Welcome To Rap’s Well-Connected Old-Man Era
It used to be a truism: Rap fans are fickle. Rap fans don’t take care of their elder statesmen. Rap fans are only after what’s new. Once upon a time, you couldn’t read an interview with, say, Run-D.M.C. without seeing some sort of complaint about how rock fans will keep going to see the Rolling Stones in stadiums forever while rap fans ignore anyone who hasn’t made a hit in the past few weeks. That’s probably still true to some extent; it’s why old-school types react to the Lil Uzi Verts of the world with such horror. But now rap has been around long enough to spin off into multiple generation gaps. And these days, age is basically no impediment to a successful rap career. We’re seeing middle-aged rappers staying relevant and continuing to make hits, and that feels like a new thing. On Friday, the newly-renamed-for-some-reason 47-year-old JAY-Z will release the new album 4:44, making him the oldest rapper ever to release an event-rap album. And he has peers.
Consider: DJ Khaled (age: 41), who scored his first-ever #1 single earlier this year and who released his baroque, overstuffed all-star album Grateful last week. As I’ve previously written, Khaled is more of an event-planner and a meme-generator than a musician, which probably makes things a bit easier. (On average, the four vocalists on “I’m The One,” the ones really responsible for the song’s success, are just under 27.) Still, more than a decade after he was a Miami radio personality and a producer in the Terror Squad stable, Khaled is thriving. It’s too bad his album sucks.
As a singles artist, there’s nothing wrong with Khaled; big tracks like “I’m The One” and “Wild Thoughts” are bubbly, effervescent summertime stuff, and they still sound good coming out of car radios. But in album-form, Khaled seems to think he has something to say to the world, and he just doesn’t. He never has. Khaled’s albums have always been extensions of the official-mixtape compilations that Funkmaster Flex and DJ Clue were releasing in the late ’90s, and those were always defanged, samples-cleared versions of the actual mixtapes that existed back then. But Khaled’s new Grateful is generations removed from that, and it’s shot through with a sense of self-importance. Khaled now has a unifying concept behind this whole thing, and that’s that he’s a dad now. Which means we get to hear him bellowing stuff like “Asahd! My son! I love you!” during track intros. Chance The Rapper seems incapable of fucking up these days, but Khaled pushes that to its limit with “I Love You So Much,” in which Chance and Khaled take turns yelling over gospel choirs about how much they love their kids.
There are a few signs of Khaled’s age on Grateful; only a middle-aged man, for instance, would think it was a good idea to team up a 43-year-old Nas with Travis Scott on “It’s Secured.” But whatever old-head sensibilities Khaled might have also give us some of the album’s more charming moments. There’s more life, for instance, in the back-to-back Pusha T/Jadakiss and Fat Joe/Raekwon deep cuts than in all the Migos/Kodak Black/21 Savage tracks that inevitably show up on the album. Still, Khaled is a mercenary hit-chaser, and that’s all he’ll ever be. Two years from now, he’ll probably still have the juice to get Justin Bieber and Quavo and Chance — or whoever their two-years-from-now equivalents are — on the same song, which means he’ll probably keep making hits.
For my money, it’s a little more interesting to see what happens when these old guys stop chasing hits and instead use their connections to keep making music for their own cults. Consider the case of MC Eiht (age: 50), who helped establish the sound of early-’90s West Coast hardcore rap, first as a member of Compton’s Most Wanted and then as a solo artist. On his new album Which Way Iz West, coming out on Friday and streaming now at NPR, Eiht teams up with DJ Premier (age: 51), the Texas-native genius whose icy, precise production helped establish the sound of early-’90s East Coast hardcore rap, both as a member of Gang Starr and as a freelance beatmaker. It’s a strange combination, one that nobody could’ve really predicted even if Premier did turn in a great remix of the Compton’s Most Wanted track “Def Wish II” in 1992. Eiht is nowhere near his peak these days, which is one thing that separates him from his old Compton nemesis DJ Quik, who is still doing incredible work. Premier isn’t anywhere near his peak, either, for that matter. But together, the two of them play to their respective bases and make a comfortable, comforting version of what made them famous in the first place.
Eiht doesn’t have the bloodthirsty charisma that got him cast in Menace II Society way back when, but he still has that big-chested, Cali-accented voice, and he still brings a weary authority to everything he says. And Premier doesn’t have that otherworldly ability to make something hard enough to sever your brainstem everytime he touches a turntable, but he still brings his amazing timing to his laser-focused scratch solos; on Which Way Iz West, he even does that on songs that he didn’t produce. The guests are old peers from that same bygone generation, and most of them — Kurupt, WC, Big Mike, Xzibit — still sound pretty good. One of them is the Lady Of Rage, who sounds amazing, like someone who could come back whenever she feels like it. And toward the end of the album, Eiht reunites Compton’s Most Wanted for one feelgood track. Whatever once divided all the people involved in this album — intra-group feuds, coastal beefs, geography — no longer feels relevant. These guys know that they’re not at their best, and they know they won’t make any hits from this. But they also know that they still have things to say, and that they have an audience who will want to listen.
Something similar happens on Boomiverse, the new one from Big Boi (age: 42), with the crucial distinctions that Big Boi was making relevant music pretty recently and that Big Boi has always been a much better rapper, with a wider comfort zone, than MC Eiht. Within the context of OutKast, the conventional wisdom about Big Boi always was always that he was a relatively conservative, earthbound voice, there to balance out André 3000’s astral excesses. That started to die when people — at least when they were being honest with themselves — admitted that Big Boi’s half of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was crispier and sillier and more fun and generally better than the muddled and pretentious mess that André was offering. And that talk ended more or less for good, I think, when Big Boi released his 2010 late-career masterpiece Sir Lucious Left Foot. But that album also started getting Big Boi booked on the rock-festival circuit, and his last couple of projects — the 2012 album Vicious Lies And Dangerous Rumors and the 2015 collaborative EP with Phantogram — have pushed him a little too far in the direction of catering directly to that side of his audience. That, thankfully, is over. Big Boi is still making fun and accessible music, but he’s not in pander mode anymore.
Boomiverse, which came out on Friday, is no Sir Lucious Left Foot, but it’s very much in that mode. Big Boi isn’t a nostalgic rapper, but there’s a crispy, playful assurance to his plastic-funk sound. And on Boomiverse, he leans into it, letting his flow trip all over itself and locking in with bright, gleaming beats. Even when Maroon 5’s Adam Levine shows up on the single, it seems like he’s there mostly because he’s a fan, and old comrade Sleepy Brown still does as much of the heavy lifting. The other guests are, for the most part, Big Boi’s fellow old-man peers — Snoop Dogg, Jeezy, Gucci Mane, Kurupt again — or they’re guys like Curren$y, who almost seem ready to join that tier. Killer Mike, Big Boi’s old once-estranged protege, shows up for three songs, and it’s glorious to hear the two of them together. It’s also great to hear Big Boi taking some inspiration from Mike’s group Run The Jewels. It’s not that anything on Boomiverse sounds like RTJ; it absolutely doesn’t. But Mike has managed to find crazy levels of late-career success by finding the aesthetic that works for him and doing the hell out of it. And on Boomiverse, that’s what Big Boi does, too. Boomiverse isn’t going to be a huge deal, and it really shouldn’t be a huge deal. But it’s a relentlessly fun major-label album from a guy who, in a previous rap era, probably wouldn’t be able to keep making major-label albums.
There is, of course, another way for an older rapper to stay relevant, but it’s a tricky one. You can start rapping better than you ever have before at a relatively late age. That one never happens, but it’s happening with 2 Chainz (age: 39). I don’t understand it. Nobody understands it. In his youth, when he wasn’t playing college basketball or selling drugs, 2 Chainz was really just another rap guy. Within Ludacris’ Disturbing Tha Peace crew, 2 Chainz was somewhere below Shawnna and Field Mob on the totem pole. As a member of the duo Playaz Circle, he only ever made one hit, and even though that one hit (“Duffle Bag Boy”) was truly great, it was mostly great because of an atonally sung Lil Wayne hook. 2 Chainz was a rap striver; he took everything seriously. But somehow, that stopped, and he became great. Around the time he stopped calling himself Tity Boi, 2 Chainz made the Codeine Cowboy mixtape and the breakthrough single “Spend It.” And he figured out a way to ride goofy dad-jokes and his own insanely self-assured charisma to something undeniable. That new phase of his career probably peaked with the world-conquering guest verse on Kanye West’s “Mercy” in 2012, but it’s still strong on the new Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, which might be the best full-length that the man has ever released.
Funny thing about Pretty Girls Like Trap Music: It’s not really trap music, at least in the way we’ve come to understand it. 2 Chainz doesn’t rely on synth-sirens and broken-sprinkler hi-hats. Instead, the album’s tracks are calm, serene, and very often pretty. There are quiet piano melodies and contemplative flute-sounds and eerie music-box chimes. “Poor Fool,” like Mike Will Made-It’s “Perfect Pint” and French Montana’s “Unforgettable,” serves as evidence that Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee is better at singing tingling, ethereal hooks than he’s ever been at rapping. And when the beat from old 2 Chainz nemesis T.I.’s classic “ASAP” shows up toward the end of “Trap Check,” it makes the rest of the song’s stark, ominous simplicity stand out even more.
This is a gorgeous, sophisticated musical backdrop, but 2 Chainz is still 2 Chainz over it. He still makes jokey threats that don’t sound even remotely threatening: “I used to pitch, you should see my wind up / Nigga, fuck with me, ain’t no telling where you wind up,” “Six guns, eight knives / Potato on the barrel of it, make you niggas hate fries.” He still comes up with complicated, joyous, ebullient ways to boast about his own consumption: “Used to have a killer crossover / Now I think I done crossed over / White fans at my rap shows / So many chains on I give you the cold shoulder,” “It’s all love, positive vibes / Walking through the airport on crocodile slides.” And there’s a lot of joy to be had just in hearing which ridiculous words he decides to emphasize; you should hear the way he yells the phrase “crocodile slides.” He does all this without ever attempting to pass himself off as a younger man. Here’s my favorite line on the album: “My car don’t have car keys / My crib got palm trees / Pussy smell like sardines / You need to get up of my lawn please.” You need to get up off his lawn please.
1. Metro Boomin – “No Complaints” (Feat. Offset & Drake)
Another gorgeous, melodic haze-cloud from the best young rap producer currently working. And when was the last time you heard a song where the Drake verse sounded like an afterthought? Offset can do that right now. Offset can do a lot.
2. Dizzee Rascal – “Space”
When hectic, cluttered grime sonics come back into vogue, grime’s original star returns by rapping over an icy, minimal synth-track that sounds like it could’ve come out of Atlanta. And since he’s rapping with such vein-popping intensity, nobody even acts like he’s doing something weird.
3. GoldLink – “Crew (Remix)” (Feat. Gucci Mane, Brent Faiyaz, & Shy Glizzy)
DC monster Glizzy and honorary DC citizen Gucci jump on the biggest rap anthem that DC has produced in years. And because it’s a slow, hazy, gorgeous track, their energy brings a fun new element to a track that was already plenty fun.
4. Z-Ro – “He’s Not Done”
This Houston underground legend is getting ready to release what he’s calling his final album, and now he’s letting us know why he’s planning on walking away: “I know y’all wonder why a nigga wanna retire: I can’t stand this shit.” Also: “I am Michael Jordan / I’ll retire, come back, and retire again for the fuck of it.” A howl of frustration from a fading rapper is one thing. A howl of frustration from a rapper who hasn’t faded at all, who still sounds like a leviathan, is something else entirely.
5. Bones – “Sean Paul Was Never There To Gimme The Light” (Feat. Danny Brown)
Danny Brown’s frantic intensity always gains a whole new dimension when it’s contrasted with a dark, slow creep like this. Bones is a lo-fi Michigan underground rap depressive hero, an endlessly prolific Yung Lean type, who’s been at this for years; in retrospect, it’s almost surprising that it took these two this long to team up.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
lol i'd never checked out LMFAO's full discography before pic.twitter.com/ghLCvJNbR9
— thomas violence (@thomas_violence) June 26, 2017