Why Jay-Z Defies Ageism in Hip-Hop Music

The buzz and controversy surrounding Jay-Z’s single “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune) ” this past summer, while putting the 39-year-year MC in the position of wrathful daddy against a new generation of rap artists—some reliant upon the voice gadget for relevance and sales—once again broached the issue of ageism within hip-hop music. Whether it was the Game’s swipe at the rap mega-star, leading European audiences in anti-Jay-Z chants of  “Old a-- n-----!”  Or T-Pain’s tirade against Jigga on stage at a Las Vegas nightclub (“Jay-Z is 59 years old. I don't think he has the right to say what's good and what's not…”).  The expiration date on a rap star’s career, particularly Jay’s, was the hot topic of blogs and barbershops. But unlike many a rap star who hit the age/time limits of the genre and slowly fade into history, Jay-Z continues to defy the rules of the aged rapper. Sitting atop the Billboard 200 for the past 3 weeks, headlining the much-lauded 9/11 benefit at Madison Square Garden, and interviews with Oprah and Bill Maher are undeniable proof that Jay’s iconic stature continues to expand where, under different circumstances, it would recede. How has he managed to stave off irrelevance while turning 40. What the heck does Jay have, besides money, that still makes him an exciting part of the genre. I’ve been waiting for someone to give some definite reasons, but since none have materialized I thought I’d give it a shot.

5). Duh. Jay-Z Has Mastered the Art of Satisfying both Hardcore Fans and the Mainstream.
I know. I know. That's a given. That’s why this one is last. But there have been his missteps in trying to adapt to a changing hip-hop landscape (most noted has always been the video for “Sunshine”).  But for the most part, Hov has been a master at making music that walks the fine line between hardcore and pop. (An easy task when considering that hardcore and gangsta has been pop for over a decade.) Not to mention that having marketing tools like radio, magazines and MT…oh, hell, let’s just say Viacom, in your pocket helps as well.

4). Growing His Image as a Corporate Player Has Been A Major Part of Building his Longevity.
Unlike, say, Master P, who built the bulk of his pop image as a mogul who played the industry (celebrity that faded with the fall of P’s No Limit label) Jay-Z used his growing corporate power as a way to void his expiration date. First he was the hot rapper. Then he was the hottest rapper. Next, he was the hottest rapper and co-owner of the freshest label and clothing/sneaker line. Finally, he retires (kicking that off with a platinum disc), ditches his label to head Def Jam and remains an industry player, signing the next generation of rap and pop music icons. During the two year hiatus he gets even more mainstream press and buzz from the street and…you get where this is going. In being the former drug dealer who maneuvered his way into the boardroom to become legit plays into Jay’s allure and mystique, an image that titillates both Hollywood and corner folk.

3).  The Rap Industry Still Follows the Book of Hova.
Where Jay was birthed by the architects of rap’s golden era—artists like Rakim, Kane and KRS, the current school of hip popper was inspired by rap’s golden age of money (1998-2000), which was heavily shaped by Jay-Z (helped, in part. by the departure of Biggie). Whether it’s Lil Wayne or Young Jeezy or Souljah Boy or any upstart looking to be the next rap street messiah, Hova ‘s “blueprint” for building and sustaining a loyal fan base has been (and is still being) borrowed.

2). Miraculously, He Maintains a Certain Power to Dictate What is (and What's Not) Cool.
Not long ago, we can remember Jay-Z influencing rap’s laundry list for the materialistic, injecting dreams of “ice” (and all the cold descriptions for diamonds) and Bentleys. Or, better yet, how Hov shut down the throwback jersey craze with the line, “I don't wear jerseys, I'm thirty plus. Give me a crisp pair of jeans, nigga button up.”  Well, given the uproar over “D.O.A.” and the challenges from younger artists defending their use of Auto Tunes, shows Jay still has the power to quickly upend the status quo. Besides, he has the money, influence and word-skill that none of the young’uns can match, which brings us to the top reason Jay defies ageism.

1). With the Dumbing-Down of Rap, Jay-Z Maybe Old but His Style Ain’t.
Used to be when a rapper was tagged “old” or washed up, folks were referring to the MC’s rhyme style and beats. Eventually, said rhymer was eclipsed by a young punk with innovation in her/his rhythmic poetry. Much the way Kool Mo Dee ‘s word-centered style ushered in the bygone days of crowd-focused MCs like Busy Bee.  Or Run-DMC’s hardcore minimalism erased the era of Bronx pioneers like the Furious 5. Or N.W.A’s gut-busting realism took the shine from the pioneers of rap’s golden era.  Being  dethroned meant your style was obsolete. But the genre no longer spins on an axis of creativity and style….and Jay-Z knows this, man. So it’s easy for him not only to uphold his status as the “Greatest Rapper Alive” (though President Obama maybe taking his spot…), but to write pop lyrics… or spank any upstart who wants to battle him, but has nothing in his arsenal other than the insult that Jay-Z is old.

If you disagree or have other reasons, speak your piece…