It doesn’t seem that long ago that Game sniped at Jay-Z with the line: “You 38 and still rappin’? Ugh!” from his 2006 track “It’s Okay (One Blood).” Yet some of this era’s biggest rap heroes are nearing — and above — forty. A “Tale Of The Tape” scene in the music video for Drake and J. Cole’s recent collaboration “First Person Shooter” displayed them at 37 and 38 years old, respectively. There was a time when rappers wouldn’t be so forthcoming about pushing 40, but rap’s “too old” stigma has largely dissipated as hordes of hip-hop fans enter middle age and savvy artists like Drake have learned how to stay tapped into youth culture (for better or worse).
Rap OGs now have the freedom to push the pedal like Drake, who’s released four albums in two years, or Nas, who’s released five in three years. Or they can also be discerning like Jay-Z, who recently said his next project, if it ever comes, would have to “mean something to larger society.” Ditto J. Cole, who seems to be methodically leading us toward his final album. There’s also the maverick path of Andre 3000, who may be hip-hop’s greatest feature killer but has never dropped a solo rap album. Fans were disappointed when he announced New Blue Sun, his first album since OutKast released The Love Below in 2003, would be a flute album devoid of raps. Just because the figurative level of “grown man rap” has been broached doesn’t mean every artist is obligated to flood the market — or release anything at all, especially in the case of Andre. He’s one-half of a canonical rap duo; his legacy is solidified if he never releases a solo rap project. Sometimes it feels like he might not, especially if he decides to follow on the intriguing journey weaved on New Blue Sun, an arresting eight-song, 90-minute joyride. I’m no flute connoisseur, but If he’s had these melodies in his head, it’s no wonder he’s joyfully traversed the world, seemingly unbothered by earthly convention.
One of the many colorfully titled tracks on New Blue Sun is called “I Swear, I Really Wanted To Make A ‘Rap’ Album But This Is The Way The Wind Blew Me This Time.” Like all effective humor, it hints at the truth that Andre 3000 has a 99 rating in rap’s most underappreciated attribute: cognizance.
Self-awareness is no rap virtue. Even the most personable artist depicts an outsized version of themselves as the center of the universe. Every lyricist must step into the booth believing they’re the best in the world. I often say I don’t have a top five, but my favorite rapper is whoever makes me feel like they’re my favorite at the moment. Part of that convincing is an inordinate amount of self-confidence, the kind of self-aggrandizing that leads to unimaginative fan service albums that have bogged down the major label rap ecosystem. So many veteran artists are fine releasing albums with mere hints of what makes them great, almost as if they feel they have no other choice. 3000 could easily sell such a product once a year. But he’s repeatedly expressed that he desires to be more intentional about what he wants to say.
Last week, in an interview for GQ, Andre told Zac Baron that he gets beats from producers all the time, but “sometimes it feels inauthentic for me to rap because I don’t have anything to talk about in that way.” He added, “I’m 48 years old. And not to say that age is a thing that dictates what you rap about, but in a way it does. And things that happen in my life, like, what are you talking about? ‘I got to go get a colonoscopy.’ What are you rapping about? ‘My eyesight is going bad.’ You can find cool ways to say it, but….” His comments dismayed fans who alleged that they may indeed want colonoscopy raps so long as they’re from Three Stacks. Some misinterpreted his singular perception of his craft as a widespread commentary on rap and chastised him about the necessity of middle-aged rap. His comments echo his prior ponderance, “Do I really want to be 50 years old up there doing that? When I watch other rappers that are my age I commend them, but I just wonder where the inspiration is coming from.”
Despite people assuming that he’s too in his head about rap, it sounds like he knows exactly what he has to offer, and what he wants to offer, and has resolved that he doesn’t have an abundance of whatever inspiration he needs to get there. During the GQ interview, he likened himself to boxers who “do exhibition fights now and then, but they’re not stepping in the ring.” His sparse output, with a classic verse or two per year, lines up with that self-assessment. His verses on T.I.’s “Sorry,” Ye’s “Life Of The Party,” and Frank Ocean’s “Solo (Reprise)” are some of the best in recent rap history. But it’s tenuous to assume he can keep that level of quality throughout an album. His extended verses, too technically layered to be considered streams of consciousness, often feel like fleeting creative inundation gifted by the cosmos; perhaps he refuses to defy that exchange by forcing it as a product. It’s also tenuous to expect him to extend that standard throughout a full-length solo album — especially when he’s never done so before. He told GQ that when it comes to rap, “the longer I’m out of it, the better chances I have of staying out of it.’” And he’s never been in the solo rap album game — who to say he’ll ever care to jump in?
Jay-Z seems to be as focused on intentionality as Andre these days. The legendary Brooklynite told Gayle King, “I already [used the word ‘retirement’], I can’t do that ever again. I’ll say I wanna make music, but it has to be something important. I don’t wanna just make a bunch of tunes. That’s not gonna serve me. It won’t feed me, first of all. I have to be saying something important. It has to mean something, you know? It has to mean something to a larger society.” Once you’ve said so much, it’s worth being discerning about what you say next.
The Book Of Hov subject was one of the first rap superstars to grapple with his rap mortality in public; he made a big deal out of retiring after The Black Album and later revealed that he genuinely thought he’d never rap again after its 2005 release. But then he came back with a consistent output of albums through the end of the 2000s and into the early 2010s. Albums like Blueprint 3, Watch The Throne, and Magna Carta Holy Grail felt like uber-marketed, larger-than-life projects concocted to help him use rap as the nucleus of his business profile. It’s easier to sell a corporation on partnering with someone still capable of topping the Billboard charts than a legacy act.
But now, with a reported net worth of $2.5B, he has all the leverage he needs and no longer needs rap as anything but his artistic canvas. He’s expressed that he’s not going to step outside until he feels like it’s truly worth it. He didn’t even put his name on Jay Electronica’s A Written Testimony, where he was on eight songs, and the lyrically dense project somehow feels like the billionaire husband of the world’s biggest pop star put out an underground album. The bevy of pictures with the likes of Mach-Hommy and Griselda members make one curious about where he’ll go next sonically; fulfillment may override any consideration of mass appeal.
Once one beats the game, they can go in a variety of directions. Some, like Drake or Nas, decide to go at it again in rapid succession, laughing at how absurdly easy it is for them. Some, like Cole, may play it periodically. And sometimes, like Andre, an artist may decide to pursue their next passion altogether. Amid our fervent fandom, we often forget the reality that no artist owes us anything. We’re only lucky when an artist’s sense of fulfillment dovetails with our own.
If Andre 3000 were to succumb to our whims, his stellar flutist turn may have never happened, and he’d be releasing rap that he may not feel 100% confident in, just to placate others. Since OutKast stopped making music, he shifted from one-half of rap’s most commercially successful duo to the culture’s fluted vagabond, periodically giving rhyming treatises on his friends’ records. If that’s all he has to offer in 2023, it’s more than enough.
From Rolling Stone US