Damn, It’s Hard To Be A Rapper
Published: Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
Four years ago, I entered my first New York City nightclub just days after my 18th birthday, excited at the prospect of seeing my first 18-plus concert without parental accompaniment. In the years that have passed, I’ve seen countless shows across the country, and I can’t even remember what life was like before my show-going days.
One thing I’ve learned to appreciate about concerts is how the best live acts transform whatever venue they’re granted into something transcendent of time and space. At that first concert, I saw The Kills in a grimy club in Williamsburg, before the borough became the butt of all those hipster jokes, and before sitcoms like 2 Broke Girls came to town. That night felt like something of a transformative occasion: I was newly 18, on my own in a borough unfamiliar to me, and felt like I’d been transported into the era of grungy, take-no-prisoners rock of the CBGB days. Although lead singer Alison Mosshart was fighting a cold that night, it made the event even more affecting.
I’ve also managed to see live acts in larger venues turn the spaces into massive celebrations, some with theatrical, over-the-top performances, and others with minimal shows that stand on their own as holy, hallowed sets. Although I wouldn’t necessarily listen to her most recent album again anytime soon, Lady Gaga manages to turn even her weakest songs into explosive, crowd-stopping numbers in arenas that can seat upwards of 20,000 spectators.
What’s been most interesting to me, however, has been seeing so-called “legacy acts” in concert. That label includes artists like The Allman Brothers, Elton John, John Mellencamp, and—debatable, perhaps—Jay-Z.
Yes, after nearly 15 years of groundbreaking records and memorable singles, I would lump Jay-Z in that lifetime achievement category that reserves few spots for rap acts. Rap as a genre, after all, is only several decades old, one of the newest genres in the music world that has yet to become as respected by every generation as rock or country music when, in Jay-Z’s case anyway, his music tells stories as rich and diverse as those of Johnny Cash.
That also raises the interesting issue of older rappers and their disappearance after reaching a certain age. Remember when Missy Elliott was in the prime of her career, with smashes like “Supa Dupa Fly” and “Work It.” She was getting played on both pop and rap radio stations, and her music videos racked up millions of hits in the days when YouTube was just a fledgling website fighting to make noise on the Internet. Then, all of a sudden, she disappeared—and when she did return, she did so to no fanfare at all.
We seem, as a society, to get awfully tired of our rappers after only a couple of years. Lil Wayne is nothing more than a critical and cultural joke, the only buzz surrounding his most recent mixtape—The Dedication 4—granted to Nicki Minaj’s verse about Mitt Romney. One-hit wonders like Petey Pablo fade away into nothing. Jim Jones is only relevant today because of his role on VH1’s Love and Hip-Hop, and Cam’ron looks crusty next to Rick Ross in Minaj’s video for “I Am Your Leader.”
It’s not necessarily that these rappers have become irrelevant—even Lil Kim haters can respect her earlier work, whether or not she actually wrote any of her rhymes. Ma$e makes an appearance on Cruel Summer and makes me yearn for the days when his name would’ve actually caused a stir in hip-hop.
It just strikes me as odd that we seem content to toss aside aging rappers as if they don’t still have a story to tell. Rock and country, as genres, value their elders. The Beach Boys just wrapped up a hugely successful summer tour, for instance, and they’ve been around as long as our parents have.
Jay-Z has done the seemingly impossible: maintained and even enhanced his rap career as he entered his 40s. His eight sold-out shows at Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center stand as pillars of his achievements. When I saw Hova rock the TD Garden last November, he seemed hungry. Other rappers surely take note of Jay’s success, but it’s how they follow that path that matters. Rap can became a genre with legacy acts, but we as the consumer must be more careful with who we toss aside.