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Wasn’t Born Hustlers: The Aging Of Jay Z

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on when you gotta bid it good riddance

Last week, Drake released “Pop Style,” a single that is, ostensibly, laying the groundwork for Drake’s long-awaited fourth album, Views From the 6. The airy, infectious song features The Throne. The Throne is, of course, Kanye West and Jay Z. There’s Drake: ruminating on fame, force-feeding pop culture references into a verse already crowded with them. There’s Kanye West: vengeful, boastful, self-referencing. If you coughed, sneezed, or took a heavy enough breath, you may have missed Jay Z. He was there, though. A single line, five seconds, and a cloud of dust.

“They still out to get me, they don’t get it / I cannot be gotten, that’s a given.”

And then he vanishes.

The Muhammad Ali fight that no one really talks about anymore is one that happened a few years before I was born. In 1980, Ali fought Larry Holmes in Vegas. This was billed as a comeback fight for Ali, who, at 38 years old, hadn’t fought since 1978. There is video of the fight on YouTube. Ali is all mouth, yelling across the ring in his traditional fashion, playing to the crowd, dancing only a step slower than he did before the new decade turned over. But, as the fight begins, he is very clearly a different man. I first watched the fight mostly between my slightly open fingers. Ali with his slow reflexes, flinching his way through a 10-round pummeling before the fight was finally stopped. His speech slurring in post-fight interviews. Larry Holmes went to his locker and wept at what he’d done. Ali never fought again.

And this is how it goes in sports. Something in the body or the mind gives up on a person. Something whispers into the bones, making a past life impossible. It was Larry Bird’s back, it was Brandon Roy’s knees, it was Sandy Koufax’s arthritis. It was Kobe Bryant’s legs clashing with his ego. For Ali, it was the neurons in his brain, slowly dying off. In this arena, there are exits that must be made, even for those of the strongest will. What is it to know your time is up when nothing in your body has betrayed you?

I am most reminded of how young rap is, as a genre, when I watch rock acts from the '60s and '70s battle to get through a two- or three-hour set of music. There are sometimes wrist braces and limps, grimaces while jumping up onto or down from something onstage. The image of rap remains young, in part, because rap nostalgia acts don’t command the same type of attention that they do in other genres. Not long ago, I saw The Rolling Stones and Rakim in the same week. One was in a sold-out arena, the other in a halfway-packed club. Rakim’s fans were, like me, in their thirties or slightly older. I imagine that this disconnect may, too, stem from the youth of rap: Many rap fans of my generation are old, yet still young enough to keep up with a small helping of trends. They're young enough to have a youth that is still touchable and not something so distant and impossible that we are reaching for it or trying to recreate it. When I go to see rock acts from the generation before mine, I see the faces of people who are craving a time that is more of a memory than, say, 1995 is for me. Yet I know I will get there one day. I will wish for a concert to take me back to a world in which I was young.

Until then, and perhaps even then, the young genre of rap doesn’t know what to do with its old rappers. I say “old” and know that 40 years on earth doesn’t make one old, even in a country obsessed with youth. Old here means rendered irrelevant by whoever has come after you. That is another type of aging, the one where years are thrown upon you by other people, by circumstance.

The thing with Jay Z is that for so many years, he had always been ahead of the curve. He had always seemed to know when to jump off of the old trend and on to the next one at the right time. He never latched onto a dance craze. He mocked Auto-Tune. When throwback jerseys were all the rage, he jumped to button-ups. And then to an all-black aesthetic. And then to suits and boardrooms, juggling chart dominance and corporate dominance all at once.

Somewhere, in the past three or four years, he managed to get too far ahead. When you have risen from the Marcy projects and built an empire where you once sold crack, after a while, what else is there to rap about but this? What else is believable besides the fact that you are a man of immense wealth, with a family and a strong interest in the empire you have built? When Jay Z took the ultimate leap, becoming a brand unto himself, there are things he simply couldn’t rap about as aggressively. Shawn Carter the industry doesn’t make a song like “Threat,” or even an album like American Gangster. Shawn Carter makes an album like Magna Carta Holy Grail. Ruminations on wealth for the sake of ruminating on wealth. An avalanche of boastful rhymes about high-end art purchases and high-end fashion choices that, when presented at such a high rate, all felt so boring.

The old Jay Z, the master storyteller, excelled because of the window he was able to give into a life that felt far away but still present. It was the promise of a hustler who made good when the smoke cleared, something anyone from any hood could see themselves in. And then he got too ahead of us all. This should be applauded, by the way. Jay Z is he who became so successful he lapped even himself until he was standing alone at the finish line — nothing that anyone he is still reaching for could relate to anymore.

To hear Jay Z rap on tracks with his younger peers now is to watch the fight through parted fingers. To know that there are punches connecting only with the air while a more youthful opponent dances around them. To hear the wind cut by a fist, and the groaning crowd that follows. It seems almost like an exercise in respect, or a years-long victory tour. Convincing Jay Z to hop on a song and rap a few lyrics that rely on his old clichés, enough bite in his voice left to let you know that he can still do this, but in comparison to his counterparts, he sounds out of place. Like he doesn’t actually want to be there.

We laugh when Jay Z, embodiment of cool for as long as I knew what cool was, looks like he never actually wants to be in public. He is, now, the ultimate dad archetype. He takes a selfie and can’t figure out Snapchat. He goes to fashion shows and tucks himself into corners alone. He sits front row at basketball games and stares forward into seemingly nothing — perhaps imagining a time before this limbo when he is both still a king and also a punch line.

Some nights, I listen to every Jay Z album that I consider classic, all in a row. Always in order: first Reasonable Doubt, and then The Blueprint, The Black Album, and American Gangster. This is my pilgrimage to the concert where the band plays the hits and you imagine the wrinkles releasing themselves from their skin, you imagine the limp becoming a sprint. I imagine the Jay Z who couldn’t miss, who was confident even in his missteps. It is the easy way out to say that they don’t make rap like this anymore. They do, it’s just that Jay Z can’t. And he shouldn’t, with the life he has built for himself. Perhaps in this arena, with nothing sitting on the body and forcing it to stop, maybe we are the ones who need to be honest. About what Jay Z has given, and about what he has left.

Time turns everything to dust and blows it away before we can catch any of it in our hands. I do not wish for any heroes who have made themselves invincible. I want a hero who stares down the hourglass, who watches the sand tick, knowing that there is a final grain in there somewhere with their name on it. I have always felt that Jay Z knows this. I think Jay Z knows that if you’ve hustled hard enough, or if you’ve sold enough stories of the hustle, there is a place that will let you live forever. Either the records, covered in platinum and lining the walls, or the projects where you made your name. There is somewhere you will always be young, immortal, and as sharp as you always were. Somewhere you cannot ever be gotten.