“I’m done, the rap game’s No Country For Old Men…”
Phonte Coleman said that in 2010, on Little Brother’s final album, Leftback. They were the words of an individual who was already tired of hip-hop, who deemed chasing five-mic clout a waste of time in comparison to making the adult contemporary R&B that had just made him a first-time Grammy nominee. In Phonte’s mind back then, there was nowhere left for rap to grow; the genre and the culture had said all they could say and it was time for the kids to take over.
Of course, that was before Jay-Z started making “dad rap” cool and the MCs that Phonte himself had inspired began having revelatory insights of their own into the rigors and trials of domestic life and maturing in a young man’s game. In the intervening eight years, Phonte buried four members of his family, became a writer on an immensely popular (but eventually canceled) television show about the early days of rap, and lived a life as full as anyone who never picked up a mic in their life. He’s a born creator, so he returned with his first solo album in six years, No News Is Good News to share his insights and growth with a generation of rap fans who have also aged and learned and grown and begun looking for music that speaks to their experience.
Rap has a reputation as a youthful genre. Labels seek out younger and younger acts as the years go by (because they are easier to exploit, maybe), while the permutations of the music can leave older fans scratching their heads at how different it is from the sounds and imagery they knew when they were growing up. Older rap acts have traditionally “fallen off” as prevailing tastes have changed and they refused to adapt to the shifting tides.
However, with the advent of streaming technology and social media, rappers can maintain their relevance and immediacy to their staunchest fans with relative ease compared to the old days when a label did all the communicating for them. Which means that they can continue making music that speaks to their own lived experience and still find an audience that relates to their stories of growing older, adjusting to love and loss and the responsibilities of just being a grownup.
In the wake of 4:44‘s massive success, a wave of “grown man” rap has swelled, culminating in a week that saw releases from no less than four well-respected rap veterans that address aging in hip-hop — sometimes gracefully, but sometimes not so much. While Phonte was joined in elevating the art of making hip-hop for adults by releases from Common (as August Greene with Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper) and Elzhi (with North Carolina producer Khrysis as Jericho Jackson), a second release from DJ Premier and Royce da 5’9 as PRhyme showcases the pitfalls of refusing to accept fact of aging by veering into grumpy old man territory.
No News Is Good News is, of course, the pinnacle of aging like fine wine. Phonte gracefully details the tribulations of nearing middle age over luscious production from Marco Polo, Nottz, and Tall Black Guy. Rather than railing against the shortcomings of the youth, he shares space on “So Help Me God” with fellow North Carolinian Lute, a J. Cole product who sounds comfortable alongside the veteran MC.
It’s on “Expensive Genes,” though, that Phonte truly shines as he laments the specific cultural and physiological elements of aging as Black man in America that contribute to health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes. As he notes on “Cry No More”: “Put my pops in the ground / Then hit the repeat and ate the same shit that killed him.”
Meanwhile, Elzhi focuses on the painstaking ways in which a veteran lyricist can hope to stay relevant while keeping his pen game razor sharp. With production handled entirely by former Phonte crew mate Khrysis, Jericho Jackson’s Elzhi & Khrysis Are Jericho Jackson finds the Detroit past master flipping his signature syllable-laden flow to discuss broken friendships and racialized policing on “F.R.I.E.N.D.S.” and “Cuffin’ Season.”
While his tales aren’t quite as poignant and insightful as Phonte’s, his commitment to finding just the right punchlines and making them relate to the subject matter is commendable and downright impressive. Utilizing a solo producer brings the project together sonically — it’s cohesive but not repetitive, just as willing to flip a well-known sample as an obscure cut and still make them sound as consistent as Elzhi’s bars throughout.
August Greene’s self-titled debut is a different story. Here, the production is almost the highlight. Whereas on Elzhi and Phonte’s projects the workload is about 50/50, August Green features two producers to the one MC, so it makes sense that their lush, jazz-oriented musicianship is on full display. That isn’t to same Common slacks at all lyrically. It’s just that as he’s aged, Com has blackslid from the hungry, incisive rapper from Resurrection into a pale reflection of Be Common — dressed up, respectable.
He kind of makes grown-up hip-hop for liberal white people dinner parties, which isn’t a bad thing by any means. It’s inoffensive and blandly positive, without creeping into any of the sticky subject matter like Black health and police overreach that would make anyone uncomfortable. There’s even a cover of “Optimistic,” the Sounds Of Blackness jam that soundtracked a father-children viral dance challenge on social media, which should tell you everything you need to know this album. It’s good, but it’s “I’ve been invited to the White House” good; it won’t shake any tables but it’s nice music for driving the kids to soccer practice to.
Unfortunately, some vets just can’t find it in themselves to accept the grays and the creaky joints. Unlike fellow Detroiter Elzhi, Royce da 5’9 never seems to find that comfort level on PRhyme 2 with DJ Premier. On tracks like “Era,” he does more “get off my lawn” grousing of the variety that’s contributed to the downfall of dozens of MCs before him. It would be tolerable, but Premier’s beats sound lost and rankle the ears, like maybe 30 years of being one of the most sought-after beatmakers in hip-hop has left him running on mere fumes of inspiration.
Even the name “PRhyme” is like a bad dad joke — out-of-touch and corny. In an era where grownup hip-hop can be so many things and speak to so many aspects of the human experience, formulating punchlines out of Soundcloud rappers’ names to prove you’re hip is just lazy. When Royce does speak to his experiences — which are the true emotional focal point of this project and its saving grace — he does so with a sneer, as if his trauma is badge of pride to be wielded over these know-nothing, spoiled millennials. It’s more rotten than ripe, when it could have been those moments that truly made PRhyme 2 relatable.
As rap continues to age with its audience, there will be even more artists who follow in the above footsteps. Hopefully, more take their cues from projects like No News Is Good News than from PRhyme 2. The former says, “It’s okay that I’m getting old; the grays make me look distinguished.” The latter is the audio equivalent of Principal Skinner stroking his chin and deciding, “It’s the children who are wrong.” Hip-hop still doesn’t need saving or fixing, and trying to control the tastes of the youth can only ever result in disaster. There’s still plenty of country for old men in rap, if they’re willing to stake their claim and live their truth, without making apologies to anyone.