Hip-hop in 2012 was defined by one man and his debut album. Kendrick Lamar burst out of the gate with “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” and by year’s end, promptly sat at the top of most critic’s list for not only best rap album of the year, but in some eyes, best album of the year period.
Lurking further down most lists was arguably a better hip-hop album made by a pair of 37-year-olds. Killer Mike and El-P’s “R.A.P. Music” was a lean, mind-blowing exercise in the album’s namesake, hitting upon all major periods of hip-hop but in a completely modern way. It was the completion of the slow turn away from the regular themes of hip-hop and toward serious and, more importantly, real issues that face the poor in Mike’s home of Atlanta. Now 37, the performer isn’t particularly old, but in music, just like professional sports, age makes all the difference. As time rolls on and hip-hop becomes more sophisticated and polarizing, the anomaly of the “old rapper” begins to show.
Popular music is thought to be a young person’s game, and with rappers like 17-year-old Chief Keef gaining prominence, it calls to question how someone like 41-year-old Snoop Lion/Dogg can continue to find his place in the music world. Of course, in Snoop’s case, that meant reinventing in the way of a documentary, album and, of course, a new stage name. Time will tell if Snoop’s Rastafarian conversion will stick or if it’s even real at all. The album in question, titled “Reincarnated,” has yet to be released despite its original June 2012 release date. The singles have been underwhelming, and with past rebranding “Drop It Like It’s Hot” as “Pocket Like It’s Hot” for Hot Pockets’ commercials, it appears Snoop is running out of ways to stay relevant, as a new generation of rappers that he influenced take his spot in the sun.
To be an older rapper means not even necessarily having to put out new music to stay in the public sphere. Ice Cube and Dr. Dre founded N.W.A. in 1986, when they were 17 and 21, respectively. The album that group put out, “Straight Outta Compton,” was classic enough that to put any more words toward saying so would be redundant. Despite taking vastly different turns in their own careers, they’ve both managed to stay in the public eye for things other than music. Dre was never much of an MC, especially since other rappers ghostwrote most of his lines. What he lost in the rapping department he made up for in production, but even that’s been largely absent these days. Despite this, Dre topped the Forbes highest-paid musicians – which as a list, is a bit of a misnomer – all because of some headphones. Dre’s N.W.A co-pilot is also aging more curiously than previously imaginable.
“Snoop is running out of ways to stay relevant, as a new generation of rappers that he influenced take his spot in the sun.”
Ice Cube, 43, has long been the solid gold meme statue standing for all things “sell out.” On the surface, going from “F— tha Police” to “F— your kids not having any fun-filled entertainment, here’s ‘Are We There Yet?’” is a far jump, one representing a complete loss of focus and jump from one extreme to the other. But Ice Cube is far smarter than that. Unlike Dre and many of his contemporaries, Cube has continued to release albums, and though they may be far weaker than classics like “The Predator” and “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted,” he’s still proving that a middle-aged rapper still has a place in the world. And if there is anyone doubting that Ice Cube still has bars, check out his verse on fellow hip-hop grandparent Ghostface Killah’s remix of “Be Easy” from the latter’s 2006 “Fishscale” album. Don’t forget to pick your jaw up when it’s over.
Of course, there are rappers who have not only managed to just stay relevant, but never stopped being beloved by the masses. Jay-Z is 43 and just won three Grammys. Newly 40, Eminem will be releasing an album this year that will more than likely turn heads in the same way all of his albums have. Nas, Busta Rhymes, Common and the entirety of the Wu-Tang Clan are all 40 or older and still churning out mostly enjoyable music. What does this say about the state of hip-hop when some of our most beloved rappers are as old as our parents? In other genres of music, it has proven hard to grow older and still sing those same hits year after year, regardless of if the audience is still clamoring for them or not. In music, the golden rule tends to be that when the fresh faced grow older, they grow worse. This is not the case for everyone, but in hip-hop it seems to be especially true. Older rappers need to take a cue from Killer Mike and “R.A.P. Music” and realize that it is possible to age gracefully in a young man’s rap game as long as you’re willing to preserve the fire that drove you in the first place.
Kevin Stairiker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.