Hip-Hop Is Evolving. Just Ask Its Superstars

Hip-Hop Is Evolving. Just Ask Its Superstars

Jay-Z is grappling with the idea that he is seen as an elder in hip-hop. Above, the rapper riding a personal watercraft while wearing a helmet was turned into a meme this summer.

Hip-hop has long been about superheroes, and there are few things more jarring than watching a superhero’s powers begin to fade.

The superstars of earlier hip-hop generations typically lived their post-peak careers just out of the limelight. If they were grappling with the diminished influence it rarely showed or shaped their public narrative. They disappeared into the executive suite (Dr. Dre), or they became actors (LL Cool J, Ice-T), or they settled into a comfortable late-career plateau that mostly sated old fans while not really striving for new ones (Snoop Dogg).

But then hip-hop started growing exponentially: It minted more durable, truly multigenerational stars with greater staying power at the same time it was revving up the engine on the lower end, welcoming more and more young artists into the fold.

That meant that while the market expanded, more artists were competing for prime share, forcing those on top to learn how to navigate new territory — as still popular, almost dominant performers who are staring down their role as elders. Now, these post-prime stars — or those on the verge of reaching their tipping point — are working out their post-prime issues in public, on record, for all to hear.

Their reckonings take many forms. For Mr. West, it’s the acknowledgment of the frailty of his mental health. For Mr. Cole, it’s a finger-wagging semi-scolding of the younger generation. For Jay-Z, it’s a calm acceptance of his diminished public stature. And for Drake — who now feels like the youngest member of this older umbrella generation, but until recently was the oldest member of the younger upstarts — it’s navigating the tension inherent in moving from student to teacher, and realizing your teachers were no better than you all along.

Kanye West appeared on “Celebrity Family Feud” with his wife, Kim Kardashian West

Of these, Mr. West’s path is the most radical in terms of how it engages with the specter of obsolescence. On “What Would Meek Do?” from Pusha-T’s “Daytona,” Mr. West raps about how he’s viewed by skeptics: “You see, he been out of touch, he cannot relate/His hallway too long, bitch too bad.”

But Mr. West’s flaws are real, too, and he now publicly discusses his health struggles. “Hospital band a hundred bands,” he raps on “Yikes,” referring to his hospitalization in late 2016 for exhaustion. “You know I’m sensitive, I got a gentle mental/Every time something happen they want me sent to mental,” he bemoans on “Wouldn’t Leave.”