A New Country For Old Men: Rappers Now Have A Life After 30
Turns out it’s not just a young man’s game anymore.
Remember when rapping after 30 was a no-no? There was this unwritten rule in hip-hop that every rapper came with an expiration date, usually around their 30th birthday, and they were put out to pasture or at least relegated to the dust bin of the record store. For those of you too young to even fathom the idea of buying albums from a “store,” the equivalent would be getting an album for the very, very low on iTunes the day it drops.
Of course there are multiple reasons the game was that way. Guys like Run-D.M.C. and Big Daddy Kane had trouble adapting to the whole “times, they are a changing” and couldn’t quite find their footing once the ’90s rolled around. Also, fans have a large say in who’s hot and the cyclical nature of life means one era of artists will be ushered out as another era comes in, similar to a senior class graduating to make room for the group behind them. But possibly the main reason — and the one often difficult for fans to stomach — some rappers get wack.
The flows aren’t as crisp, the lyrics aren’t as potent, or the ability to make a song pulls a Houdini but never reappears. The fall off is most noticeable when they want to join in the reindeer games with the young cats and can’t hold their own. It sucks when your favorite rapper has to soldier through struggle bars trying to prove they still got it. But like Cutty, everyone has to have their come to Jesus moment.
At least they used to. Much like they changed the game 20-plus years ago, those ’90s era rappers have bucked the trend of their forefathers. Not only are a lot of them still around, but they’re getting better.
Big Boi just released Boomverse and surprise, surprise, it’s kinda fantastic. He’s 42. Killer Mike, who features prominently on Big Boi’s solo, is also 42 and would rap circles around the guy who stepped onto the scene in 2001. There’s also Raekwon, who has shown a consistency and ferociousness as an older man that he didn’t always have in his 20s, which is crazy when you realize he dropped landmark work during the first half of his career. But Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Part II, Shaolin Vs Wu Tang, F.I.L.A., The Wild, and a few mixtapes in between all have the hunger of a young MC just trying to make it. Jadakiss, Styles P, Method Man, Nas, Q-Tip, Fabolous, Scarface, Pusha T, 2 Chainz, and Kanye West are all in the same boat of rappers pushing past the 30-year mark on their odometer and seemingly have no desire to close shop.
And then there’s Jay Z, a man who’s been retiring from rap since his first album and once famously said he used to think “rapping at 38 was ew.” Since turning 38, he’s dropped not one, not two, but five albums and a sixth is on its way. Of course, what makes all of this more ironic is Jay will be 48 this December and every album gets treated like an event. Guess rapping after 38 ain’t so bad now, is it?
Part of the success of guys like Jay and Q-Tip, is finding a way to meet the younger generation halfway. I’ll say it till they lay flowers on me, but A Tribe Called Quest had the best album of 2016 and what contributed to its greatness was Anderson Paak and Kendrick Lamar. Singing is a thing rappers do now, but rather than decide to croon themselves, Tribe brought in Paak to do his thing on subject matter — racism, brutality, peace — right up his alley. Or in his wheelhouse. Or whatever cliched turn of phrase you prefer. They made him a piece of the puzzle rather than creating something around him and as a result, “Movin Backwards” is one of the best songs on an album filled with the best songs. The same can be said for Kendrick’s tag team with the late great Phife Dawg on “Conrad, Tokyo.”
On paper, it seems pretty easy to assume Kenny and Dynomutt on the same song would be kinda one-sided in Kenny’s favor, but Phife not only holds his own, he comes away with one of the best verses on the album. He doesn’t try to rap like Kendrick, nor does he hide his disdain for mumble rappers. He does what he’s always done, which is to say, be good at rapping. It’s probably safe to say Phife’s flow has never been better on any Tribe album prior to We Got It From Here…and “Conrad, Tokyo” is a perfect example of why.
Prodigy just left this earth at the age of 42 and his post-30 output is nothing to sneeze at, especially once you realize he was in jail from age 33–37. Eleven albums, some by himself, some with as part of Mobb Deep, and some with Alchemist. Each demonstrating a guy who hadn’t lost his ability to paint precise pictures and even keep up with the young bucks. And by young bucks I mean younger rappers, not Young Buck. P died doing what he loved, making music and performing, and never once mentioned the idea of retiring.
A decade or two ago, a guy like Method Man showing up on “Trillmatic” at age 43 would’ve been laughable or at least elicited a pretty loud “bless his heart” from fans. But Meth did his thing and stole the song. Maybe something is in the water with this generation of older rappers that the last just couldn’t get their hands on. Or maybe it’s the sheer amount of money in the game that keeps them going and inspires them to stay sharp. Rock acts like the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith learned a long time ago there will always be a big audience for you if you supply your fans with dopeness while growing with them. As hip-hop itself turns 40, the genre is finally finding its way to following that model and the game is better off because of it.
40’s the new 20.
Marcus Benjamin is a danger to the public, an alum of American University, St. John’s University, a screenwriter, and has an intense relationship with words. Witness his tomfoolery on Twitter, @AbstractPo3tic.