By Miles Raymer-esquire.com(culture blog)
There are three layers of meaning to the title of Danny Brown’s latest album, Old, which was released last week to rapturous reviews and has solidified his position as an important hip-hop artist to watch. On one level it’s a tribute to the vintage sounds of ’90s hip-hop, like the beyond-grimy early Wu-Tang material that animates much of the material here. (At least for its first half — the second side’s more about molly-fied dance music and the UK rap variant called “grime.”) On another it’s a reckoning with the “old Danny Brown,” as he puts it in the LP’s opening track, “Side A (Old),” who made his money slinging crack on the streets of Detroit rather than onstage. And finally, Danny Brown’s just old, at least according to the standards by which rappers’ ages are judged: He turned 32 back in March.
Pop music’s always been a young person’s game, and hip-hop in particular has had an especially intense fixation on youth. Rap fans have historically been more willing to accept a rapper in his mid-teens — like Lil Wayne, who joined the Hot Boys at age 15 — than one in his late-20s, which was pretty much considered retirement age. Consequently, rappers have become second only to Hollywood actresses in their reluctance to reveal their ages — I’ve had ones straight up lie to my face about how old they were, lest some kid on the Internet call them played out.
But as Old suggests, this is starting to change. Brown’s far from the only rapper these days who’s been able to stay relevant into his thirties. In fact, a significant number of the year’s most important rap albums have been recorded by MCs of a certain age: Kanye West (36), 2 Chainz (36), Pusha T (36), Juicy J (38), and Jay-Z (coming in at a grandfatherly 43 years old). Take out Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and the members of A$AP Mob and the rap side of the pop charts is being overrun by old guys.
This is a welcome development in a lot of ways. Rap’s obsession with youth has helped keep it fresh throughout the years, but it’s also unfairly shortened the careers of a lot of talented musicians — it’s always had plenty of room for prodigies, but not much for artists who require time to refine their craft and find their voice. Five or six years ago Danny Brown, who didn’t start taking his music seriously until he released The Hybrid at age 29, wouldn’t have been able to get his career off the ground. When 2 Chainz’s first label-backed album (2007’s Supply & Demand, recorded under the name Tity Boi as one half of the duo Playaz Circle) flopped, it seemed like game over for him. No one at the time could have expected that he’d find his zone somewhere around his mid-thirties.
And giving rap artists the time to develop has led to some extraordinary musical developments. Kanye in his mid-twenties, at the pinnacle of his chipmunk-soul period, was interesting, but his current goth phase is downright incredible. And hearing Jay-Z discover all-new ways of flossing a full decade after he had supposedly washed up is a beautiful thing.
Interestingly, the older guys who are running the rap game right now are of the right age to have come up during one of the last times when pop radio was full of artists well beyond their twenties, in the early-to-mid-eighties Baby Boomer renaissance. Then, MTV was suddenly dominated by proudly dad-like artists Phil Collins, Don Henley, Rod Stewart, and Paul Simon. Not coincidentally, it was during a major flare-up of Boomer nostalgia, and while some hippie-era veterans were still making arguably good music, there was also a sense that they had overstayed their welcome and were shoving their own nostalgia down younger listeners’ throats at the expense of new ideas that were trying to stake a spot on the pop landscape. Hopefully these old MCs will learn from their example and know when to gracefully take a bow and turn the wheel over to the next generation, sometime before they start sporting hair plugs and writing songs to their grandkids.