Last week saw Shawn Carter, p/k/a Jay-Z turn 40-years-old. As has been pointed out, Jay isn’t the first relevant rapper to reach that age, but he is most definitely the most relevant. Other rappers have been successful in turning the “new 30″ quietly, under the radar. Some of my peers feel rappers should retire well before their 40th born day. I’d venture to state that Hov’s birthday last week is one of the most significant events to happen in the short history of the Hip Hop culture.
Back in the day, when it all began, Hip Hop was by design, exclusively youth music. Created by urban kids unfortunate to be living in ghetto conditions, but creative and brilliant enough to create something out of nothing, rhyming over cuts and scratches, two turntables and a microphone, the oldest rapper was probably no more than 25 years old. Feeling like the glammed up R&B singer or the disco queens from that era and before weren’t addressing them, kids throughout the 5 boroughs relished in finding a brand new culture that was solely theirs. Because they were an ignored group, Hip Hop attacked all that came before it. R&B became soft, and anything old school instantly became played out. Melle Mel was replaced by Run-DMC was boxed out by KRS-One and so forth. Hip Hop’s need for acceptance and survival existed on skills and of course, always being fresh to death. Back then, there was no room for rappers that were “old”.
Time passed, we all grew with it, and our favorite rappers got older. Not by much though, 30 became the new 20. Icons like LL Cool J (an underrated legend of whom I’ll be dropping a post here, and soon) pushed the envelope in how old a rapper should, could be. 5 years deep in the game and already considered an O.G. as being the hardcore teen idol from the mid 1980′s, James Todd Smith mushed back the Grim Reaper and came back from the rapper graveyard with his classic of an album “Momma Said Knock You Out” in 1990. Trust that the climate for L wasn’t kind to him. Newer, fresher and deffer rappers like Ice Cube, Public Enemy and EPMD were on the scene and fans had already discarded the Queens rapper. He was boo’d at public appearances just for standing on the same stage with the newer cats. Still, digging deep and teaming up with producer Marley Marl. “Momma Said Knock You Out” silenced all the haters, for how dope it was, for how young LL sounded in his “old age”, brand new. A perfect mix of hardcore, street and radio friendly tunes had the effect of extending L’s career. He did the impossible and became the first rapper that we allowed to get older, well into his 30′s, uniting new teenage fans to sing along with their older hip hop parents who’d been old school fans of L since the ’80′s, together at concert shows, the first true highly relevant rapper afforded the opportunity to break through the age barrier.
Still, it was never easy for L, younger cats so ready to knock the then king from his spot, cats like Jay-Z, always laying to battle behind the scenes, and off camera. Funny thing is how Jay and LL are close to being the same age, difference being that L had the opportunity to rise as a star years before Jay even thought he could do it. After 10 years as one of hip hop’s top shelf acts, L battled his last major “beef” in 1997, against the brilliant upstart Canibus, over that “4,3,2,1″ joint. Canibus almost won that too, but L was the people’s champ, the public’s favorite, and Mr. Smith lived to drop more albums. Still, although youthful, L’s career was not immortal. Over the years, even after continuing in his rap career, L finally faded into the background, the fans no longer wanting to hold onto a thirty something year old emcee.
Crazy thing about the artform is how the fan have become that much more difficult to define. Still a youthful music, fans have now grown into their 30′s, 40′s, some even into their 50′s. Generations have grown up with rap music. Me and my 12-year-old argue all day about whose the best Wayne, Biggie or Jay. And though the need for the new is still in effect, the culture has matured to a point where older rappers have been allowed to age gracefully. Like rock and roll allows for it’s aged rockers like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, rap got to a point where it might could be ready for the older rapper.
Not taking anything away from the other 40-something-year-old rappers, Raekwon’s (41) “OB4CL2″ was far better and more brand new sounding than Jay-Z’s “Blueprint 3″. Still Jay-Z has become hip hop’s first “official” 40 year old INTERNATIONAL superstar. The most relevant rapper in the world just brought us all more time to enjoy our music, our culture, our rap heroes. Rap has become a bit less dispensible because of the phenomena that is Jay-Z. We won’t be forever young, but on December 4th, Mr. Carter added that much value to our rap shelf life. Maybe as we continue to grow they’ll be a relevant rapper pushing the rap Grim Reaper back to sparing rappers beyond 45, maybe even 50 years old. This thing of ours HAS to mean more than what its been for us. Hip Hop cannot continue to feast on the bodies of the old as America continues to eat its young. Too many young cats out here dying senselessly don’t mean our art, our language, our music and our heroes gotta die a young death too.
So yes, a happy belated birthday to Shawn Carter, the 40-year-old rapper. Giving us more time to appreciate the value of all of our elder rappers. Brand new ain’t always the best. Some of the finest things on the planet are that, solely because they got better with age, with time. Regardless whether you are a fan or never liked him, Jay-Z just added more value to this thing of ours. Jigga just brought us all more time on this rap shit. That right there is big. Good looking on that big homie. Salutes.