“Eminem? Jay-Z? They’re a combined 92 years old! Does their music even matter?” Yes, it does. Rap’s never been this great and this old before.





2017’s two most commercially successful and critically judged rap albums are assuredly going to come from Jay-Z, via June-released 4:44, and Eminem, with his December 15-releasing, ninth studio album, Revival. As hip-hop culture prepares to enter its 45th year, it’s possibly shocking to note that artists who are as old as Kool Herc’s DJ set at Bronx, NY address 1520 Sedgwick Avenue on August 11, 1973 (Jay-Z is 47 and Eminem is 45) could be at the vanguard of the genre. However, it’s astoundingly 19-year old pop rapper Lil Yachty who has the best perspective on how and why this turn of events has come to pass. As he told Hypebeast in August 2017, “[Now], you can do anything at any age, and we have it all at our finger tips. It’s amazing, it’s like the best thing ever.” In reflecting on what Yachty said, the idea that, maybe being a commercially and culturally viable personality in rap music is no longer intrinsically tethered to being between the ages of 18–40, is an evolution worth discussing.

Reasons why one should believe that hip-hop cultural excellence is a gift that’s only reserved for the young are many. Firstly, Biggie and 2Pac died at 24 and 25 years old, respectively. Also significant are facts like Will Smith released his last album at 37, and his children Jaden and Willow are currently a combined total 36 years of age. Last, but certainly not least, Cardi B, Chance the Rapper, and Lil Uzi Vert are under 25.

Prior to a year where Jay-Z could win Grammy’s Album of the Year and Eminem could release a series of flyover state and #RESIST anthems, hip-hop’s most significant cultural icons were never allowed to age while maintaining pop relevance within the culture. Kanye is currently living through his Pablo-esque surrealist mid-life crisis at the age of 40. Apple employed, legendary, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted 52-year old billionaire Dr. Dre will still occasionally get grilled by the general public as to the release date for Detox.

Whether by invocation of some “27 Club”-esque rule or because, as Moby once told me, “22-year olds are always going to make great records and the most interesting culture,” there’s ample reason to believe that the idea that two rappers with a combined 92 years of age between them releasing rap’s albums of the year is a thing that should not be.

How then, is this happening?





The most significant thing to note about being well past 40 and making dope rap records is that the context into which your creativity is considered could heighten. The expectation for success if this occurs involves recordings having to successfully shift in tone to discover creative comfort when being judged by an advanced critical paradigm. If this occurs, the payoff comes in almost immediately achieving a more iconic level of success.

Songs made by young/younger artists just trend in teeny bopper and early adult bottle popper nightclubs, and the top of Billboard charts. Comparatively, the hubbub surrounding both Shawn Carter and Marshall Mathers’ more old age-aware 2017 output is a mind-blower when contemplating the breath and depth of the artists’ impressively dynamic socio-cultural reach.

  • Jay-Z matured from “big pimpin’ and spendin’ cheese” with then Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash to discussing how his marital infidelities and subsequent psychological therapy sessions with 61-year old New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet.
  • As far as Eminem, he’s matured from being “interesting,” and “the best thing since wrestling” to being quite possibly the most ardent Midwestern and “red state”-representing voice in opposition to the chicanery surrounding the United States Presidential administration of 71-year old Donald Trump. As The Daily Beast notes, “Em has thrown himself into the center of the national dialogue on race, Donald Trump and white supremacy.”

Jay-Z has advanced to the status of being a wizened sage. Thus, he is not rapping as he once did. Rather, he has become a preacher of the gospel that we should all — as a unified, and nearly five decade old hip-hop adoring body politic — generally be able to be intelligent enough to be “smart enough to know better.” On 4:44 this idea is prevalent enough in the album’s narrative for CNBC to report that on 4:44’s brilliant “The Story of O.J.” that, “the rapper bemoans rising real estate values in his home city, calling out one of Brooklyn’s trendiest neighborhoods and saying, ‘I could have bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo for like $2 million. That same building today is worth $25 million. And guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo.’” As well, they note that Jay “touches on return on investment — he earned on artwork he purchased years ago for $1 million that is now worth $8 million — and underlines the importance of a buy-and-hold strategy.”

Also, in a manner meant to invoke the — and I’ll coin this phrase here — Lauryn Hill doctrine of “adding a motherfucker so the ignant niggas hear me,” Jay also states in “The Story of O.J.” that “You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit. You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it.” The Atlantic was right to note that “it’s beneath Carter, a writer and artist of astonishing ability and sophistication,” to recall “the anti-Semitic canard that Jews maintain financial control of everything you see.” But, as related to the “Lauryn Hill doctrine” outlined in the previously linked Fugees’ track “Zealots,” in Decoded, Jay-Z notes regarding prior claims regarding his possible anti-Semitism that, “when I use lines like this, I count on people knowing who I am and my intentions, knowing that I’m not anti-Semitic or racist, even when I use stereotypes in my rhymes.”




Regarding Eminem, he’s recently premiered “Walk On Water,” a duet with intriguingly enough, Jay-Z’s wife Beyonce, as his lead-in single to Revival’s release. As Billboard notes, the track’s lyrical content offers something more refined and world-aware from the 45 year old and twice-divorced father of three, (including an adult Haile Jade Scott Mathers, who is now 21). “[r]ather than knife his way through the track with his brash, animalistic delivery, Em enters a reflective state and addresses his insecurities regarding fame and his current standing in hip-hop.” This includes Em saying that he’s “not a God,”and “a beautiful mess.” Moreover, he alludes to having gotten rid of the bleached blonde hair associated with his caustic career as a younger emcee, and also notes that he might one day “fall” from the “heights” of his career.

Unlike Jay-Z, whose success has afforded him an opulent, white collar and high class semi-retired rap life that very few men in the universe could ever achieve, Eminem is in a different situation. Jay is largely above any critical commentary. However, Eminem, by virtue of his blue collar and impoverished upbringing is old, yet still hustling for approval. Thus, he is likely, because he’s “too old to be doing this,” more critically approachable. Though the lyrics to “Walk On Water” may note that he may not believe it, Eminem’s indeed a Jesus-like “Rap God” who can walk among the “scribes and Pharisees” and be subject to their derision.

This critical concern makes itself even more apparent in an Uproxx report that notes, “Em is going back to the drawing board to reassess the release of his what will be his ninth solo album. The first step in that process appears to be be distancing himself from ‘Walk On Water,’ the album’s supposed lead single with Beyonce, as Eminem has stopped promoting the song as his lead single. The track debuted at #14 this week on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart, a high debut for sure, but a disappointing one on the heels of Beyonce’s first musical appearance since Lemonade, an SNL performance, and a massive rollout.”

By virtue of being a white person, Eminem can’t “add a (metaphorical) motherfucker so the ignant niggas — and yes, this extends to ignorant people of all racial extractions who love hip-hop culture — hear him.” So, his “smart enough to know better” campaign has had a tougher road to navigate insofar as hip-hop fanatics who are entrenched within the culture. However, when it comes to those who are — and yes, after 50 years there are those who are — newly accepting of hip-hop having a place in their existences, it’s a different story. Eminem, because his age allows him to have established pop (meaning, beyond initially hip-hop specific) cultural resonance, stands to gain much in the way of support of the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, Democratic and Facebook adoring anti-Trump #resistance. To that end, somewhere between his instantaneously iconic and Trump-lambasting BET Awards freestyle and Revival’s “new” lead single “Untouchable” which literally starts “black boy black boy, we ain’t gonna lie to you / black boy black boy, we don’t like the sight of you,” the change in tone aligns well with a demographic in line with his age and the nation’s anger best collide for commercial success.




Speaking directly to the aforementioned point, The FADER noted that Eminem’s BET freestyle was “red meat for #TheResistance,” but also noted that, “the rap itself…is bad.” Via their own advertising site, The FADER lists its core demographic as being an 18–34 year old male college attender (note, not necessarily a graduate) earning $40,000 year. In the same FADER piece, it was written that Keith Olbermann, host of GQ’s “The Resistance,” tweeted, “After 27 years of doubts about rap I am now a fan. Best political writing of the year, period. 👏👏👏👏👏 #Eminem2020.” Keith Olbermann is a 58-year old male college graduate, who in 2011 was rumored to be earning $10 million a year on Al Gore’s Current TV. Clearly, numbers and words never lie.


On January 28, 2018, it’s more than entirely possible that 47-year old rapper Jay-Z will make a clean sweep of the Grammy Awards for Song (“4:44”), Record (“The Story of O.J.”), and Album (4:44) of the Year. As well, if there’s any justice, we’ll probably get a performance by Eminem of “Untouchable,” too. In the crowd, marveling at how the depth and scope of expectations for excellence have shifted in hip-hop will be rappers who are half these artists age who will be suddenly confronted with the fact that they now have twice as much to learn about how to succeed and sustain within the genre. Lil Yachty’s right. Because of their age-driven maturity, Jay and Em have everyone from the New York Times to President Trump within a fingertip’s reach, and have likely created 2017’s best and most important rap albums, respectively.

Maybe it’s true that youth is wasted on the young?



The 20 Best Hip-Hop Album-Openers of the Last 20 Years




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Brad Callas

rapper never waits until track 3 or 4 to pull you in; hip-hop has no patience for that. They only get one chance to make a first impression, and the album’s opening song is their moment to shine. In order to rank the 20 greatest album-openers of the past 20 years, we’ll measure their importance by focusing on four things.

  • Did it serve as a cultural explosion? (NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton”) — The track single-handedly created a new hip-hop subgenre (Gangsta Rap), as a group of South Central-bred rappers blew the doors off of the music industry.
  • Did it kickstart a rapper’s career? (Nas’ “NY State of Mind”) — The song is the ultimate portrayal of mid-’90s New York, seen through the eyes of a then-20 year-old growing up in the gang-infested environment of the Queensbridge projects. The track introduced us to Nas, an MC who embodied Slick Rick’s masterful story-telling and Rakim’s lyricism.
  • Does it encapsulate and set the stage for the rapper’s style? (Dr. Dre’s “Fuck Wit Dre Day”) — The epic opener off Dre’s debut, The Chronic, introduced the world to G-Funk; a sound that would serve as the blueprint for every West Coast rapper, while its influence reached as far as the East Coast.
  • Does it exist as a time-capsule for where the rapper was at that point of their career? (2Pac’s “Ambitionz Az a Ridah”) — The dark, yet triumphant opener to 2Pac’s post-prison release, All Eyez on Me, was the beginning of an ensuing march toward his tragic death; as the murder ballad birthed the Death Row era-2Pac.

With these parameters set, here are the 20 greatest album-openers of the last 20 years.




20. J. Cole “Too Deep For the Intro” (2010)

Album: Friday Night Lights

Months after blowing up with his 2009 mixtape, The Warm Up, J. Cole signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. Throughout 2010, his peers (Drake, Wale, B.o.B, Kid Cudi) released their debut albums, while Cole’s was hung up by numerous delays. Since the label didn’t think it would sell, Cole decided to re-package the songs into a free mixtape. It became Friday Night Lights. The project was J. Cole at his hungriest, intent on proving he was worthy of his newfound buzz. The album-opener was perfect, with Cole displaying his slick flow over an Erykah Badu sample. It’s frustrating that industry politics prevented this collection of songs from finding their home on an album, especially since his studio debut (2011’s Cole World) paled in comparison. It doesn’t matter, though; the majority of Cole-heads can live comfortable knowing that Friday Night Lights, backed by its first track, was the project that catapulted the rapper into hip-hop’s upper echelon.

19. Lil’ Wayne “Get Em” (2006)

Album: Dedication 2

Dedication 2 put hip-hop on notice — Lil’ Wayne was the best-rapper-alive. Wayne didn’t waste time to engage listeners, using the tape’s first track to display his unprecedented machine-gun flow. On “Get Em”, he is cold, calculated, and precise as ever; spitting like a pit bull in attack mode. Over the next two years he would ascend up the ranks with Da Drought 3 and Tha Carter III, but Dedication 2 is the moment an entire genre was forced to pay attention.

18. Dr. Dre “The Watcher” (1999)

Album: 2001

Nine years after he steered the genre into a new era with The Chronic, Dr. Dre re-surfaced. Much had changed in his absence, while much remained the same. On 2001’s opening track, Dr. Dre takes stock over the landscape, with the former King appearing displeased with the rap game he was forced to watch from atop his throne; a place that was re-affirmed on “The Watcher.”

17. Eminem “White America” (2002)

Album: The Eminem Show

By 2002, Eminem had usurped Jay-Z as the best rapper alive following the enormous success of his first two albums. His popularity brought with it a vicious assault against him — some from the highest levels of American government. The attempts to censor Eminem were based on the fear of his influence on American children and came mostly from white, suburban people who had not paid attention to rap before. This song was part of Eminem’s response to the bitter controversy, Congressional hearing and censorship his lyrics caused when they hit the mainstream White American audience.

16. Jay-Z “Intro/A Million And One Questions/Rhyme No More” (1997)

Album: In My Lifetime, Vol. 1

After kicking off his debut by letting us into his life as a hustler on “Can’t Knock the Hustle”, Jay-Z took a different approach on his follow-up. At the time, he was too famous to concern himself with the day-to-day aspect of slinging rock on the corner; he was too busy charting yachts and laying waste to the competition. Over two different DJ Premier beats, Jay-Z began his second project further solidifying his place in hip-hop’s pecking order.




15. Lil’ Wayne “The Mobb” (2005)

Album: Tha Carter II

Wayne waited until track seven of Tha Carter II to call himself “the best rapper alive”, but the seeds were planted on the album’s first track. Over a soulful instrumental, Weezy F Baby spends four minutes showcasing his unprecedented flow; one that was as unmatched as it was unique. In retrospect, it was the beginning of a five-year reign in which Lil’ Wayne was atop hip-hop’s throne, too far above his peers to warrant any recognition.

14. Drake “Over My Dead Body” (2011)

Album: Take Care

Drake’s debut album, Thank Me Later, sold, yet many hip-hop heads felt he lacked credibility. That all changed on Take Care. On the album’s opening track he took the doubters head on; belittling himself for four minutes while the anti-Drake camp took notice. Sure, he isn’t the most lyrical, we knew that. But when it comes to numbers and status, Drake was already head-and-shoulders above the competition.

13. Kendrick Lamar “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” (2012)

Album: good kid, m.A.A.d. city

Fittingly, the greatest story-teller of his generation used the the first track on his debut album to set the stage for a transcendent career. Within seconds, we’re transported into the mind of young Kendrick — a 17 year-old Compton-native who’s, above all else, chasing tail. It’s all innocent, just another teenage boy with sex on his brain, until the end of the track finds Kendrick confronted by two of Sherane’s gang-banging cousins in front of her house. In hindsight, the track laid the blueprint for the album’s overarching concept, if not the narrative encompassing Kendrick’s career — that of an innocent adolescent experiencing life through the poverty, crime, and drug-infested waters of South Central LA.

12. Kanye West “Good Morning” (2007)

Album: Graduation

By 2007, there was no denying that Kanye occupied a place among hip-hop’s elites; his third album, though, was the moment he cemented his status as a global pop-star. The first track on Graduation, “Good Morning” successfully sets the tone for his most mainstream-sounding and cohesive project. Ten years on, the song encapsulates the final qualities of West’s chipmunk-soul staple, and still exists as the brightest soundscape in Kanye’s discography.

11. Kanye West “Ultralight Beam” (2016)

Album: The Life of Pablo

At the beginning of 2016, Kanye was admist the longest hiatus of his career. It’d been two-and-a-half years since his last solo effort (2013’s Yeezus); an album in which he proclaimed to be, amongst other things, “God.” And so, it’s only natural that when he re-surfaced with The Life of Pablo, ‘Ye made sure to begin the project with a prayer, only this time it felt genuine. On “Ultralight Beam”, we find Kanye at his most humble; a married man with two children, far from the God-like aura which hung over his prior project.




10. Young Thug “Givenchy” (2014)

Album: Tha Tour Part 1

Riding high on 2014’s consensus Song-of-the-Summer — “Lifestyle” — Birdman’s two-headed experimental duo, Rich Homie Quan and Young Thug, recorded a 20-track mixtape. At the time of its release, it wasn’t clear which up-and-coming star had the upper-hand; that much was put to bed on the tape’s opener. After the first minute caters to a Birdman interlude, Young Thug awakens, handling the rest of the track with an endless verse bookended by two hooks.

9. Chance the Rapper “All We Got” (2016)

Album: Coloring Book

Ironically, in a genre historically associated with sexism, with its biggest star — Drake — routinely disguising misogynist lyrics by way of sad-sack cellphone love songs, it took 23 year-old Chance the Rapper — representing a generation socially ridiculed for their disrespectful and self-righteous tendencies — to profess the most refreshing line in recent Hip-Hop memory: Man my daughter couldn’t have a better mother/if she ever find another he better love her/Man I swear my life is perfect. This proclamation, so contrary to the established sentiment among rappers to treat women like sex objects, is notable not just for what it says but for how it’s said. Chance exudes such palpable optimism that it would take a special kind of cynicism to remain unconvinced of his genuineness. This optimism — rooted in his unabashed spirituality — is the foundation of Chance’s music. There’s no denying that the seeds were planted on “All We Got.”

8. Three 6 Mafia “Sippin on Some Syrup” (2000)

Album: When Smoke Clears

Arguably no opening track in hip-hop history better encapsulates a region’s overarching sound. UGK may have been the forefathers of Houston-rap, yet they haven’t yet matched this track’s widespread influence. Released at the turn of the 21st century, “Sippin” would become a prophecy; with ‘Sizzurp’ omnipresent throughout hip-hop’s culture in the 17 years since.

7. Common “Be” (2005)

Album: Be

If Kanye’s chipmunk-soul grew legs on his debut, 2004’s The College Dropout, Be is the moment Ye’s sound became undeniable across all of hip-hop. On the title-track, Common’s melodic flow is backed by a triumphant sample — Albert Jones’ “Mother Nature” — which charts the path for 42 minutes of soulful bliss. It’s indisputably the highlight of Common’s career, if not Kanye’s greatest masterpiece as a producer.

6. Ghostface Killah “Nutmeg” (2000)

Album: Supreme Clientele

Ghostface’ debut album, 1996’s Ironman, was the fifth solo-offering from a Wu Tang Clan member. While most considered it a certified classic, it didn’t match up to Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx or GZA’s Liquid Swords. Although Ghostface was praised, he wasn’t discussed in the same breath as Method Man (the most-popular), RZA (the leader), Raekwon (the jack-of-all-trades), GZA (the most-lyrical), or ODB (the most-enigmatic). That all changed with Supreme Clientele. While members of the Wu had put their solo-careers on the back-burner, Ghostface eclipsed his debut. On the album’s opener, Ghost cements his case as arguably the most-underrated rapper of all-time, with a lyrical freestyle-esque tour-de-force.

5. Drake “Tuscan Leather” (2013)

 

Album: Nothing Was the Same

One Whitney Houston sample, flipped three times to create three different beats, is all it took for Drake to grab a stranglehold of hip-hop’s throne. “How much time is this n***a spendin’ on the intro?” — he asks halfway through. Following three chorus-less verses, with Drake showcasing the best bars of his career, the question becomes rhetorical. As much time as you god damn please, King.




4. Kanye West “Dark Fantasy” (2010)

Album: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Facing adversity for the first time in his career, Kanye exiled himself to Hawaii, assembling a who’s-who list of artists to help record his fifth studio album. As always, expectations were high; and as always, he delivered. Following a Nicki Minaj-interlude, the chorus storms in — Can we get much higher? — before Kanye’s recognizable drums give way to his first verse. Simply, it set the stage for what was to come — Kanye’s magnum opus, if not one of the greatest musical works of the 21st century.

3. Jay-Z “Intro” (2000)

Album: The Dynasty

Just Blaze’s epic beat begins and Jay starts it off by saying, “This is ghetto to ghetto, gutter to gutter, street corner to street corner, project to project.” At first you think it’s just a regular intro with no raps, but then Jigga casually starts his verse with a reference best-fit for the period it was released in — “The theme song to the Sopranos/plays in the key of life on my, mental piano.” It’s an unusually dark look at the mind-state of a man who has risen to the top but can never forget where he started.

2. Meek Mill “Dreams and Nightmares” (2012)

Album: Dreams and Nightmares

Has a rapper ever sounded more hungry? I doubt it. On the intro to his debut album, Meek Mill displays his unrivaled ferocity. Over the first half, a glorious piano sets the tone for the “Dreams” sequence, as Meek reminisces on how far he’s come; before the beat flips, Meek takes it up another notch — “Ya’ll thought I was finished? — and lays waste to the competition.

1. 50 Cent “What Up Gangsta” (2003)

Album: Get Rich or Die Tryin’

In 2003, if you were to construct a rapper in a lab, with the sole intent of revitalizing hip-hop along these lines, you’d implement these characteristics:

  • Storybook, cred-legitimating upbringing (mixing the violent past of the Wu-Tang Clan, the street mentality of Nas, and the drug-dealing background of Jay Z)
  • Mainstream-ready charisma (think Eazy-E) while maintaining an intimidating presence (think DMX)
  • Distinctive, radio-friendly voice that at the same time doesn’t convey softness (think Snoop, Biggie)

The result you’d get, and the rapper hip-hop got, was 50 Cent. On the heels of the worldwide smash that was “In Da Club”, 50 released his debut Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ in early 2003The album didn’t need an attention-grabbing opener, for we already knew his story, personality, and charisma; we got one, though. What it did, simply, was reinforce the tidal wave that was 50 Cent’s rise — proving that Gangsta Rap was reborn, and in that, hip-hop would never be the same.