On Friday, June 30th, Jay-Z is releasing his fourteenth studio album, 4:44. Before its announcement, mysterious signs with the numbers “4:44” were popping up all over New York, including a full screen ad in Times Square. From there, the speculation began and a hope was born among fans, old and new. Were we FINALLY getting another Jay-Z album? When it was confirmed that the 4:44 ads were in fact promotion for his album, there was a mixed response. Elation from his fans tempered by ambivalence or disinterest from the folks who don’t get down with Hova. And, with reason, a bit of nervousness hangs in the air. Those who love Hov have been disappointed with his recent releases and so are managing their (ok, fine, our) expectations appropriately.
With his album release announcement, there was something else that crept into the broader discussion, though. Unsurprisingly, the intolerance for older hip-hop heads creating, consuming, and taking up space in hip-hop made its appearance. It’s been questioned whether a father, a husband, and a rapper who is just a cup of coffee away from 50 has anything interesting to say.
Full disclosure: I am an old head. I am an old head and I like and do old head shit. I call things I like “dope”. I actually did let my tapes rock until my tapes popped – and I don’t say that as some cute little hip-hop colloquialism that’s seeped into the pop lexicon – I mean I literally sat on the floor, cross-legged, with a number two pencil repairing the tape that unravelled out of my Low End Theory cassette.
Facing the act of aging and your own mortality isn’t exactly fun, but I’m not bitter. I know who I am. I’m comfortable with my belief systems, my quirks, and with the fact that sometimes the music is just too damn loud at the venue. In the wisdom that has come with age, I’ve come to accept the simple fact that I don’t know shit.
I am comfortable with saying I do know at least one thing: that there is a problem in hip-hop. Hip-hop ain’t dead, but it does have a disease and that disease is ageism. Maybe that sounds melodramatic, but there is an issue with age in hip-hop that is unmistakably American and unmistakably hip-hop.
Hip-hop has always been wrapped up in youth culture; and as a genre and as a culture in and of itself, it’s still young. At roughly 40 years old, hip-hop’s fans and creators are still here. As the culture inevitably shifts to the younger generation, there is a noticeable disrespect and distaste for the old heads who are still out here head-nodding, wopping it out, and making sure to get home in time for Scandal. This is not to say that there aren’t salty vets who would rather see artists starve than shine because those vets certainly exist. We’ve seen older artists dismiss younger ones rather than taking them under their wings. And while that’s a worthy discussion, but I would rather explore the topic of age in hip-hop from the perspective of someone who is aging with it.
Ageism in hip-hop is especially problematic because we wind up throwing our artists away leaving them to fight to for scraps. Hip-hop has a preoccupation with glitter and gold, yet our aging MCs are lucky to get bronze. They’re left with the inability to headline shows (or even get top billing) while younger artists are selling out music venues coast to coast. And that’s great for the younger artists – rumble, young rapper, rumble. If aging artists consistently sell out venues overseas where the fans worship them, why do they only get the billing of an unnamed “special guest” here in hip-hop’s birthplace? Why isn’t there room for the coexistence of older and newer artists and their respective fan bases? While part of it is certainly the ever changing landscape of hip-hop and pop culture, and the ways in which we consume these cultures, part of it is us.
It’s been well over a decade since Hov told us he was transitioning from jerseys to crisp pairs of jeans and button ups. And since, he has transitioned to suits, ties and tuxes. Does that mean he doesn’t have something to say that’s worth listening to? I don’t think anyone wants or expects to hear Jay-Z talk about the dope game, but because he has transitioned from a business man, to “a business, man,” does that mean that he can’t still pick up a mic? Do we, as fans and lovers of this culture, believe that once someone grows up and does the things that most of us want to do (get married, have kids, attain financial stability) that they are supposed to lose their passion and stop doing what they love? Before the album drops, it is being declared a disappointment – not because we’ve been disappointed by him before (we have) – but because somewhere in the fine print of some elusive hip-hop bible, anyone over 30 is considered too old to kick it.
Why is it that Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones can still sell out stadium tours, but we won’t even give an older MC a chance? If 4:44 is a dud, I can see how money, fame, and eating well could be the cause of a weak showing. But not his age. Because when I look at the last projects from the likes of Masta Ace, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, I see grown-up artists doing grown up shit and still making incredible music.
A lot of the anti-old head rhetoric doesn’t necessarily come from a place of malice, but from a place of ignorance – young heads are encouraged to ignore history. While writers will read Hughes and Hemingway and filmmakers will force themselves to sit through Citizen Kane in dedication to their craft, hip-hop artists are being told (by fans, by other artists, and media figures) that history doesn’t matter.
No one expects you to kick up your feet and listen to “THESE. ARE. THE BREAAAKS!”. I’d be surprised to find other old heads regularly listening to that in 2017, truthfully. But not going back to understand your roots and why those roots mean something to others ends with no respect for those roots. Our creators and originators are left out in the cold without the recognition they deserve. Without a doubt this is an industry problem, but it’s also an artist problem (considering the growing number of rappers comfortable with publicly dissing the old school), and it’s most definitely a fan problem.
I’m left confused when younger heads are eager to push the more mature fans up to the rafters by saying we need to “let that old boom bap shit go” or to stop referencing “real” hip-hop. Why is it a bad thing to love and celebrate what came before you and what raised, formed, clothed and fed you? Does the culture mean less to you than it does to us? Is that why it’s so easy for you to be on to the next one every time something new drops?
Do me a favor. Go call your mom and tell her she should stop listening to Aretha because Beyonce’s running the world. Go call your dad and tell him to stop listening to Marvin or Hendrix or Bruce. Are you lucky enough to have your abuelitos around? Go tell them that they should let that Hector Lavoe and Tito Puente shit go because Justin Beiber’s “Despacito” is “the perfect verse over a tight beat”. Let me know how that goes.