Does Nas's New Album Prove That Life Is Good For Older Rappers?
Something weird is going on in rap music; older rappers are as lost as Mitt Romney in a Dollar Tree. In a game dominated by the young, there doesn't seem to be much place for men of a certain age talking about clubs, bottles of alcohol and selling drugs, and the resulting soul-searching has yielded some alarming results. Busta Rhymes signed to Young (Young!) Money to rap alongside guys like Lil Chuckee and Tyga. Mobb Deep engaged in some Twitter war where homophobic slurs were exchanged and phantom lost cell phones were to blame. Pete Rock and Lord Finesse are suing and beefing with rappers for using samples they originally used decades ago. Meanwhile, Drake and his peers are laughing at rap's senior citizens ("talking about these other rappers getting old is even getting old," he raps on Meek Mill's "Amen").
While the most sustainable way for rappers to maintain an edge into middle age has been to fill every song with lyrics about how soft and vapid today's whippersnappers are (most masterfully accomplished in Heltah Skeltah's 2008 anti-pop gem D.I.R.T. if you listen to it and don't want to smack a high school kid, then you're part of the problem), being overly didactic about the golden era alienates younger listeners and gets tiring even for the most staunch old-school enthusiast. There's a fine line between being a throwback act who's critical of today's microwavable hits and who becomes one of the finger-waving old uncles hip-hop was built partially to rebel against. Ice T's anti-Soulja Boy videos and KRS-One's quizzical battle with Nelly came off as more of the ladder than anything.
So what exactly does an elder statesman do to stay fresh, relevant and entertaining in today's hip-hop market? The 39-year-old Nas may have the answer.
Life Is Good (Def Jam) may have ushered in an era of hip-hop for grown-ups. Sure, people are going to point to the wedding dress on the cover and the previously leaked "Bye Baby" and see only an attempt to air out dirty laundry, but there's so much more to digest. Nas's latest project is rap for married or divorced men with bills and children, and not that many MCs can stake a claim to that type of endeavor. Phonte's near-classic Charity Starts At Home and Common's The Dreamer/The Believer (which was unfortunately overshadowed by his not-so-grown-up tiff with Drake) focused on manhood and the real responsibilities that brings. But Nas, whose most recent attempts to push hip-hop's boundaries (Hip-Hop Is Dead and his untitled 2007 album) came off more forced than creatively influenced, has found his footing rapping about a few basic truths: the '90s were awesome, and being a family man can be the most emotionally draining task anyone has to go through.