Where Are They Now?: Hip-Hop Learns How to Look Back in Anger (Management)

“When you’re four years into the game, we can have a conversation / Eight years in the game, I invite you on vacation / Ten years in the game, after I’ve enjoyed my fame / Only then I let you pick my brain”

— Nas, “Let There Be Light”

My saxophone teacher Ira Schulman once equated the maturity of his craft to the number of years he had practiced it, as opposed to the number of years he had lived. Meaning, after five years his playing resembled a child’s speech: simple sentences and a beginner’s grasp of paragraphs. After 15 years under the belt he thought like a teenager: complex, sometimes impetuous, ideas that could take narrative form. At the time of telling he had over 50 notches on the post, showing both wear and tear, as well as patience and discipline. Ira posed his theory to me not to lecture. Rather, sensing my frustration over some (literally) minor chord change, he told me this to put my mind at ease. He saw the questions on my face — When does an artist produce his “best” work? When would I be “good”? — and rephrased them as an acknowledgement: that the artist constantly faces a new set of challenges at each stage of development. As time keeps on slippin, slippin’, slippin’, the good artist doesn’t keep up with the Joneses so much as weather the changes.

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In 2006, recorded hip-hop music pushed the odometer closer to its first mid-life crisis — only three more years until the 30th anniversary of “King Tim III!” The development may not have been noticeable, considering most diagnostics of hip-hop’s health have echoed a similar song since hip-hop’s birth: another year of juvenile fixation and moral bankruptcy. According to this discourse, hip-hop was, is, and will always be about the kegerator. However, a number of statements within the mainstream suggested a more nuanced prognosis. Several veteran artists with more than ten active years in the business and whose ages roughly match hip-hop’s own took a long, hard (nullus) look at hip-hop and/or their self (which, arguably, could be seen as an extension of the culture). Though the resulting albums may not have been career, let alone genre bests, they were important steps towards maturing hip-hop’s critical discourse.

Admittedly, the statements were not as notable as the acts of reflection. For example, Jay-Z airing out his year-old, well-publicized business split on “Lost One” was hardly news. Yet the gravitas of his and Dr. Dre’s combined performance made the song one of Kingdom Come‘s more compelling tracks. For an artist of Jay-Z’s celebrity to spend a song — hell, a single — exploring his failed personal and business relationships was a considerable departure from “thug ’em, fuck ’em, love ’em, leave ’em”. Of course, Jay only pled partial guilt (“I know I’m guilty of it, too / But not like them”), but call it a baby step towards taking responsibility for one’s actions. Any self-preserving art needs to be able to look at where it’s at to assess where it needs to go.

More important, this (pardon) moment of clarity was not an isolated incident. Go ahead and call it a movement: even the rappers your parents recognize engaged in similar acts of navel-gazing. Snoop opened Tha Blue Carpet Treatment by wondering how to make his “negative records more intellectual”, while Ludacris closed Release Therapy with an open letter to God that explained, “Us rappers ain’t never had nothin’ / And one’s loss is another’s gain, so we got to grab something.” Of course, they still filled their albums with cameos by Nine Inch Dix and paeans to shaking your moneymaker, both familiar tropes that ensured club/radio rotation, spoke to audience expectations, and, well, were meant as simple entertainment. However, as if letting out a deep, collective sigh, both also styled lucidly about life choices and repercussions. On the nostaljack sunshine “Crazy”, Snoop paid guarded respect to his home on the block — “The streets will have you, guide you, lead you, mislead you, it’s fragile” — but revealed an optimism no doubt charmed by his good fortune: “Yeah, see you gradually grow.” Meanwhile, Ludacris enlisted hip-hop’s finest ex-cons Beanie Sigel, Pimp C, and C-Murder to offer cold warnings from the cell block on the keep-your-head-up-homie anthem “Do Your Time”. Although these rappers showed little remorse for youthful transgressions or regret for past mistakes, they all acknowledged the mid-career crossroads and recognized the need to age coolness with grace. Of course, varying degrees of nostalgia have existed since “Rapper’s Delight”, practically staking a place in hip-hop music for the grown man looking b(l)ackward. However, 2006 was notable for when so many highly visible artists stepped up to sharply criticize, yet still support, the culture; when’s the last time so many of your top five dead or alive had so much things to say?

So imagine my disappointment when outlets like the Associated Press bulked up its hip-hop coverage with meaningless headlines like: “For today’s rappers, it’s all about being young.” Pointing out the preponderance of artists named “Young” This/That, writer Brett Johnson declared hip-hop in ’06 to be strictly about the young’ns. Treating hip-hop like the sole orifice of pop culture sipping from the Kool Aid Fountain of Youth, he singled out the irony of hip-hop artists in their late ’20s, such as the 29-year old Young Jeezy, carrying the “Young” moniker. Seemingly forgetting that Jay-Z was not the first to register the idea, “30 is the new 20”, Johnson conveniently overlooked the distinguished lineage of icons who fronted forever young: Ben McKenzie, Luke Perry, and James Dean. Instead, he suggested a particular ageism in hip-hop, quoting Tamara Palmer who “recall[ed] an earlier time when rap names such as Grandmaster Flash or Grand Wizard Theodore often denoted age and wisdom.” “Now, people are caught up in projecting themselves as being youthful,” concluded Palmer. I would consider that observation if the premier Grandmaster of the West weren’t Bobby Fischer (who acquired said chess title at the sprite age of 15 and a half; which coincidentally happened around the time a pre-Flash Joseph Saddler may have been meditating on his first DJ rig while in utero) and Grand Wizard had less of a Klan connotation than a Merlin one.

Seriously, the AP piece was more of a letdown because it failed to equally recognize hip-hop’s developing awareness of history. For every Jibbs or Juc that shuffled hip-hop’s feet back to a pre-Antebellum daze, there was a Lyte and a T who donated relics to document hip-hop’s history in a Smithsonian permanent exhibition. VH1 presented its third installment of the Hip Hop Honors, notably paying tribute to the Godfather of hip-hop, Afrika Bambaataa. And Noz called it: my favorite new “trend” of rappers spitting over old school breaks and beats — let the kids brag about how they got it 4 cheap, I’m still amped over Ghost versioning “Know the Ledge” and Nas bragging he could make a double LP sampling “different parts of ‘Nautilus.'”

In a sense, hip-hop has always been mindful of the old school by having a built-in means of connecting past to present through sampling or direct quoting. Certainly, not every current head can cite each Biggie line that Jay quips or recognize all the Eric B & Rakim references in today’s hits, but isn’t there a comparable generation/information gap in every art form? Can every fan of Shepard Fairey articulate his connection to Siquieros, Soviet poster art, and the WWF? Better, should every purchaser of a “Vote for Pedro” shirt know the connection between Jared Hess, Wes Anderson, Francois Truffaut, and Alfred Hitchcock? Art seldom delivers its history from the pulpit. If anything, hip-hop can be seen as an exception to the rule for offering to make the connection so explicit at times.

So if hip-hop was vibrant and reflective this past year, why was my favorite statement Hip Hop Is Dead? Sure, the title to Nas’s eighth album was intentionally provocative and got everybody from Jeezy to ABCNews lathered up. And how timely was the thought? Turntable Lab duly noted, “Wasn’t that a Canal St. t-shirt like five years ago?” However, as Kelefa Sanneh pointed out in his New York Times review, the album made the divide between Nas and Young Jeezy, East and South, past and present apparent: “Nas is a formalist, obsessed with the way rappers put words together…. By contrast many younger rappers, including Young Jeezy, view hip-hop primarily as a culture, not a craft.” Emblematic of Nas’s things-ain’t-what-they-used-to-be frustration was “Where Are They Now?”, a shout-out fest to “misrepresented homies” of hip-hop over a prescient James Brown break, wherein he seethed, “Rap is like a ghost town, real mystic / Like these folks never existed.” While the song was meant to be a trip down memory lane for hip-hop lifers, it also marked an acknowledgement of hip-hop’s growing pains. With the fever pitch of ’80s nostalgia left in the dust and the ’90s revival steady knock, knock, knockin’, Hip Hop Is Dead attempted to create a space for hip-hop’s 30-plus, lest they go the way of some “rap pioneers [who] be them crackheads.”

Call 2006 the year hip-hop made clear its divisions. Many of the (noticeably critical) viewer comments in the aforementioned ABCNews feature echoed this sentiment, to which XXL Managing Editor Elliott Wilson summarily responded, “It’s causing us to have this debate. And that’s ok.” Of course hip-hop isn’t literally dead because rappers were “snubbed” from the Grammys, nor on account of a year of “artistic standards that hang low”, as the LA Times ruminated. Rap CD sales should hardly be the litmus either, considering sales across the board have only continued to dip. Instead, hip-hop finally conveyed that it can be so many things. Yes, it has always been so many different things. It’s from the Bronx — no, there were block parties in Brooklyn first! It celebrates the chain and codifies how to bling; then calls out conflict ice and criticizes your wedding ring. It’s music for dancing with skrippers in the club; as well as for sitting at home with the kids. It’s a party, it’s bullshit; or perhaps a riot, a revolution? The conversation has been a long time coming. So, looking back on this past year in hip-hop, I am reminded of Ira’s observation and wonder, “Maybe hip-hop is growing up?” Has hip-hop responded to the changes? Taken into account both its limitations and potentials?

Hold up a second, son, ‘cos we almost there.