide structure to the otherwise overwhelming emotional weight of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The coming-of-age narrative invites the mess of something like heartache and identity crisis and gives the artist and listener a handy filter to navigate those emotions without having to succumb to them.

With a weight off her shoulders, Hill is able to make a multifaceted reckoning with Miseducation. Anthems (“Lost Ones,” “Doo Wop”) brush shoulders with ballads (“To Zion,” “Everything Is Everything”) and we are more than ready to process the peaks and valleys of her life without getting stuck on the order of operations—we just approach the album with an “And then what happens?” mentality. True to form, Lauryn Hill flourishes in the chaos of heartbreak while dropping wise-beyond-her-years insights across the album. By taking the knotted approach on her record, too, each and every triumph we encounter on Miseducation is all the sweeter. 

More than an organizational tool, the coming-of-age narrative is essential in a saturated musical landscape, where accessibility is more than king—it is mandatory. Meaning, employing an understood form isn’t necessarily a weak play. J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive follows the coming-of-age narrative to a perfect T, but this does not make Cole less of a creative. On the contrary, it allows him to cement his everyman persona and prove to fans that he is a voice of the people.

Forest Hills Drive is easy to move through, as the narrative is plot-driven and the content is familiar enough to have us invested from the jump. The record gives itself replay value because it is propped up on the facts of life. A song as equal parts humiliating and endearing as “Wet Dreamz” cannot exist in any other context than the coming-of-age context. While rappers are expected to toughen up and brag about their sexcapades, in the scope of this narrative, Cole is allowed the opportunity to step outside the confines of the rapper label and make the music that he wants, for better or worse. For many fans, it’s this approach that makes J. Cole their hero.

And what would a coming-of-age narrative be without heroics? That’s the payoff of all the messy trials in the middle, after all. Illmatic gives us heroism and lessons galore, particularly on “The World Is Yours” and “One Love.” While Cole’s “Wet Dreamz” is a reminder that not every aspect of growing up is flattering, and Miseducation is mess-incarnate, “The World Is Yours” is the celebration at the end of a hard-won quest. Nas transforms into something of a conqueror, and by extension, so does the listener.

While it’s attractive to wallow, it’s even more rewarding to rejoice, especially when we expect it. The beauty of Illmatic, then, is that these bright moments are peppered throughout the album and do not simply bottleneck at the end. Nas takes the form and provides necessary nuance and swerve to keep us engaged.

In a similar breath, while Chance The Rapper’s good ass outro “Everything’s Good” does appear at the close of Acid Rap, his mixing motifs from each of the preceding tracks is a take on form subversion much like Nas’ track listing. It’s a party, after all. By this point in the story, we recall that growing up is not all growing pains, and the allusion to previous tracks is Chance’s aural rendition of getting older and doing better by yourself and those you love.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we can turn again to Big L’s “Lifestylez.” The innate hook of a coming-of-age narrative turns the track from a scroll of street life to a gutting reality check. Big L closes the track by stepping away from the streets to look the listener square in the eye and ask, “Now what kinda life is that for a child? / Now what kinda life is that for a fucking child?” the weight of which is tripled because, by track eight, we are more than invested in his story. The track quickly becomes a master class in how to cash in on the storytelling potential of the coming-of-age narrative: work within the form, then hit them with the sucker punch.

Chance The Rapper does as much on Acid Rap, sneaking in leveling blows like hidden track “Paranoia” along with the introspective and downtrodden “Acid Rain.” On these tracks, Chance deals with the violence and police brutality in Chicago, the perceived absence of God, and a general feeling of being abandoned by life altogether. Think of “Acid Rain” as a spiritual successor to Hill’s “Every Ghetto, Every City,” which deals with the same themes in hopes of inspiring an artist like Chance.

As we’ve seen, feeling forlorn is par for the coming-of-age course, but Chance—in the vein of Lauryn Hill—takes the narrative element one step further to present a real-life message. Coming-of-age narratives thusly endure because once we’re hooked onto the story, we realize that the kids know the worst of what’s going on, and they have something to say about it.

III. Coming-of-Age Narratives are Timeless

In the great words of probably everyone: you don’t have to be young to love this shit. You certainly don’t have to be young to feel this shit, either. Everyone remembers their first crush, first drink, first heart-pounding experience, first brush with mortality, first broken heart, and the like. These are the moments that mold us, and when coming-of-age albums tap into those quintessential tropes, our memories do the rest of the work. Sometimes nostalgia is weaponized, but more often than not, we weaponize our own nostalgia.

Coming-of-age albums exist out of time. This is how J. Cole could craft Forest Hills Drive and rap from the point of view of his 18-year-old self on “‘03 Adolescence” at the wiser age of 29. He accesses the memories that never wane and are always fresh in our minds. For better or worse, these albums are a reminder that all we are, are the net positives of our past mistakes.

Consider Cole’s vapid declarations of women “shallow with the pussy” on “No Role Modelz.” These lyrics sound ridiculous from the mouth of a grown man, but in the context of a teenage boy with his head in all the wrong places, all we can do is nod along and remember. There’s more than a relatability factor to Cole’s music here. If you’re 18 and spiteful, of course you can relate, but because of the nature of his content, if you’re 33 and experienced, the tune takes on a new and reflective context. That’s replay value.

More than anything, though, these youthful moments are so piquant and rich with life, whether you’ve already come of age or are in the throes of growing up. The bright, spiked, and Flamin' Hots-dusted quality of Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap is transportive in that way, taking us back to our youth or to a childhood that does not seem too far removed. We will never forget the happiest days of our lives, which is why on even the most heartbroken track on the album, “Lost,” Chance still slips into an inspired and jubilant flow.

That brightness also speaks to our ability to look back on some of the more shameful aspects of youth and wanton energy, and laugh them off. We’re granted the opportunity to reflect on ourselves and recognize when we were acting way beyond the line. On some level, then, the coming-of-age narrative becomes something of a pat on the back: “Good job growing up, man.”

But timeless also means ageless, which is why a moment like Danny Brown’s “30,” clearly about his turning 30 and not about his first kiss, still embodies the importance, mess, overcoming, and striking qualities of a coming-of-age narrative.

“When I turned 28, they like, "What you gon' do now?" / And now a n***a 30, so I don't think they heard me / That the last 10 years, I been so fucking stressed / Tears in my eyes, let me get this off my chest / The thoughts of no success got a n***a chasing death” —Danny Brown, “30”

Perhaps the most leveling realization we come to after pressing play on “30” is that the same anxieties Brown is discussing entering his third decade of life prattle around the brain of a teenager starting university. “30” not only proves this narrative to be ever more timeless, but also universal. We’re all trying to outrun death, make something of ourselves, and come out as more than the sum of our fuck-ups. 

Coming-of-age albums are timeless because no matter where we are in life, we’re all still scared and just hoping to get by, whether 13 or 30. 

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