There’s no official handbook to aging with grace.  However, there are living paragons to learn from; men who’ve managed to fake out Father Time, swaggering through the decades with Barolo-esque refinement and resplendence. Men like Rob Lowe (who shares the secrets to his Dorian Grey-ness in our latest issue!) or Denzel Washington or Peyton Manning or Richard Branson.
But most remarkably, men like Ghostface Killah.
If hip-hop is a young man’s game, as they say it is, then Ghostface knows all the cheat codes and is playing the damn thing on God Mode. At 45, the Wu-Tang elder-statesman is doing something previously considered impossible in the genre: staying relevant — hell, even improving — with age.
Last week, at Toronto’s NXNE festival, I saw him open for Schoolboy Q, among the most promising of the new guard of West Coast millennial rappers. And, at the risk of subjecting myself to copious hate tweets from all the tank top-and-snapback-clad twentysomethings who were in attendance, Schoolboy got schooled. Not that he was bad; the former Hoover Crip played an enjoyable set drawing largely on the lush street rap of 2014’s Oxymoron. It’s just that Ghostface had more fire in his belly; his lyrical attack was fiercer, his energy more infectious, his libido still as raging as the day he spat the first verse on the first Wu album (dude even invited a throng of ladies from the audience to bump n’ grind with him on stage).
I will now concede: I am a tad biased. After all, I’m a 30-year-old hip-hop fan, still coming to grips with becoming a tricenarian, who gets all crotchety when he hears young rappers like Vince Staples say the ’90s are overrated. (Seriously, fuck that guy.) I don’t know who the hell Lil Yachty and Playboi Carti are, but I’m aware there are memes ridiculing people my age for that very fact. Given that hip-hop has traditionally been the sound of youthful rebellion, the mainstream tends to ride the wave of the fresh-faced and new. That puts people of my vintage in danger of being out of touch, and has often forced older MCs to parlay their skills into different entertainment mediums, like buddy cop movies (hey Ice Cube!) or religious fundraisers (mazel tov, Naughty by Nature) or reality TV shows (please stop, Rev Run) or online streaming services (I’m still not paying for it, Jay Z).
But not Ghostface. Somehow, Tony Starks has remained the same snarling, fearsome, criminology spitting, fish eating, biochemical slanglord he’s always been. 23 years, 12 solo albums, six Wu albums, and countless guest spots deep, he’s garnered consistent critical acclaim and commercial success, each release packed with potent plot twists, stunning production, and Charles Bukowski-esque vividness. What’s more, he’s done it all on his own terms — no resorting to rapping over outmoded dubstep (really, Cypress Hill?) or doing Dr. Pepper commercials (why Dr. Dre?!) or spitting one-percenter clichés (looking at you again, Hova). When the young cats make an attempt for his throne by copping his style — nice try, Action Bronson — he guts them like pigs. When punk-ass pharma bros throw shade at his crew, he bodies (and body shames) them. No wonder the RZA has ceded control over the next Wu album to him. The dude’s hotter than 400 hells. Just listen to this shit:
Of course, Ghostface’s continued success is just as much a product of an altered music landscape. Thanks to the Internet and the rise of the classic hip-hop radio format across North America, rappers can still tour constantly and make a killing well into their 40s. In our digital age, mainstream exposure is less important than ever. Older MCs can now thrive as independent entrepreneurs. The last Nas album sold more copies than the most recent efforts of Wale and Kid Cudi. Snoop Dogg has fulfilled his destiny as a latter day Bob Marley. Eminem is still the best-selling rap artist ever.
Despite the long-held assumption that teenagers have the most disposable income to blow, the Recording Industry Association of America says it’s people over 40 who still buy the most music. Unlike the rap fiends who grew up before them, Gen Xers and older millenials grew up with hip-hop being a major piece of pop culture. You don’t just outgrow the music that speaks to you the most. And a significant chunk of those heads aren’t necessarily jonesing for the next Tyler, the Creator album. Young wordsmiths still have to compete with older ones for a piece of that rap C.R.E.A.M.
All this is to say that there’s going to be a lot of great hip-hop dropping in the years to come. And thirtysomethings like me won’t need to hang up the Timbs and graduate to smooth jazz. Now that’s aging well.