Bun B, "Let 'Em Know," And Aging In Rap

The new song from Bun B really does seem, as the venerable MC says at the outset, to have been “a long time coming.” It was produced by Gangstarr’s DJ Premier, and so brings together two of hip-hop’s very most revered practitioners. Bun and Premier are both from Texas, too, though Premier made his name after moving to Brooklyn in the late ’80s. What’s most interesting about the song to me today, besides the mesmerizing beat and the jaw-dropping rhymes (“When I get to gladiatin’ on haters like Leonidas/Niggas just gonna have to admit that he the tightest…” Triple exclamation points) is how old these guys are. Premier is 44, Bun is, at the very, very least 37 or 38. (He was recently quoted talking about having children aged 24 and 25.)

I wrote last week about how surprised I was to hear Schoolly D, who is also 44, sounding as strong as he does on his new album. (And… 44? Really? So he was only 19 when “P.S.K.” came out in 1986?) I’ve always been okay with the idea that rap music was a younger man’s game. Like rock music before it, it started as a form of youth culture rebelling against older stuff. Parents were not supposed to like it. It’s weird of course, when such a form itself gets to be twenty (or now, in the case of rap, thirty) years old, and its original creators and fans become parents themselves. It makes sense to me, in that regard, that I dislike the autotune-rap of popular new artists like Young Money and Drake. Also like rock music before it, there’s something about vitality being an essential part of rap (it’s supposed to be “fresh,” right?) so that it made sense that older people wouldn’t do it as well.

This notion has been proven wrong when it comes to rock. And it’s been a progression. People were surprised when the Rolling Stones made an album as great as 1981’s Tattoo You when they were in their late 30s. People were really surprised when Bob Dylan made one as great as 1997’s Time Out of Mind when he was 56. As great artists get older, I guess, they figure out a way to make music that sounds honest to their age and still stay true to the essence of their chosen form. (I’ve been wishing that the Stones would accept their aging and sit down and make the masterpiece of rocking-chair country honk I’ve known they have in them since Keith wrote “Thru and Thru” in 1994. I’ve pretty much given up hope at this point. They’re like the housewives of New Jersey or something. Not that I won’t love them forever.)

So I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising to see Bun and Premier and Schoolly D charging so forcefully right through middle age.) Along with folks like Scarface and Wu-Tang and, of course, Jay-Z-who, at 40, is still basically ruling the roost. Rappers are like rockers in many ways, after all. And like they’ve always said, it don’t necessarily stop.