There is no blueprint for aging gracefully. It’s as true in life as it is in hip-hop.
It’s the reason why it’s so strange to watch the awkward dance Eminem is doing at age 45, as one of the biggest pop stars of all time tries to find his sea legs in a rap landscape that’s shifted dramatically since he splashed onto the scene nearly 20 years ago.
It’s why it’s painful watching DMX, at 46, go in and out of rehab and jail in recent years, knowing his charisma and intensity made him so magnetic at one point that he outgrew hip-hop entirely and became a bankable movie star.
It’s why it’s difficult seeing Andre 3000 hang around the fringes of hip-hop, peeking in occasionally to check in on his old flame but still unwilling to commit because he doesn’t want to be the “old rapper.”
Hip-hop survived by taking shots from the fountain of youth. When you’re young, the future’s fictional, the past’s irrelevant, and the present is all that matters.
But now the genre is in the midst of a midlife crisis it could never truly avoid.
When Jay-Z — who plays TD Garden Saturday — dropped his 13th studio album, “4:44,” over the summer, it was generally received as a 10-song confessional for the missteps in his marriage to Beyoncé — arguably the biggest pop star on the planet — and a companion piece to her Grammy-winning opus “Lemonade.” But it was also a time stamp. Hip-hop turned 44 this year, and Jay Z stepped back to take inventory.
On one hand, hip-hop is as popular as it’s ever been. In fact, hip-hop and R&B combined are now the most popular genre in the country, surpassing rock for the first time, according to Nielsen Music.
On the other hand, there’s a massive internal struggle between an older generation of rappers who built on the foundation that was laid in the ’70s and ’80s and a younger generation that has, for better or worse, warped the genre into something that more closely identifies with the experimentation, adventurousness, and insatiable instant gratification of millennials.
The music spilling from headphones today isn’t the hip-hop of Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G, or Nas. It’s not Dr. Dre, or Snoop Dogg. It’s not Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth. It’s Future and Young Thug, Rae Sremmurd, and Migos. It’s Lil Yachty and Dram. It’s Lil Uzi and Cardi B. It’s not soul samples and boom bap. It’s 808s and trap drums.
That line has made listening to hip-hop seem like an either/or proposition, when in reality, there’s room for all.
As styles and trends have changed, no hip-hop artist has been more savvy than Jay-Z. Perhaps too savvy. He is as pure a lyricist as hip-hop’s ever seen, but when sounds bubbled up from different corners of the genre — whether it was UGK in Houston, or Juvenile and Lil Wayne in New Orleans, or Drake and Kanye on the pop charts, or Kendrick Lamar in Compton, or Future in the trap — he found a way to stay in touch with the sound of the moment.
With “4:44,” he completely detached himself from the now for the first time.
There was risk involved. Even if Jay-Z was arguably the most successful artist in rap history, he hadn’t put out an album in four years, and there was a sense that the world didn’t necessarily need another one.
Jay-Z turned inward and showed what a rapper in his 40s could sound like.
Instead of chasing feature verses from hot names, Jay-Z turned inward and showed what a rapper in his 40s could sound like.
It was indeed possible to talk about race, financial responsibility, fatherhood, marriage, infidelity, and generational wealth within the framework of rap music and reach not only an audience that had aged with him but a young audience hearing him in a new way.
Rappers have always struggled with the idea of hanging around too long, like the boxer who took one punch too many.
It’s not the fear of aging. It’s the fear of surrendering your youth.
Many of the rappers that lived through the cash-flush era of late ’90s’ and early 2000s’ rap have reinvented themselves. Joe Budden, typecast as a one-hit wonder (“Pump It Up” is still a classic) and a rapper’s rapper (withSlaughterhouse), transitioned into a media personality as the host of Complex’s wildly popular Web series “Everyday Struggle” and his own podcast. He’s embraced the part of the bitter, washed-up rapper trying to pass along wisdom to a younger generation that doesn’t want to hear him.
His biggest competition on the podcast circuit may be the “Drink Champs,” a show that takes full advantage of Noreaga’s, um, intoxicating charm, as he and DJ EFN sit down with a guest — and a seemingly endless supply of Ciroc — as a platform “for legends to honor legends.”
North Carolina-producer 9th Wonder builds a bridge between two generations as a professor of hip-hop at Duke. Atlanta’s Killer Mike and New York’s El-P were journeymen from very different regions of rap before they discovered each other and reinvigorated their careers by forming the brash, left-of-center duo Run The Jewels.
Even Jay-Z’s identity has evolved. Beyond his entrepreneurship, he’s taken a larger role in social justice issues, using the money he’s amassed to bail out incarcerated fathers, penning op-eds for The New York Times on criminal justice reform, and funding films that shed light on the lives of Kalief Browder and Trayvon Martin.
As much as it gave youth a platform for its voice — and an outlet for its vices — hip-hop inevitably had to grow up. Jay-Z is showing it can be done with some grace.
At TD Garden, Saturday at 8 p.m.. Tickets: From $39.50, www.tdgarden.comJulian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.