Wisdom in Hip-Hop: How Age Can Be an Asset Rather than a Liability

Mohith Subbarao
beats and thoughts
Published in
7 min readDec 11, 2019

--

We worship the youth. Whether it be worldwide fanaticism over the next teen pop star, adoration of university grad programmers over experienced tech workers, or the prevalence of plastic surgery to maintain an image of immortality, we as a society put youthfulness on a pedestal while simultaneously shaming the natural and wholesome process of aging. This ageism has been rampant in hip-hop, an art form that has long been seen as an exclusively young person’s game. As the relatively young genre of hip-hop, which started in the mid-1970s, reckons with its own mid-life crisis, this debate over the perceived liability of age has been re-sparked.

The flames of this debate were further fanned after a 2017 interview with Complex, when André 3000, legendary rapper and the eclectic half of southern rap duo OutKast, shared his opinion on the relationship between hip-hop and aging.

“Rapping is like being a boxer. No matter how great you are or were at a certain time, the older you get, the slower you get. I don’t care who you are. And I can feel that coming on.”

This stigma against aging in music at large has long been documented and discussed, often targeted towards both others and oneself.

There was The Game’s ridicule of the rap legend Jay-Z on “It’s Okay (One Blood)”, off 2006’s Doctor’s Advocate, an ill-advised stanza that would come back to haunt The Game as he himself continued to rap into his late 30s.

“You thirty-eight and you still rapping? Ughhh / I’m 26, n****, so is the dubs”

Or there was Eminem own prediction of artistic decline and lack of hunger on “Soldier”, off 2002’s The Eminem Show, that acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy for subpar records like 2004’s Encore or 2017’s Revival.

“Full of controversy until I retire my jersey / ’Til the fire inside dies and expires at thirty”

While these songs further perpetuate the stigma, there is a kernel of truth to André’s statement. Hip-hop was birthed and shaped from a culture of storytelling, of competition, of raw passion — all traits that naturally stem from the intoxicating energy and angst of one’s teens and 20s. This type of unbridled fire and purpose has created hip-hop classics like 1994’s Illmatic from Nas and 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city from Kendrick Lamar.

However, to say that across the board a rapper gets unequivocally worse over time or runs out of topics to share is quite misguided. Just because some artists may have declined in quality as they have aged does not equate to a fact that there doesn’t exist a musically impactful place in hip-hop for those who are older. A musical arena like this is necessary for the growth of both the art form and the culture, indicated by some of the most insightful and exciting moments of the last decade.

These moments shocked and stopped the world with Eminem’s tearjerking apology to his mother after a lifelong and public tumultuous relationship on 2013’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (“Headlights”), Kanye West’s personal growth from fatherhood and mental illness on 2018’s Ye (“Violent Crimes”), and Missy Elliot’s celebration of two decades of creating innovative hip-hop songs and music videos while breaking antiquated gender norms on 2019’s Iconology EP (“Throw It Back”).

All of these projects were not necessarily the respective artists’ best work, but they showcased a maturity and perspective of artists who were in their 40s that would not have been possible earlier in their career due to the slow-moving personal changes that only come with the passage of time.

Two albums in particular during this time period stood out as definitive proof of why we need rappers to continue creating art well into middle and old age: 2015’s Compton by Dr. Dre and 2017’s 4:44 by Jay-Z.

On “Talking to My Diary”, the closer off Compton, roaring trumpets, pounding drums, and blisteringly fast orchestral strings are all elevated by an earth-shattering baseline to produce an epic and timeless backdrop fit only for the groundbreaking Dr. Dre. Taking the stage with his own rap swan song, he passionately recounts the 50-year personal, artistic, and professional journey that has molded the blueprint of hip-hop over the last three decades. This album was not as musically groundbreaking as 1992’s The Chronic or 1999’s 2001, but instead contained rare displays of emotion, self-actualization, and wisdom that had not fully come to fruition on Dr. Dre’s previous two albums.

On “Kill Jay Z”, the opener off 4:44, the violent horns, piercing drum beat, and haunting synths draw us into Jay-Z’s personal therapy session as he metaphorically destroys his public and personal ego. He self-criticizes his past violent behavior toward his own brother and musical enemies, his drug-dealing days and its negative effect on the lives of strangers, and his personal failures as a father and a husband. This soul-baring and self-reflective lyricism reached shockingly new depths for a rapper who was synonymous with swagger in his 20s and 30s. While his previous records like 1996’s Reasonable Doubt and 2001’s The Blueprint contained both emotional and inspiring gems, this was the first record of his where the entirety of the album’s ethos was centered around vulnerability and wisdom.

Projects like these make it so disappointing and baffling to see one of the greatest rappers of all time validate the ageism prevalent in hip-hop, especially since André 3000 himself has continually dropped some of the best verses of the decade well into his 40s — tracks like “Solo” off 2016’s Blonde from Frank Ocean, “Where’s The Catch?” off 2019’s Assume Form from James Blake, and “Come Home” off 2019’s Ventura from Anderson .Paak. With his guest features, André showcased inventive rhyme schemes, dense thematic elements, and thrilling vocal delivery while providing insight on shifting standards in hip-hop, the complexity of long-term depression, and the hidden volatility of middle-age romantic relationships. These mature and sage verses have left the hip-hop world clamoring for a solo album from the coveted MC.

If André 3000 does not want to release said album and instead desires to branch out from rapping to design shoes or start a cooking show, then that’s his prerogative and there is absolutely no problem with that. But the ubiquity of evidence just doesn’t match his claims, especially when André himself has helped build this evidence.

These artists — Eminem, Kanye West, Missy Elliot, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, and André 3000 — are prime examples that there is personal experience that comes from observing the musical landscape for multiple decades and priceless wisdom that comes from the long-winded trials and tribulations of marriage, parenthood, and adapting to the natural currents of time. These musicians in their 40s and 50s have the ability to pen songs that a rapper at 25 does not have the objective life experience to make. Like a fine wine, the music of an older generation can carry great nourishment for the listener, if supported with the right understanding of their unique and underrated platform.

In a 2017 interview with Dean Baquet for The New York Times, shortly after the release of 4:44, Jay-Z paints a very different and encouraging portrayal for the ripening of one’s soul in hip-hop.

“[Baquet]: Will you have the same adventures in your life? Will you have the same stuff to write about?

[Jay-Z]: I think that rap in particular is a young man’s sport, [and] that I’ll move out of that white-hot space. But rap is about the gift of discovery. To be the cool person in school you have to know the newest music, the newest dance moves, have the newest clothing on. So rap is based on that — what’s new…The white-hot space is when it’s fresh and new and it’s like this is the hottest song ever. I mean… I stood in that window [for] a really long time.

[Baquet]: You think you’re still in there?

[Jay-Z]: No, I don’t think people are looking to me as the thing.

[Baquet]: Is that hard to deal with it?

[Jay-Z]: No! At the end of the day, we are going to find out it’s not about the white-hot space, but it’s about finding the truth. [There is] that white-hot space people think is the biggest thing, but it’s really small. It’s almost like a trend. Would you rather be a trend or would you rather be Ralph Lauren? Would you rather be a trend or would you rather be forever?”

When we listen to these artists who are decades older and have been seasoned through the storms of life many times over, we are given the rare insight of how to live not just for today or tomorrow, but how to live forever. We discover how to define long-lasting success, what really matters for personal fulfillment, and where we can learn to steer the sails of our life. Only with this wisdom can we peer into this rare window of time and better shape the personal values that will determine our optimism, happiness, and purpose.

So maybe it’s about time to worship the old.

Photo Credit: Apple Music

--

--