I was having lunch at my favorite dosa spot in Soho pre-pandemic when I heard a voice by the cash register say the order was for “Benjamin.” I looked up and there, waiting on his dosa, was the world’s most mysterious MC, Andre Benjamin aka Andre 3000 formerly of the innovative duo Outkast. I’d interviewed him for Spin magazine not long after the explosive success of ‘Speakerboxx/The Love Below,’ but we were hardly friends.
Still, I invited him to sit down, and he did. For about forty minutes we ate dosas, talked life, art and hip hop. Andre was living nearby and said he was spending much of his time visiting art galleries and studying art history. He talked about the challenges of being a father to his son Seven. Creation was very much on his mind. Music was not. He told a funny story about attending a recent Travis Scott show at Madison Square Garden but left early “because it was too loud.” Andre was happy to mentor young MCs and hang with them in the studio, but expressed no desire to be the back in the spotlight.
Of course, I asked about him about making new music. He’d done quite a few features for friends since the last Outkast album, but Andre expressed no interest in putting out a collection of new songs. His reasoning was very simple: “You write about what happens to you. Last week I got glasses. That was the big that happened to me. I don’t think people want records about my new glasses.” He felt like hip hop was not a form well suited to express what his life was like as a forty something year old man. I think he was right.
I’ve always thought of hip hop as music first created by a generation of young men from single parent homes, who like me were primarily raised by their mothers and tried to figure out what manhood meant on their own or in consultation with others. In 1960 black single parent households were 22% and 91.4 of those households were run by women. By 1968 the number had risen to 31.4%. The kids of ‘60s who formed the first hip hop generation in New York were teenagers in the ‘70s and recording artists and consumers in the ‘80s.
The lyrical concerns of the music they pioneered weren’t the love songs that consumed post-World War II black music like R&B and soul. Just as James Brown’s beats were the backbone of hip hop, I’ve always viewed Brown’s catalog of ‘70s jams like “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing,” “The Big Payback,” and “Super Bad” as a precursor to the rap’s obsession with self.
There are, of course, other influences (jail toast for example), but Brown struck me as a direct current whose electricity sparked the deluge of bravado, confidence, Wrestlemania self-regard that became the staple of rap. Brown, in a way different than his R&B contemporaries, wrote songs in the first person, a trait that would define hip hop storytelling. From the Cold Crush Brothers through Kurtis Blow to the Def Jam stars these all sounded like young men trying to define themselves with verbal armor against the harshness of the world.
As a young man I was excited by this language, since I was trying to figure out who I was and how I’d survive in America. I may not have yelled “I’m bad!” like L.L., but inside I tried to cultivate a confidence fueled by rap records as I sought to become a professional writer and a full-grown man. I yearned to, like Rakim, “take a phrase that’s rarely heard/ flip it and it’s the daily word.” As a tool for finding my voice in my 20s and early 30s there was nothing more inspiring than hip hop.
A funny thing happened on my way to maturity. Hip Hop started to sound juvenile to me. As my generation aged up our original MC heroes aged out as the next generation of record buyers defined what was new and hot. That’s how pop music works. The rub was that even the hip hop songs of my young adulthood began to sound like more posturing than the lifestyle guides they’d seemed. Smokey Robinson is in his 80s singing “Quiet Storm” and “Crusin’” as an adult man articulating romantic love. Ice Cube, performing his verse from “Straight Outta Compton” brings me back to LA in the ‘80s, but is also slightly ridiculous for a movie making, basketball league owning, father of four and married man of twenty-eight years.
The youthful concerns of hip hop in the ‘90s, like the youthful concerns of trap music now, are very much tied into hot cars, fly girls and guys, the drugs of the moment, and the most current slang. Hip Hop freezes the MC, and the audience, in time because it’s composed of very specific references tied to its moment of creation. Its contemporary nature is a great strength, but a weakness too.
Many legendary middle aged MC’s have released albums long after their commercial peaks, not capturing the attention of younger audiences or people in their age group, who only want to hear hits from their youth. Jay-Z’s meditation on marriage and maturity, ‘4:44,’ released in 2017, is probably as close as anyone’s come to attracting serious mainstream attention, though that has as much to do with the soap opera nature of his personal life at the time as the record’s artistic merit.
When Andre 3000 said his getting new glasses is not a fit subject for a rap song you want him to be wrong. You can rhyme about anything. And people all over the world do. But you know in your gut the man is right. Andre 3000 streaming a track about buying glasses (call it “My Glasses”) would be well made and lyrically quirky. It would also be the subject of intense ridicule and much social media yearning for the “old Andre 3000.” When it comes to new music hip hop is no country for middle aged MCs.