2006: The year that hip-hop finally grew up


The idea that rock is exclusively a young man’s game hasn’t held water for three decades. While there’s still something off-putting about Mick Jagger’s determined athleticism in the service of a catalog that’s older than Justin Timberlake, there’s no denying he can still fill football stadiums, and not just with boomers.

Hip-hop is another matter, and the big story this year was the comeback of Jay-Z less than three years after he quit at the top of his game to become the CEO of Def Jam Records. Though bragging that your skills are better than the next MC’s is as central to rapping as high-end athletic footwear, Jay-Z was arguably the best, both commercially and critically, and his retirement was an implicit acknowledgment that he was getting too old for the mic.

Unsurprisingly, his comeback album “Kingdom Come” was met with snickers. It’s not a bad record, but it dwells self-consciously on age (“30 is the new 20”) and the corporate life. Money, of course, is a prerogative of gangsta rap, and Jay-Z wants us to believe that taking conference calls on the beach is as hard and real as taking out rival drug dealers.

The evolution of Ice Cube and Ice-T from MCs to actors indirectly attests to the belief that rap is for the young and headstrong. Even Eminem and 50 Cent, probably the two richest rappers after Jay-Z, curtailed their musical activities considerably this year in favor of other entertainment-oriented projects.

So does that mean “Hip Hop is Dead,” as the title of Nas’s new album claims? It would hardly seem so if all you had to go by was the charts, where rap rules. A better question is: Does the waning of one generation signal the waxing of another? Recent albums by Lil’ Wayne and Clipse herald an emerging attitude that moves away from the stale platitudes of gangsta toward a more realistic expression of criminal life. It would be nice if rappers talked about something else, but whereas the misanthropy and misogyny of gangsta was cartoonish, the misanthropy and misogyny of the new hard rap is journalistic — and nowhere as much as on Ghostface Killah’s monumental “Fishscale,” an album that presents dealing as a job just like any other. What’s interesting — or disturbing, depending on how you look at it — is that Ghost himself is on the far side of 30 and making the best music of his life. As in all things to do with hip-hop, it’s the attitude that matters. Ghost even compares himself to Mick Jagger.

And the envelopes please . . .

This month you’ll be hearing and reading about the best of this and the worst of that, but here are some awards for things that really matter.

Rock Mecca of the year: Las Vegas, to which Prince, Toni Braxton, The Doors and the infamous NY livehouse CBGB’s moved or planned to move.

Punks of the year: The Sex Pistols, who sent a nasty handwritten letter to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame instead of showing up for their induction.

Rock critic of the year: The guard dog that destroyed part of Elvis Presley’s rare teddy bear collection at Graceland. Runner-up: China, which censored a Rolling Stones concert and canceled another by Jay-Z because of concern over lyrical content.

Corpse of the year: Kurt Cobain, who became the first dead rock star to earn more than Elvis in terms of annual posthumous income.

Self-fulfilling title of the year: “The Times They Are a’ Changing,” a dance piece by Twyla Tharp set to Bob Dylan’s songs that was suggested by Dylan himself, closed after a month on Broadway.

Fight of the year: Keith Richards vs. coconut tree; Runner-up: Axl Rose vs. anyone

Conscience of the year: Morrissey, who canceled his entire Canadian tour to protest the country’s harvest of baby seals. Runner-up: Jay-Z, who called on the hip-hop community to boycott Cristal champagne for an alleged slight to the community made by the company’s president.

Self-promoter of the year: Jack White, who wrote a jingle for Coca-Cola and appeared on “The Simpsons.”

Marketing idea of the year: The Beer Belly, a bag-like container that you wear around your abdomen under your shirt to sneak beer into concerts. Runner-up: Sammyoke, an event preceding ex-Van Halen vocalist Sammy Hagar’s concerts, in which fans do karaoke renditions of Sammy’s songs.

For other related stories, please click the following links:
When the kids lost the music
Voices from the Inside