In the world of entertainment there is nothing more important than connecting with the youth. As corny as that sounds it’s the young and young-at-heart that push entertainment forward. It’s why Hollywood will take a chance on an unproven YA book franchise or a TV movie like Disney Channel’s Descendants 2 will get 8.6 million viewers on its first run. But as much as tweens and teenagers influence film and television it is most obvious when it comes to music. Since the beginning of modern pop music it has been the teenage fads that determine where music goes. Young women were able to turn appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show into full blown Beatlemania. Before he was big Michael Jackson performed the moonwalk on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever and captured the imaginations of everyone from suburban youths to a teenage Corey Feldman. Kids have a massive impact on music and it is probably most obvious in hip hop. It can also make growing up as a fan of hip hop super weird.
While I can’t say I have been a fan since day but rap has been one of the biggest musical influences of my life. I have vivid memories of seeing Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin but a G Thang” video on MTV while at a childhood friend’s house pretending I cared about LEGOs. For a kid living in the suburbs seeing this party in the middle of Compton was game changing. As I got older and other music would become my focus (such as punk rock and those regrettable nu-metal years) hip hop would always be around. The biggest rappers in the game becoming more than men and becoming gods to me. By the time I discovered mixtapes on Datpiff the culture had become one of the most prominent things in my life. Artists like TI, Kanye West and Nas would provide my life a soundtrack filled with 808s and turntables. Then the inevitable happened, I grew up.
Slowly but surely I started to fall behind on who was coming up and who was falling off. The XXL Freshman cover went from something to examine to rappers I didn’t know. Then came the day I was dreading, discovering an artist when everyone else did. As silly as it sounds it sincerely bothered me. I’m not going to claim I was the biggest hip hop head but I was able to keep up on who was popping. I used to love cruising mixtape websites to find the next big thing. Suddenly names would crop up with tons of praise and I had never heard of them. I was officially washed. Given I knew I wouldn’t stay young forever. Still it bummed me out and looking to my musical heroes did not help.
Growing Up and the Old Guy in the Club
With hip hop as young as it is fans haven’t had much time to actually see rappers age. It hasn’t been like country where you can see Johnny Cash go from young rogue to religious singer and finally the haunting covers that define his twilight years. In fact pioneers like Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc and Fab Five Freddy are barely entering their 60’s. For the most part older rappers have quietly retired or fade into obscurity. Even rarer is for a major artist to age gracefully.
It’s easy to make jokes nowadays LL Cool J and Nelly the two were massive artists in their day. LL Cool J was a pioneer in hip hop and Nelly is one of the most successful rap acts of all time. Yet as the art form evolved and I grew up they didn’t. Classic LL had the ability to shorten careers with his rhymes but times have changed. He seems more comfortable hosting award shows and his flow feels downright archaic on recent releases. And while Nelly could be as charismatic as ever was ill-conceived collaborations with country artists and pop stars like Miley Cyrus would come off as desperate. Essentially the two would become the equivalent of being the old guy in the club and it put the fear of God in me. I had to wonder, is that who I am by still listening to hip hop? I mean I was out of school and officially began a career but I still loved listening to Three 6 Mafia and Young Jeezy, not exactly the most mature listening choices. It wasn’t until Eminem came out of seclusion in 2009 that I really stopped worrying.
Slim Shady, T.I.P. and Growing Up
Like a lot of people my age I was a huge fan of Eminem. Coming to prominence at the perfect time his pop-culture skewering, shock rock antics appealed to a generation of suburban teens looking for ways to rebel. But like the rest of us he got older and those very same antics would become cringeworthy the older he got. Despite being one of the best rappers of all time his childish horrorcore tendencies on Encore and Relapse began to appeal to me less and less. Then something surprising happened, Slim Shady grew up.
In 2010 Eminem released Recovery and his style was totally different. Given he wasn’t the first rapper to get introspective but it is rare to see it from such a huge artist. With his seventh album Em delves into his struggles with addiction, the death of hype man Proof and his struggles in hip hop. I know a lot of fans weren’t into it but I found it comforting. Even if I couldn’t relate it was nice to hear one of my favorite rappers move away from his silly Slim Shady persona and talk about real issues. He wasn’t the only rapper to mature either.
For the longest time TI was best known for early trap music and being the self-declared King of the South. Then, after one of the best run of albums in hip hop history, he was facing U.S. federal weapons charges. With incarceration in the horizon the southern rapper put out Paper Trail, an album more about redemption than slinging dope. Tracks like “Ready for Whatever” and “No Matter What” were perfect as I hit my mid-20’s and was trying to get my life straight. Again I hardly know what getting locked up on weapons charges could be like but it helped put my life in perspective. Now both Eminem and TI would eventually go back to what they were best known for which is fine. In all honesty, both artists are so good at rapping that even when Shady in “Rap God” mode or TI is talking about the trap I will still dig it. But as I started to leave my 20’s I saw the light. Not only is it possible to age within the hip hop culture but it could be done with dignity.
Hov, Nas and Legacy
While they may not have been the first two rappers I discovered there have been few rappers on my radar the way Jay Z and Nas have been. With his boundless charisma and mastery of flow Jay Z is everything I expect out of a “mainstream rapper.” Right next to him is Jay’s ex-rival Nas. One of the most talented rappers of all time he represented what “real hip hop” is meant to be. The kind of MC that favored bars and storytelling above all else. Whether it was Nas releasing “Hate Me Now” right before my angst-ridden high school years to Jay releasing The Black Album before I graduated from high school these two New York MC’s always seemed to put out something perfect for where my life as heading. And it was no different as I approached 30 and was finally starting to grow up.
In mid-2012 Nas dropped his most mature album to date, Life Is Good. Reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear” it addresses aging, marriage and his divorce from singer Kelis. Given marriage and divorce were the farthest thing from my mind. Heck, I was barely had any lasting relationships at the time. Still, with songs like “Daughters” were encouraging. It went a long way in showing me that one of my favorite artists was not only human but struggled with mat1uring himself. I found it to be oddly inspiring. Here was a man who I considered a god in the booth, who put out some of my favorite tracks of all time and he wasn’t perfect. Just a man who struggled like the rest of us. The man who said on Illmatic that “Life’s A Bitch” was now happy and content with everything. I know how silly it sounds but if Nas had issues and he could come out on top, why couldn’t I?
More recently we saw Jay Z go a similar route in his music. Like Eminem, Hov has always felt untouchable. If not because of his lyrical superiority then because of his amazing business acumen and notorious privacy. He has had an air of royalty surrounding him since I was a teenager and it only grew with each passing year. Then, after years of rumors and controversy, he put out 4:44. Starting with the song “Kill Jay Z” we finally hear the man Shawn Carter discuss his life. Sure we got glimpses of him on tracks like “Song Cry” but this is the first real glimpse we get at the man not the persona. He not only wasn’t the invincible god he portrayed himself as but he was talking about things I think are important now that I’m an adult. The main event may have been his marriage to Beyoncé but that’s not what resonated with me. Issues like intergenerational dynamics within hip hop, race in America and legacy are issues not only covered by on my mind with more frequency as I age. He looks back at mistakes he has made in his life and looks at it with a critical eye. More importantly it taught me that yes, it is okay to grow up. There is such thing as grown ass rap. You don’t have to try to keep up with the kids or follow the latest rap trends. It’s okay to age gracefully and still have a passion for the genre. Not only is it okay to enjoy the music but there is a place in the culture for me as I get older.
Fade To Black
When I started I wasn’t sure where I was going and I’m sure it shows in my rambling. More than anything else it started as a vessel to make Nelly jokes. But as I wrote this piece I came to realize how much hip hop meant to me. Yeah I’m passionate about it and it’s my favorite music genre but I saw how much of an impact it has made. How despite being an Asian-American stuck in suburbia rap was always there for me. Whether it was to analyze, to inspire, or just something to be entertained by. It has been here throughout my life and now I realize it will be here as I get older.