El-P is a longtime rapper-producer-former label head whose new album is… (Timothy Saccenti )
Few would have imagined that one of the most powerful and acclaimed protest songs of the year, "Reagan," would be about the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, name-check Oliver North and feature the final words, "I'm glad Reagan's dead."
Decades old geopolitical scandals aren't exactly hot topics among the Facebook generation. Even fewer would have predicted that the song would arrive via a 37-year-old Atlanta rapper called Killer Mike who'd been through the major label system a decade earlier but had since virtually vanished from the national hip-hop conversation while the next generation staked its claim. But now his mature, inventive new album, "R.A.P. Music," released by the Adult Swim network's Williams Street imprint, has propelled him from the dungeon to the mainstream.
That sort of thing seldom happens in hip-hop, which in its 30-plus-year history has placed a higher value on youthful energy than aged wisdom. In a genre that Public Enemy's Chuck D accurately described as "the black CNN," most of the innovation has come from cub reporters in their teens and 20s; few have been the MCs who have jumped into consciousness after hitting 35. There's a reason why more rappers have monikers beginning with the slang "Lil" (Wayne, Kim, Boosie, Bow Wow, B and Debbie) than there are Ol' Dirty Bastards.
But this year, a number of the best albums, tracks and verses have come from seasoned yet lesser-known rappers such as Mike "Killer Mike" Render, whose "R.A.P. Music" shows an artist hitting his stride. That it was produced by longtime rapper-producer-former label head El-P, also 37, is notable. El-P's new album, "Cancer 4 Cure," reveals a talented musician also hitting an artistic milestone 10 years after his classic solo debut "Fantastic Damage" created buzz in the indie-rap underground and 15 years after he co-created the rap group Company Flow. (The two perform together at the Echoplex on Thursday night.)
The now ubiquitous rapper 2 Chainz, 35, burst onto the same hip-hop charts that eluded him when he was 28 and his name was Tity Boi (then again, maybe it was the name . . .). The 35-year-old Pusha T's recent work with Kanye West (35) has matured in ways that few would have expected when his career stalled after releasing "Hell Hath No Fury" as a 29-year-old co-founder of the Clipse. Add in the highly anticipated new album by respected veteran Nas, 38, whose recent tracks sound more energetic and vital than anything he's done in a decade, and hip-hop's relationship with age seems to be evolving along with the music.
If history is any guide, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Jazz turned 30 around the time that Miles Davis and John Coltrane started pushing it in new, post-bop directions. Each was then in his 20s, but both kept expanding the definition of the music as they grew older. Davis, in fact, released some of his most controversial and innovative music after he hit 40 in 1966. In a January 1968 interview with writer Arthur Taylor, Davis, then 41, expressed frustration with the state of jazz as it and he were hitting middle age.
"[All] those records they make nowadays … the guys copy off the records, so they don't have anything original," said Davis. "You can't find a musician who plays anything different. They all copy off each other. If I were starting out again, I wouldn't listen to records. I very seldom listen to jazz records, because they all do the same thing."
This was around the time he began fusing funk, rock and jazz to create some of his most polarizing and adventurous music. Coltrane died at age 40, a year after releasing the cosmic free-jazz masterpiece "Ascension," prompting one to wonder where his music would have traveled had he lived another few decades.
Yes, there are outliers, the most obvious beingJay-Z, who at 43 is the most popular and successful rapper in the world. That he's at his pinnacle of fame is commendable, but the same can't be said for his sense of artistic adventure — especially considering that at the same age, Davis released "Bitches Brew" and blew a lot of fans' minds. It's hard to imagine Jay-Z doing the same this year.
Snoop Dogg has also somehow remained relevant at age 40, but he's accomplished that not by pushing at hip-hop's boundaries but by adapting to the music's evolutionary advances. Raucous party rapper E-40 is as popular as ever at age 44, but mostly because he remains on message — girls, weed, drink, riding — and has built a virtually indestructible sound. The murders of superstars Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls in the '90s are doubly tragic when you contemplate the musical advances never made.
In this context, the recent (completely unsubstantiated) rumor involving Kanye West making a record consisting entirely of sounds drawn from animals can only be encouraging for those advocates of the genre's evolution (even if it's an aesthetically dubious proposition).