It took 47 years for Jay-Z to take his mask off. On his newly released 13th studio album, 4:44, he speaks to us as Shawn Corey Carter instead of Jay-Z for the first time. He speaks to us as a father and a husband. He speaks to us about the guilt, fear and regret he has surrounding his mistakes. The impenetrable mystique that has been attached to his persona since the inception of his career is gone.
The project’s opening track, “Kill Jay-Z,” masterfully sets the stage for a new perspective from the Brooklyn, N.Y., legend as he comes to terms with some of the most highly publicized controversies of his life. The project’s title track is one of his most heart-wrenching, personal records to date, as he confirms the rumors of his infidelity and pours his heart out over a mournful Hannah Williams sample.
At age 47, Jay-Z is regarded as one of hip-hop’s pre-eminent elder statesmen. His longevity is applaudable. He has maintained the attention of the masses, dominated conversation with release after release and given us groundbreaking hip-hop albums that span three separate decades, even as hip-hop has yet to turn 50 years old as a genre.
Calling a 47-year-old man an elder statesman seems absurd outside the realm of hip-hop. Why is 47 considered so “old” within hip-hop, when some rock bands have been touring for longer than Jay-Z has been alive?
Rock is another genre of music with a huge influence on popular culture, to the point where “rock star” has become widely accepted as the definitive descriptor of a larger-than-life celebrity. Rock is also a few decades older than hip-hop. Its legends have been given more time to push boundaries, and its fans have been given more opportunity to set precedents regarding how to treat its elder statesmen.
The difference in age between the two genres is telling. The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith were established in 1962 and 1970 respectively. As they exceed 50 and 40 years of existence respectively, they continue to tour worldwide and gain more fans. And remember, the Stones’ lead singer, Mick Jagger, is 73 years old.
What factors push many rappers out of the limelight as they approach the age of 40? This cultural trend is fueled in part by the pressure that is consistently placed on hip-hop culture to be the benchmark for what’s considered “cool.” Hip-hop has always had a huge impact on pop culture. “The cool” changes more quickly than ever these days, and A&Rs are constantly on the hunt for the Lil Yachtys, 21 Savages, Playboi Cartis and Kodak Blacks who will dominate the teenage demographic.
Hip-hop is also the most hypercompetitive genre of music. In recent years, we’ve seen the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Drake jockeying for position to be crowned hip-hop’s current “king.” It’s not enough just to be popular. Hip-hop culture demands that its biggest artists prove themselves to be the best of their time. Those high-profile feuds only last so long, until another crop of superstars emerges, hungry and ready to fight for the crown.
What would happen if we didn’t pressure rappers to retire as they approach the age of 40? What would happen if hip-hop culture didn’t lose interest in a majority of its superstars once they stepped away from the trendsetting and hypercompetitive constraints of the culture? We don’t really know yet.
Exceptions to the rule such as Jay-Z are far and few in between. They shouldn’t be. If Jay-Z is still creating groundbreaking work and redefining the narrative of his artistry at the age of 47, imagine how much more of an impact he could have with 20, 30 or 40 more years in the game. Imagine how much hip-hop would grow if Jay-Z’s longevity were viewed as normal instead of exceptional. There’s room for young trendsetters and veteran perspectives within the culture.
Hip-hop, a genre that was founded in the 1970s, is still growing up, evolving and shifting. It’s exciting and unpredictable. Refraining from pushing pre-eminent talents out of the limelight as they approach middle age will allow the genre to continue its maturation. Younger artists should take note as the genre’s pioneers explore the possibilities and newfound freedoms that come with careers that could end up spanning 30, 40 or 50 years.
So many hip-hop legends died young—2pac, the Notorious B.I.G., Big Pun, Big L and J. Dilla, just to name a few. We mourn their untimely passings. We reflect on their short-lived legacies. We wonder what we could have learned from them if they hadn’t left this earth so quickly.
Thankfully, we have the opportunity to continue to learn from a number of living legends. We simply need to allow them the space to continue building upon their legacy without forcing them to fit into the confines of what 18- to 25-year-olds think is “cool.” When we allow our legends to take their masks off as they age, we give them space to continue building their legacy.