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Hip-hop till you drop

A maturing enthusiast wonders, how well will the youth-charged movement age? Grown-up raps by the likes of Jay-Z may offer a clue.

March 14, 2004|Todd Boyd | Special to The Times

There is a point in all our lives when we are forced to confront the inevitable: We're getting old. For me that moment came last year while I was being interviewed about my book "The New H.N.I.C." A young reporter asked me how someone "your age" felt so comfortable discussing hip-hop, a culture that he and many others automatically perceive to be very much about youth. What did he mean, "your age"? Unaccustomed to such age profiling, I was momentarily taken aback at being seen as a hip-hop senior citizen.

I quickly asked him how old he was when Kurtis Blow dropped "Christmas Rappin' " back in 1979. He responded by saying that he was only a toddling 2 years old at the time. I was 15 back then, and like John Kerry telling the new jack John Edwards that he'd been fighting in Vietnam while Edwards was still in diapers, I had to school this young man. From age 15 forward I watched hip-hop grow up, as I supposedly did the same. Considering that Russell Simmons, the cultural pioneer responsible for putting hip-hop on the map, is older than I am, I felt I had every right to claim allegiance as a card-carrying member of the hip-hop nation, despite what some misguided youngster might have to say. Didn't hip-hop teach him to respect his elders?

After dropping my faux sense of outrage, though, I had to admit that I had been thrown an Andy Pettitte curveball. Quietly I wondered, was the reporter right?

As I sit here staring 40 in the face, I feel like I might be facing a hip-hop midlife crisis. How does one grow old gracefully in hip-hop? Truth be told, I'd rather talk about hip-hop's aging than my own, and since I have watched hip-hop from its infancy, I've been thinking about the relevant and parallel question: How does a culture like hip-hop, so invested in its youth, experience its own aging process?

I have pondered this question while listening repeatedly to Jay-Z's "The Black Album," the brilliant opus that, according to Jay, is to be his last. Jay-Z, who has often compared his career to that of Michael Jordan, insists that he is retiring, but as with Jordan, something says he'll be back before too long. Let's hope so; the game needs you, Jay. And we old heads do too, because maturity, the way you play it, is a gift. It's like something Miles Davis once said: "You have to play a long time before you can play like yourself."

Time and talent have kept Jay-Z several steps ahead of his hip-hop brethren. His concise, matter-of-fact oral tomes have always been more sophisticated than those of most rappers. It is here that Jay-Z, in his words, "gets his grown man on."

Many people may know him from radio singles like "Big Pimpin" or "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," but his mastery is buried in the less commercial tracks on his many albums. Jay acknowledges the economic theory behind such a dichotomy in "Moment of Clarity" from "The Black Album" when he says, "I dumb down for my audience/ to double my dollars/ they criticize me for it/ but they all yell holla."

Naive hip-hop heads may detest what they see as Jay's crass materialism, but I have always seen this side of him as an indication of his maturity in the game and the practicality of his mission. He is an artist who realizes that if it don't make dollars, it don't make sense. Even though he's been "retired" for only a few months now, Jay-Z, the self-described "Black Warren Buffett," maintains his penchant for "gettin' money." He's an investor in a group that recently purchased the New Jersey Nets with plans to relocate the team to Jay-Z's beloved Brooklyn.

Jay-Z's posture has always lent itself to adult listening in that he feels less and less of a need to live by some unwritten hip-hop code that expects one to pose hard just for the sake of posing. Instead, he relishes the opportunity to distance himself from his younger colleagues. Years ago, he told his fellow rappers, "As you thumb through the Source, I read the Robb Report," openly rejecting the hip-hop bible of that time, the Source, in favor of the George Soros-like wealth on display in the Robb Report, one of the few places where you can buy a used Gulfstream jet, should your needs ever run in that direction.

As one who's more likely to be reading the New Yorker and Vanity Fair than hip-hop magazines these days, I can't argue with that.

One of the most important issues in hip-hop has always been style, particularly the defiant sense of identity inherent in hip-hop style. It was one of the clearest indicators of hip-hop's rejection of the mainstream. So it would make sense that style would be an issue pointing up its drift into middle age as well. Here again, Jay-Z is at the forefront of change.

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