Retrospective: The Longevity Of Mature Hip Hop

By @TrueGodImmortal

Allow me to start this article off with a note to those who haven't been fans of hip hop for years, mature themes and elements in hip hop have always been around in music. For those of you who are familiar, you might wonder why I decided to discuss the concept of "mature hip hop", but I've been watching for almost a week now as people have gone out of their way to crown Jay-Z's newest album "4:44" as the first mature hip hop album. This is completely wrong. It's false and while many national outlets will continue to push this narrative, the truth is much more simple. Ignore the Jay stans and fans who say mature hip hop didn't matter before Jay did it, because their opinions aren't to be taken serious anyways. While I think "4:44" is a great album and I'll get to that a little later, it is not the first instance of maturity in a hip hop album. In fact, maturity in hip hop has existed since the beginning of my journey with the genre. Allow me to take you all back for a second, if you will?

I remember when I first discovered hip hop. I was quite young, listening to Dr. Dre and Snoop spit semi poetic tales of drugs, women, gang violence, and everything in between. I had no idea what they were talking about, being that I was just about to start kindergarten, but I knew the beat was enjoyable and the lyrics were catchy. That was my introduction to hip hop. I would hear other catchy artists in the genre, including the likes of MC Hammer and LL Cool J, one of which is revered as a top selling joke (to some), while the other is revered as a legend. These were the first hip hop artists I'd become accustomed to as a young child. I couldn't relate to "Too Legit To Quit" and I couldn't yet relate to "Around The Way Girl", but I could recite the lyrics word for word and vibe along to the beat. Around 1994, I had begun to listen to 2Pac on the radio, and discovered A Tribe Called Quest following the release of their landmark album Midnight Marauders. I also heard some of the albums from the group De La Soul, and their catalog is a prime example of maturity in hip hop. These artists were sometimes seen as underground or conscious even, though the term to describe Tribe's music was Jazz Rap. With jazzy rhythms and samples, many of the songs from Tribe featured positive vibes and felt as if they were extremely thought provoking while still being fun. The Native Tongues crew could be seen as my first experience with mature hip hop, but an artist I mentioned a little while ago, 2Pac, was starting to express a bit of maturity in his music at the time. Tackling tough topics like police brutality and abandonment in his youth, a 22 year old Pac would release the uplifting "Keep Ya Head Up", a song that spoke to the heart of the issues in our community but also spoke to black women and told them to keep their strength, which was a very mature perspective for a young artist. Pac wasn't the only one flirting with maturity in the early part of his career, but he was the first solo artist that I listened to that seemed to battle with himself.

At times, Pac could be playful, immature, and having fun, but on the other hand, Pac could be a revolutionary, be in self reflection, or addressing issues that affected us all. The concept of maturity in music isn't just reserved for marriage and kids, there's a much broader aspect to maturity. It's growth in every way possible mentally, whether it comes from loss, awakening, heartbreak, happiness, or your own mistakes. Pac's most mature album came at the toughest time of his career, when he was facing immense criticism and jail time after a controversial trial. In 1995, a reflective and seemingly depressed Pac released his greatest work of art, "Me Against The World". He was in jail at the time of the album being released, but the album is full of songs that showcase depth beyond his years. At age 23 (going on 24), Pac touched on thoughts of depression, suicide, loss, and the despondent feelings that overcame him on songs like "Death Around The Corner", "It Ain't Easy", "Lord Knows", and "So Many Tears". These songs showed a reflective side, and an acknowledgment of his emotions at the time, which definitely would fit under the guise of "mature" hip hop. A 23 year old coming to grips with his own mortality, the pressure of having the world on your shoulders, the reality of betrayal, bouts with depression, and showing appreciation and underlying forgiveness to his mother despite an up and down relationship over the years is as mature as we would hear during the 90s in hip hop. Pac unfortunately balanced out his maturity with more immaturity and aggression after he was released from prison, but he managed to slip gems and jewels in his albums to let everyone know that his mind was still in the right place. Pac was one of the first solo artists that I personally heard use maturity in his music, but of course he wasn't the only one.

As I mentioned earlier, groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest showcased maturity in their music throughout their youth, and you could also throw in lesser lauded groups such as Arrested Development and Digable Planets to the mix. Actually, in reality, Arrested Development made mostly mature music through their whole career, it was just backed by much more melody than the hardcore hip hop. They were extremely positive, preaching afrocentricity and showcasing a much broader perspective on the world than the average artist at the time. Arrested Development definitely has to be one of the first and main proponents of mature and positive hip hop, tackling topics of revolution, religion, love, peace, and harmony in a manner that not too many groups after them have, if any. Honestly, when we talk about groups like Tribe, De La Soul, Arrested Development, and all the legends from the early 90s, my thoughts instantly go to the artists who showcased maturity and more outlook in their music during the mid and late 90s, beginning what many people called the "backpack rap" era.

The first group who continued what groups like Tribe, De La, and Arrested Development started was the Philadelphia band The Roots. Coming into the game as the only hip hop band using live instrumentation, the band would see rappers like Dice Raw and Malik B become a part of the conglomerate, but there was no better lyricist than the front man of The Roots, Black Thought (Black Thought is the front man IMO because without his words, The Roots aren't as legendary). From their first album to their most recent conceptual albums, there isn't a single group in hip hop that has done consistent "mature hip hop" quite like The Roots. One listen to albums like "Do You Want More", "Things Fall Apart", "Undun", and many others in their catalog and you hear precise and sharp lyricism that captures your ear as well as your heart in a way. The Roots tackle so many topics in their music and they all tend to be on the more mature side of things. There's love, emotional complexity, pain, loss, death, depression, mortality, and so much more found within the music of The Roots that they've made a number of albums that feel like a lesson in true mature hip hop.

Other artists in that same realm all come from the same crew so to speak as The Roots. The Soulquarians, a large crew of artists and producers brought together by a need to make the best quality music possible had so many albums come from their circle that they truly revolutionized the mature hip hop game. At the time, hip hop was mostly in the mainstream showcasing a few images that didn't scream out "maturity and awareness". As the rise of The Soulquarians came, we got introduced to names like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and we watched Organized Konfusion member Pharoahe Monch come into his own as a lyricist and solo artist as well. Talib and Mos released one of the best albums together as Blackstar, a supreme hip hop duo, and they would go on to strike gold with true empowering tracks like "Brown Skin Lady", a celebration of the black woman, "Respiration", a track that shows them speaking clearly to the world about mind expansion, emotional relief (check the relief), and more, while the best song on the album "Thieves In The Night", took a deeper look at the system people have trapped in, the music industry itself, but most of all, it was a true look into self reflection and honesty. The same could be said for the albums released by Mos and Talib, like "Black On Both Sides", "Quality", "The New Danger", and "Eardrum", all of which showcased a keen sense of awareness, honesty, and as much emotional openness as one would expect from a hip hop album. Of their entire crew however, there is one man who is without a doubt a key player in the history of mature hip hop, and that's the Chicago native, Common.

Common is probably one of the top 3 artists that makes mature hip hop. He's in a class of his own, and despite some people not being the biggest fans of his work, there is no denying his music is for a more mature crowd so to speak. There are themes and elements within his music that don't border around the immature and simple, and I know that statement doesn't resonate very well, but it's true. Personal music is usually known to go one of two ways, and that's either self loathing or honest and raw. Common has never fallen into the self loathing area, as his albums are lessons in self awareness, accountability, and trying to evolve and grow. Look at his catalog. Following a simpler and more rugged debut album on "Can I Borrow A Dollar",
Common would showcase growth on his next release "Resurrection", and really get much more personal on his 3rd album "One Day It'll All Make Sense". His whole catalog is essentially like this, and though at times he ventures out for more creative and fun endeavors like "Electric Circus" and "UMC", he's always stayed in the lane of more mature subject matter. On later albums such as "Like Water For Chocolate", "Finding Forever", "The Dreamer, The Believer", and his most recent "Black America Again", Common addressed issues within our community and the world, but more importantly he addressed his own internal issues and emotions. However, there are few albums more mature in content and more soul searching than his 2005 classic "BE", which tackled so many different elements within the tracklist, but two of the bigger elements were self love and growth. When we look back at his catalog and his legacy, "BE" will likely be the most important piece to it album wise. It was an album that showcased his newfound mentality, his personal balance, and of course the biggest component of mature hip hop, growth. Common should always be mentioned when using the term "mature hip hop", because he's embodied it his entire career.

I haven't spoke on a lot of southern artists who grew to make mature hip hop, but I can assure you that there are a few. The biggest? Scarface, one of the greatest rappers of all time. His brand of music now is essentially rooted in mature hip hop music, and his albums are some of the most thought provoking and honest albums in our genre. Even in his days as a member of the Geto Boys, Scarface was without a doubt more mature than his age, but he was still a work in progress. Once he got into the latter half of his career, as the 2000s began, there was a stronger emphasis on growth, maturity, personal salvation, and his relationship with God. Willingly speaking with vulnerability that hadn't been as prevalent in his music, Face made projects like "The Fix", "MADE", and "Deeply Rooted", all of which show immense depth and immediate self awareness. When speaking of the most mature artist in hip hop from the south, Face is the man. Still, he isn't the only legend who showcased mature themes in his music. Outkast, the greatest duo ever, created numerous songs on thought provoking albums like ATLiens and Aquemini that truly hit the mark. From "Babylon" to "13th Floor (Growing Old)", Kast set a blueprint for many artists to follow by using their creativity to further mature themes.

Even rappers who seem attached to the streets in some way mature and grow, with Ghostface Killah being one of those legends to really grow and showcase a much more mature side. Considering the style of the Wu-Tang, and how aggressive their music was, watching Ghost speak so openly on his hurt, pain, upbringing, and so much more showed growth and over the years from Ironman to Supreme Clientele to Fishscale and more, we saw Ghost become more and more vivid with his music. It wasn't just legends with street ties and presence who showcased emotional growth in their music, even the promising rappers with top freestyles on the block showed their depth. The biggest example of this is Joe Budden, and while that may shock the majority of you who don't actually listen to enough hip hop and refer to his biggest hit "Pump It Up" (the coming through the TV is hilarious still in the video), he is actually a very dope artist who put his soul on wax. Joe, who makes the news today more for headlines and his anger than his music is another artist who displayed a large amount of soul searching and brutal and real honesty in his music. Look no further than his self titled Def Jam debut where he put his heart on the line on songs like "10 Minutes" and "Calm Down", before going even deeper into his demons on the epic Mood Muzik mixtape series. Joe would speak on his personal hardships in relationships, acknowledge his own faults, and essentially give a more vulnerable take than we are used to hearing in hip hop. Budden has made a career by bringing songs of depth like "Whatever It Takes", "Ordinary Love Shit", "No Idea", and many other songs in his catalog that show a surprising amount of poignancy and honesty. Budden knows he's not perfect and is extremely flawed and he sees fit to put his soul on wax in his music every time.

In today's music, one of the more mature artists in hip hop is Phonte Coleman. While recently, he's struck gold with Foreign Exchange which leans more into the contemporary soul lane, Phonte is a true hip hop artist at his core. One of the biggest things about Phonte that makes his music so relatable is that it is based in real life. When he was a part of Little Brother with 9th Wonder and Big Pooh, they made sure to include mature themes in their music on songs like "All For You", which discussed their fathers and of course on the relationship based "Slow It Down", where Phonte delivered one of the best verses ever on the topic. However, none of that compares to the growth, maturity and adulthood centered vibe of Phonte's solo album "Charity Starts At Home", which is honestly one of the best albums I've heard during this decade. Lyrically, Phonte speaks from a grown man perspective, speaking of the ups and downs of being a provider, a father, a husband, and finding himself within the music. If 4:44 is the most important "mature" hip hop album, then "Charity Starts At Home" resides as one of the best. In the same lane as Phonte is the West Coast MC Blu, who stood out instantly with his classic debut with producer Exile, "Below The Heavens". The album is one of the most soulful of the 2000s, as Blu has a way with words that drives home his story. Two of his most poignant songs in this regard would have to be "Dancing In The Rain" and "No Greater Love", which both have a bit of youthful expression to them, but it is the content that screams out growth, honesty, and maturity. Blu has displayed that on a number of other projects that he's released, but that first album showed how a young artist with some self awareness can truly make his mark.

There are other artists in today's current landscape, including this writer (see my albums like "Immortal Freedom", "Inception", "Soul Revival 1 and 2", and of course the upcoming album "Solitary") and some of our most famous artists today show flashes of brilliance and maturity. While J. Cole isn't the most mature lyricist honestly, we've seen him dabble in mature themes and we can only assume that his music can get more and more mature. There were elements of that on his last two albums, and the same could be said for the current "champion" in the game, Kendrick Lamar. While Kendrick is a work in progress, there are mature and raw elements of life featured on albums of his such as Section.80, GKMC, To Pimp A Butterfly, and of course his most recent DAMN. Still, Kendrick walks the line perfectly, as he manages to create mature themes music and thought provoking content, but he can bring it back to the simple and not so mature at the same time. He has one of the best balances in music, which is why he is so successful. 

However, the best artist of this new era with the most maturity in his music? It's simply Big K.R.I.T. and no one is even close. K.R.I.T. is essentially an old soul, with his music showing his wisdom extends beyond his age, but what makes his music so special is the honesty within it. Nothing in the music from K.R.I.T. is ever really glorified or championed, not even the "debauchery". Instead, it's all a part of his balance and growing experience. It shows that he's a man in conflict, but also shows a man working towards getting his demons and problems in order. What's more mature than that? Whether he takes the time to spit out his soul on tracks like "The Vent", "Boobie Miles", "Vanilla Sky", "REM", "Mediate", and many more, K.R.I.T. expresses a whirlwind of emotions through his music and allows his soul to be bared through his songs. One of his best songs? The soulful "Bigger Picture", which compares a fallen love to an artistic painting, and does so in a clever manner. This is one of my favorite K.R.I.T. songs and it shows why he's one of my favorite artists of recent times. He mixes soul searching, self reflection, and pure honesty together in a way that makes his music head and shoulders above anyone else IMO. It's a breath of fresh air to find that in the younger artists.

However, let's take a moment before I touch on the final artist I wanted to cover and go back to Jay and his music. Now, Jay-Z has shown maturity in spurts in his albums over the years before "4:44" and while 4:44 is his first album that really didn't have any filler, it's not the first foray into mature content, in fact, it's far from his attempt at it. Jay showcased mature content through his first two albums, but only in small quantity. Tracks like "Regrets", "Lucky Me", and "You Must Love Me" showed that beyond the hustler and the street wise businessman, there was depth and growth, much of it untapped. When Jay chased commercial dreams, through his Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 albums, he hadn't touched on any subjects of depth and kept his topics as simple as can be honestly. Lyrically, he was still amazing, but none of the songs really hit harder than surface level. Then, after showing a need to look deeper within himself and life on "The Dynasty" via songs like "This Can't Be Life", "Where Have You Been", and "Soon You'll Understand", Jay gave us his most personal and raw album with the classic project "The Blueprint". 

Throughout the album, Jay spit his soul out for the most part, seemingly rapping from a perspective who had wounds he needed to open up even more to heal himself. From his life growing up to his reasoning for treating women the way he did at the time to his struggle with understanding losing good women, "The Blueprint" was an album that began the true maturation of Jay-Z. Jay struggled as the years went by to keep that same level of depth, showing flashes of that maturity and growth through albums like "The Blueprint 2", "The Black Album", and "Kingdom Come". After the conceptual album "American Gangster", which showed Jay in reflective mode on his street dreams, Jay floundered a bit from the maturity a 40 year old man would logically be rapping about. This made albums like "The Blueprint 3" and "MCHG" tough to digest for listeners who were wondering where the 40 plus year old husband and father was in his music. He hinted at the growth here and there, but even well into his mid 40s, he never fully embraced it. With verses on tracks from Pusha T, Rick Ross, and of course his collab with Future on "I Got The Keys", it seemed Jay was more concerned with staying restricted instead of moving the needle on the record. If anyone was in a position to rap beyond the usual topics of choice in mainstream music and get in depth, Jay was one of two legends who really can delve into that lane. Thus, when "4:44" arrived, it instantly resonated with a number of fans who had been waiting for this the last 8 years.

Without going too much into the album, "4:44" is a modern day classic for Jay in his own catalog. Yes, calling it a classic is a bit premature, but it's as flawless of an album as Jay has made and it feels effortless. This is essentially the true 2nd installment of The Blueprint, coming in at a short but plentiful 10 songs with minimal emphasis on hooks, and it sounds like it was mixed to give off a raw sound. After a 4 year absence, Jay returned with lyrical darts at detractors, financial freedom tips, and reiterated statements that he had been preaching since Reasonable Doubt about black independence and unity over a group of amazing No ID productions. However, the most poignant thing about this album is the admittance of his share of mistakes and how his daughter being born helped to wake him up to his own mishaps and infirmities. It was a revelation of sorts, as Jay sounded more vulnerable than ever, and the lyrics on the album are easily his most precise since "American Gangster". It's one of the only albums where we see Jay speak so candidly about his marriage, his transgressions, and his legacy with his children in the future. It's lyrically all over the place yet concise, and the result feels like a truly mature hip hop album that still allows Jay to talk his shit the way we've grown accustomed to. It's the balance between Shawn Carter the man and husband, Jay-Z the rapper and businessman, and of course, the father. That's what makes the album so special. It's the first and probably last Jay-Z album to show the perfeect mix and blend of who he really is and who we knew him to be. For Jay to release such an album with depth, my biggest issue with the adoration for it was that he was not the only legend in recent years to have made an album like this. Actually, that other legend is the second man who could make an album like this and have it impact the world in a similar manner. Which leads me to the final part of my article.

Last but certainly not least, Nas has always hinted at maturity in his music, but shortly after his return to form with Stillmatic, Nas entered into a maturing phase in his music that he never really grew out of. While most people would look to his last album as the go to project for this discussion, the first album to explore the growth within Nas personally came after the toughest loss in his life. After the loss of his mother, Nas took a look internally to deal with the pain, and as a result we got his most underrated album in 2002 with "God's Son". It was extremely personal, and hinted at growth in a much different direction for the rapper who created "Hate Me Now", "You Owe Me", and much more. This growth would continue for an album that was ahead of its time and not universally loved, the 2004 double album "Street's Disciple", which saw him address tough topics like seeing how his daughter reacts to his new wife, coming to grips with his own mortality, marriage, and finding peace within himself. Truth be told, "Street's Disciple" is one of the most mature albums to ever be released and Nas truly locked into telling his story. Though albums like "Hip Hop Is Dead" and "Untitled" had mature themes at times, it wasn't until his last album, the 2012 classic "Life Is Good" that we saw Nas get truly personal once again. In a way, his three most personal albums are a trilogy in their own right. With "God's Son", you see the beginning of his growth, with "Street's Disciple", you see the completion of his growth and journey including marriage, and with "Life Is Good", you got the fallout from his divorce, the closing of a chapter, and the realization that life goes on. Nas is a legend, in just as high of a standing as Jay is, and with his new album soon to be on the way, he could very well be due for yet another classic mature album with lyrics that show the depth of his personal mental growth.

The point of this article in all honesty is to showcase that mature hip hop has been around and will exist for much longer than a new Jay-Z album. While outlets like Variety, The Root, and others went out of their way to crown Jay with the first ever "mature hip hop" album (or grown ass album, as I saw in a headline), the genre that is alternative and mature hip hop has always existed. In music, growth should always be appreciated in artists, not slandered or critiqued. There are plenty of artists with growth and maturity in their music, and if you haven't heard them, perhaps you take a moment and listen. Mature hip hop is going nowhere, and if you think it JUST arrived into the genre, you're sadly mistaken. Learn the culture before you speak on it.



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