At age 47, Jay-Z is regarded as one of hip-hop’s preeminent 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 fifty years old as a genre.
Calling a 47-year-old man an elder statesman seems absurd outside of 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 that “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 in regard to 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. As they approach 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 trend setting 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 was 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 preeminent 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 thirty, forty or fifty years.