'Grown Man' Rappers Like Jay-Z or Common Are Mature Only in the Absence of Immaturity

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There are problems with this BBC piece. For one, it approaches hip-hop as if it's an artifact and not a living and breathing entity.


It does nothing to place Conzo's story in a modern-day context. But more than that, the piece isn't as much about hip-hop growing up as growing old. Hip-hop is deep in its third decade of existence. It spans generations. But to suggest that it's grown up in this time is to assume a maturing that hasn't exactly happened.

Sure, a small handful of artists have managed to mature creatively, (Scarface immediately leaps to mind) but most rap artists who are heralded as "mature" are simply miming growth. "Grown man" rappers like Jay-Z or Common are only mature in the absence of immaturity. They are acclaimed for what they don't rap about—namely drugs and violence (the new "off that" mentality only reinforces the culture's widening generational rift).


They still make superficial music; they've just swapped out street signifiers for more "respectable" but equally vapid pursuits—business, high fashion, etc.

Jay-Z brags endlessly about texts from President Barack Obama, but he never discusses the content of said messages, let alone seriously consider a health care plan. Jay is Tom Hanks in Big, flopping around awkwardly in a new suit. And the grand irony is that these gestures are mostly wasted. Hip-hop is and forever will be youth music, regardless of how many aging rappers do or do not end up on Oprah's couch. The only people who expect maturity from it are outsiders, those who were never involved in the first place, or those who have grown so far from hip-hop that they no longer need it.

And yes, hip-hop is still a culture, but as soon as it expanded beyond the Bronx it ceased to be a monolithic. Every major American city had their own take on the Sugar Hill/Kool Herc formulas. As these local scenes have continued to mutate, many of them have grown unrecognizable to even the most ardent of true school hip-hop heads.

Gucci Mane might seem like gibberish (or even destructive) to a fortysomething KRS-One devotee from the South Bronx, but Mane means as much to many 17-year-old ATLiens as KRS did to New Yorkers twenty years ago.  It all comes from the same place: poor kids partying. Hip-hop thrives as a response to poverty. In recent years so much money has come into New York City that it doesn't necessarily need a hip-hop scene. But New Orleans does; Oakland does; Detroit does. It's a shame that the BBC is devoting their efforts to retelling the well-canonized tale of hip-hop in the Bronx instead of bringing light to these still bubbling hip-hop communities throughout the country and the world. Not all scenes are fortunate enough to have a Joe Conzo documenting from the inside.


Andrew Nosnitsky runs a dynamite blog . He also contributes to NPR and the Washington Post.

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