Whose favorite rapper is older than 40? Please raise your hand. Alright, if you did, then odds are that you yourself are an elder statesmen in this rap game. Now this isn’t a diss or attack on you for being older. Trust me. Most people want to be able to get where you’re at. But the thing is, if you’re in this category, then you’re probably not contributing too much to modern rap’s economic hold on the music industry. Let’s face it, rap is a young man’s game.
Now before you start jumping down my throat with “No it isn’t! There’s Jay-Z, Eminem, Kanye West, Ludacris, Nas, Snoop Dogg–”, I’m going to stop you there. Each of these older rappers fit into a category that we will discuss later. But even with them, the argument still stands. The older you get in rap, the harder it is to stay relevant. Now within this argument, people will and try to bring up other genres and how artists can thrive in their genre at an older age but even with that, you would be going against your own, because this is rap; this is hip-hop and rappers age differently. Now let me explain why.
To do so, you have to go back to hip-hop’s origins. We know the Sugarhill Gang made the first big rap record and how it resonated with America’s pop culture at the time. In looking back at that record, you notice pop culture (what’s cool and what’s not) is dictated by the younger generation. This continues today. Before we jump ahead, let’s move to the “golden age” of hip-hop. Music that on the surface talks about sex, drugs, and parties. On a deeper level, of course, are rebel songs that stood for something. They were the musical embodiments of the counterculture. NWA and Public Enemy were on opposite sides of the country but both still spoke on this premise. Just like rebellious rock music before it. And who were the original people at the forefront of the counterculture you might ask? Young people. Specifically, teenagers who were angry at the world and fighting against it, twenty somethings who were trying to figure it all out. A new revolutionary genre that spoke to a generation. With it, a spark began that would later define the genre.
There was something polarizing about hip-hop. Some could argue it’s the violent and edgy streak much of its music has. Whatever it was back in the day, young people were the supporters of the hip-hop wave. Anyone 30 and up “just didn’t get it” and often demonized the genre, especially mainstream outlets like Fox News and NBC. They didn’t want the highly impressionable teens to be “corrupted” by these ruffians that were selling a lifestyle that would harm their families. In white America hip-hop music was seen as the worst of the worst – something to be feared by the parents. With all of it coming together to be popularized by white youth.
In black America, hip-hop was seen as a celebration of culture amongst the younger generation. Something they could resonate too. While resisted by legends of other popular black genres at time, hip-hop had already ingrained itself into society. Oddly enough, what helped solidify it was the tragic deaths of Biggie and Tupac, two young stars taken too soon. And as tragic as it was, the deaths saw a unification of the audiences.
After the ‘90s, the 2000s era of hip-hop and rap music brought the genre into more regular circles. Ultimately, it entered the homes of predominantly white households that had no connection to the stories of the ghetto. While still having controversial faces, the public had become more accepting. Hip-hop had gone full mainstream. Rappers got promo deals and commercials. Rock and pop legends even began embracing rappers. At some point, even normalizing a feature on one of their records for a single in the later part of the decade. The dangerous side of hip-hop became part of its marketing value. The idea of selling out became possible, which was great news for the genre (business wise), because labels and artists had a chance to make more money than they could before. Rap was finally on pop radio. And finally, rap became pop radio. It’s audiences grew younger and younger. In response, the stars had to be younger too. To make it big in rap, you had to be young, or at least you had to have the appearance of being young.
Moving forward to the 2010’s, the genre matured and evolved. The violent era of the ‘90s and early 2000s were basically over. Rappers were allowed to grow old physically but the ideas that were originally brought to the table were not. The fans of rap from “back in the day” were now older, more refined and in some ways, needed an evolution or growth from their artists. Some obliged, but in turn, lost the audience the genre thrived on. What teenager wants to hear about tax brackets, family struggle or alcoholism that isn’t being used to party? Very few. The younger audience would like to hear what they’re going through. And who can do that better than a younger artists? The audience want to see themselves through their stars or at least some representation of it.
The three biggest names in hip-hop today have found a niche in the younger market. J. Cole has resonated with the college crowd. The simple man’s plight that have to deal with love, drugs, and a life they aren’t necessarily ready for. He’s perfect for the kids who want to be on rap’s older radar but can still have something to sing along to. Drake has mastered the mainstream rap and R&B formula. Sometimes shallow but “deep” enough because there is something about that relates to broken hearts of people who don’t know what they have done wrong in a relationship. And of course, there is Kendrick, who has the modern hipster wrapped around his finger because of his artsy take on the mainstream level of the genre. Because only he could make a song about alcoholism and simultaneously make it catchy enough for drunk kids in the club to use it as an excuse to pour up and drank. All three rappers are all in their early 30s but have teenagers singing their hits.
Now back to those elder statesmen I was talking about earlier. Something that some have done better than others, is that they transitioned over to where their age helps them or they have something that makes seem younger. Eminem is the “best rapper” ever in some young suburban kid’s eyes. He will never be old, even if his music has regressed. He’ll always have an audience. Kanye hit the hearts of hipsters and people who love to think musical genius exceeds whatever is going on today. Ice Cube and Ludacris have transitioned to acting, being in a hit movie every now and then. Snoop Dogg has become the nation’s favorite uncle and has weed, the popular mainstream and illegal drug on his side. Last but not least, Jay-Z has Beyonce – there is no getting younger than that. Queen B will forever have the hearts of all masses.
They all have something that make them seem younger, relatable, or desirable by the audience that is fueled by memes, parties, or pop culture. As long as they do, they’re going to be forever young and the genre will thrive off it. Because you can obviously be old in rap. Once the listener gets older, their favorite rapper might become Jay-Z because they want something relatable to them. Plus, the CEO position will always be desired as another transitional part of hip-hop. The blueprint was laid down for them after all. But until then, the young will rule the elite of hip-hop and the crown is waiting for the next heir to be born.
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Featured image taken from DJ Booth