Because of the evolve-or-die mentality and antiauthoritarian streak that are so deeply rooted in hip-hop’s DNA, rap music’s always been a young person’s game. For most of its history, rappers were expected, Logan’s Run-style, to bow out before they turned 30 or else be banished to the fringes of the culture to release ever less consequential records to a dwindling audience of fellow olds. (See: pretty much all of Public Enemy’s career after 1991.)
Jay-Z changed all of this around when he unretired at age 35, becoming the hip-hop equivalent of the Rolling Stones when he refused to let go of his central position in its cosmos just because he had exited the 18-34 demographic. Since then rap’s become considerably more amenable to older people. I haven’t heard of a rapper lying about his age in years.
Eminem has probably benefited from Jay’s grown-ass-man revolution, although he doesn’t necessarily need it. His fan base is fervent, and although it intersects with hip-hop culture it exists largely independent of it, thanks to the weird quirk in radio programming that gives white rappers access to “rock” stations that don’t normally spin rap. Still, it’s a bit of good timing for a 40-year-old rapper to be releasing a record just a few months after Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail, an album devoted primarily to making elegant middle age something to aspire to.
“Berzerk,” the first single off his upcoming The Marshall Mathers LP 2, entered the Hot 100 this week at number three. Unlike his last album, 2010’s turbulently emotional Recovery, “Berzerk” is classic manic-phase Em, with a crunchy, mosh-able Rick Rubin beat and the kind of clever shit-talking he initially made his name on.
Recovery was intended to be Eminem’s “mature” record, but he shows his age even more on “Berzerk.” The beat samples both Billy Squier’s 1981 single “The Stroke” and the Beastie Boys’ 1986 “The New Style,” two songs that were inescapable in the youth of anyone over 35. The video quotes the Beasties’ 1992 clip for “So What’cha Want” and in it Em rocks a vintage Pistons championship tee and pals around with Kid Rock, an endorsement that’s pretty much worthless to any young person who’s not inordinately into reproduction classic rock and country music. (Yes, it also features an appearance by hip-hop’s reigning shit-talker, Kendrick Lamar, but he gets considerably less screen time than Rick Rubin’s bushy gray old-guy beard.) Lyrically he seems to be aiming straight at his age group, who will get his Ren & Stimpy reference and might consider his way-too-late dig at the Kardashians relevant.
It seems that the former poster boy for juvenile delinquency has discovered and embraced the middle-age equivalent of teen angst, which is often labeled “crankiness.” It suits him a lot better than his insufferably emo midlife crisis from a few years back. I can almost picture a day when he’ll be rapping about hip replacement surgery, what celebtards North West and Blue Ivy Carter are, and how those damn kids won’t get off his lawn.