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Gray-Z and Friends

What happens when hip-hop turns middle age? We’re about to find out.

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Ghostface Killah  

When the economy imploded, analysts warned that Americans would have to put off retirement. Who knew they meant rappers too? The coming months will see a host of new albums from hip-hop acts closing in 40. Ghostface Killah is 37; the Roots’ ?uestlove is 38; Raekwon and Q-Tip are both 39; and Jay-Z will hit the big 4-0 in December. Forget your Cool Kids and your Soulja Boys: 2009 is shaping up to be the year of the Grown-Ass Man. But if “30’s the new 20,” as Jay-Z once proclaimed (to no shortage of mockery), what is 40?

Aging in pop music has never been easy. Fashions change, touring loses its charm, livers explode. But it’s especially tough in a genre like rap, where, as ?uestlove puts it, “one slight misstep and you become a nostalgia act.” (Consider Nas, a grumpy old man at 35.) The Roots are embracing it, with a soul-searching new album, How I Got Over and a moonlighting gig as Jimmy Fallon’s house band. “At this point,” ?uestlove says, “Coldplay is probably a more comfortable fit for us than most rap groups.” Ghostface is stretching himself, too: For his new album, The Wizard of Poetry, the Wu-Tang’s resident weirdo trades his crack-and-Glock narratives for sultry (if still weird) R&B love jams. “I wanted to take it to a more mature level,” he explains. “It’s like having the same piece of pussy for twenty years. Sometimes you just need to change it up.”

Not everyone thinks so. Jay-Z tried growing up once before, with 2006’s Kingdom Come, his post-retirement album about healthy credit and beach furniture, and was rewarded with the worst reviews of his career. Little wonder, then, that his new Blueprint 3 tries to capitalize on his King of New York glory days, with hard-knock beats and zero Gwyneth Paltrow. Ditto Ghostface’s pal Raekwon, who’s releasing his own dope-laden sequel (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx ... Pt II) that addresses maturity by ignoring it entirely.

In some ways, though, the old-man MC is perfectly in keeping with the personal responsibility themes rampant in the broader culture.“There aren’t enough men in the world,” Ghostface says. “You got all these cats running around, trying to be little 19-year-old niggas and shit. But you’s a man, B. It’s time to grow up.”


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