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Hip-Hop's 30-and-over age barrier is slowly eroding

Trey Alston

 // Apr 16, 2018

Music Promotion / @rapgamejordan // Instagram

On Drake's 2016 cut "Weston Road Flows" from his album VIEWS, Toronto's champion makes a bold assertion about his future: "The most successful rapper 35 and under / I'm assuming everybody's 35 and under / That's when I plan to retire, man / It's already funded," he spits out in a matter-of-fact tone, subconsciously begging for an audible gasp to escape listeners' lips. But, then again, maybe he's just softening the blow for when he reaches that tender senescence. In 2012, he first made mention of that specific age in an interview with i-D, saying "…There are artists who are 35 and up that still make rap and that still works for them. I don't know if I want to be that guy."

To say that Drake's unnecessarily smug about his position as rap's tastemaker is borderline balderdash. Aging is scary, especially in a music industry that froths at the mouth for younger, cleaner faces. It's even scarier in hip-hop where the newest lyrical and aesthetic prodigies come in younger packages every year. Lil Bow Wow was a spectacle in 2000 when he released his debut album at the age of 13. Nowadays, 12-year-old rappers get profiled by music publications like it's nothing. Being 35 in today's game could be a daunting task, one that requires accepting one's place and circumventing the trappings that it presents.

Or, hear me out, maybe there's a movement going on; subtly, but surely. Yes, there's a surplus of "lil's" that are primarily in their early-to-late teens but, if you're looking at the true pushers of rap culture in the mainstream, their ages are much closer to that transfixing age that Drake's name-dropped twice. He might even have a calendar on his kitchen wall, Sharpie in hand, every morning placing an "X" angrily as he counts down the days until his 35th birthday.

No one's making bold assertions to let this verity be known, but it looks like hip-hop's dismissal of all things 30+ is slowly going away. The "old" rappers are the tastemakers, gatekeepers, and mediators that protect the culture while citizens sleep. Young rappers reach out to the 30+ guys and release songs like it's no big deal. The public seemingly capes for the older crowd to keep going, while the new guys receive some of the same support, if to a somewhat lesser degree.

Historically, rap's always been about harnessing the power of the fountain of youth. Nas was 20 when he released Illmatic, one of hip-hop's most well-received albums in its young lifespan; he began recording it at 17. Mobb Deep's hellish cut "Shook Ones Part II" painted a chthonic portrait of livelihood in the streets, released before they were 21 years old. Lauryn Hill gifted the world her beautiful debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill when she was 23. Squeezing every drop of juvenescence from the youth's bones has been instrumental in forming the culture that we now hold in such high regard.

There's also a more despondent aspect to consider. When the light of the youth gets extinguished, their works become even more legendary based on the age that they were created. Tupac Shakur is widely considered one of the biggest, most influential, rappers of all time and he died at the tender age of 25. The Notorious B.I.G. roused millions with his undeniable swagger and top-notch delivery, dying in the same way as Tupac at only 24 years old. Big L, a cult-favorite who died quickly, and violently, was cut down at only 26. The collective presence that the trio had belied their young age; it warped the expectations of aspiring rappers. If those guys could do it at such a young age, it would be the standard.

That mindset permeated the culture to its very roots. Throughout the 2000s, rap was a young man's game; many of the biggest moments of the decade—Lil Wayne's The Carter 3 going platinum in its first week, Kanye West's vocal lambasting of President George Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina—belonged to the sub-30 crowd. On a music front, the youngsters were pushing the culture forward. They were also creating the responses necessary for activist purposes. Even now, newcomers like Tay K and YBN Nahmir command a ton of attention even though they're just now able to legally obtain a license. But instead of commanding all of it, the importance has been equally shifted between the fresh and seasoned.

Drake came into the game fresh from his work as a lead character on Degrassi: The Next Generation. He departed the series at 21 years old, eager to make a name for himself in the rap industry. He encapsulated the youthful exuberance the culture so desperately coveted; he would go from a blip on the public's radar to encompassing it when he released his debut album Thank Me Later in 2010 at only 23 years old. By 2013, he was more than just a popular, youthful symbol of hope; he was rap's premier tastemaker who happened to be under thirty years old.

It's only been eight years since Thank Me Later came out, but in hip-hop time, that's decades. We've seen empires rise and fall along with the crown of relevancy shifting in a perpetual frenzied state. One thing remains the same; Drake's level of importance. It's arguable that it's actually increased since he crossed the thirty-threshold, with him dropping culturally significant music that utilizes worldly sounds and themes of empowerment to metaphysically embrace as many cultures as he sees fit. Ten years ago, this show of understanding would have been deemed insincere, corny even. But today, in the changing climate that seemingly embraces the grizzled, Drake seems to be gaming the system, using current mainstream fixations as his means of remaining youthful and timely. If he was thinking about retiring at 35 to focus on other endeavors, he certainly doesn't have to for hip-hop's sake.

Nicki Minaj just released two fiery new singles "Chun-Li" and "Barbie Tingz" at 35, and she's never been more culturally significant than she is now. She may be locked in a mainstream-conjured "beef" with newcomer (and dark reflection of her own character) Cardi B, but if any concerns about her ability to generate conversation existed prior to her Beats 1 Interview with Zane that aired last week (April 12), they can be extinguished immediately. For the better part of a decade, Nicki's been the premier voice of women's hip-hop, with her ludicrous style and aesthetic instantly carving a lane for her in a competitive land of talented femcees. She single-handedly changed the public's perception of the term "Barbie" and crafted a narrative of hard work, versus the commonly believed theme of utilizing sexual intercourse for career gains, bringing her all of the success that she garnered.

Cardi B's only 25 years old, but she's been gunning for the spotlight, vying to remove Nicki's throne. It's not out of a place of negativity; as in men's rap, being the best is what anyone should go for. Whereas with men, the conversation becomes lost because of competition coming from all over the place, for women's rap, it runs through Nicki Minaj, ten years her senior. Cardi released Invasion of Privacy at the height of her relevancy. Possibly due to rumblings of an actual beef between the two, Nicki released two lightning-charged singles, possibly directed towards Cardi, two days later. Almost immediately, Cardi's moment was subsumed from her; Nicki became the center of conversation, even after all of these years.

2 Chainz first splashed into conversation as Tity Boi of Atlanta duo Playaz Circle. While he was on the cusp of 30 when their infamous hit "Duffle Bag Boyz" came out in 2006, he still managed to generate interest because he was a new face in the room. He disappeared and reinvented himself, releasing his first solo studio album Based on a T.R.U. Story in 2012 at 35 years old. Still technically generating, yet again, initial conversation with his name change and first album, age seemingly didn't matter. Even now, four projects later and no end in sight, 2 Chainz pushes the argument for rapping at forty years old and still having it, fifty even. In a promo clip for his last studio album Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, friend and frequent collaborator Drake told him, "You're one of my favorite rappers of all-time, I say that proudly."

A brief statement such as that may offer an indicator of what's keeping the 30+ rap crowd alive and kicking, while also increasing their relevancy: they support each other. Not that camaraderie didn't exist in hip-hop up until this point, it's just that the current landscape, with its digital advances like social media that dictate so much of the culture, has created opportunities for everyone to succeed, regardless of age or importance. When one has the spotlight, everyone has it. It's like a gigantic chain with links in unimaginable places. When someone tugs at Drake's chain, Nicki's chain and 2 Chainz's move accordingly; he regularly shouts them out in interviews and performances, as they do to him. DJ Khaled, at 42 years old, commands a ton of attention no matter where he goes thanks in part to his adorable son Asahd, but also because of his curating skills to create impeccable club hits. He recently released "Top Back," a fiery top-down anthem featuring Future (34), Beyonce (36), and JAY-Z, a whopping 48 years old. They're all connected in their age bracket, all demand a certain audience's attention, and are all relevant because of it. Together, their chains link accordingly.

The changing technological landscape may have something to do with the age barrier seemingly eroding, but one has to speculate about the future that it will create. Like rock stars, will rappers be able to release new music until they want to retire, with no societal pressure to ease off the microphone? Rapper Too $hort revealed in his recent interview with No Jumper that he's still creating new music and that he's not a purveyor of the divide between the old and new school. At 50 years old, will this be seen as a shock or a welcome evolution of the current rap landscape?

In 2015, Young Thug, then-23, spoke to GQ about age in hip-hop. "If you're 30, 40 years old, you're not getting listened to by minors," he said. He later used JAY-Z as a reference point. "By the time I turn that old, I ain't gonna be doing what he's doing." Only three years old, the interview is antiquated in mindset and in actuality; the age gap has seemingly been eliminated thanks to cultural relevancy through digital means. Young Thug may not want to rap at 30, but, by all means he will be able to.

Historically, rappers have been all ages and have been able to release critically acclaimed projects, but may not have generated the conversation that's possible today. We live in a time of ageless superstars that age like wine, not like milk. Because of this, the 30+ barrier is seemingly eroding, and, with that, hip-hop is rightfully growing into adulthood.

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