Black Thought, Eminem, And The Two Faces Of Aging In Hip-Hop
Black Thought doesn’t have the album sales or name recognition of some of his aging contemporaries. He has something better: rap fans wondering if a 46-year-old is the best rapper alive.
In the year 2006, at age 15, I was too busy soaking up every word from Black Thought, a.k.a. Tariq Trotter, on The Root’s Game Theory album, to know that apparently he had a reputation among music critics of being, well, a bit of a bore.
While I was absorbing the bleak picture of desperation painted on Game Theory (“In the land of the unseen hand that holds trouble/Theorize your game, it’s difficult to roll a double”) or digging backwards and stumbling upon the dazzling dexterity of The Tipping Point (“I’m a decorated vet, I regulate and wreck/Never hesitated yet, I’m gettin’ heavy weighted checks/ If you would dare ask if I’m dedicated, yes; I spit live rounds that’ll penetrate a vest”), music writers from outlets like Pitchfork were penning excerpts like this:
“Such rationalizations can’t hide the monotonous nonchalance of Thought’s natural delivery or his often second-rate bread-and-butter battle rhymes… his passivity is the Roots’ most noticeable handicap.” - Game Theory review, Pitchfork (2004)
Setting aside, for a moment, the laughable idea that the Roots’ on-stage leader and most forceful personality — the man who gave voice to the same narratives and politics the band would come to be known for — was ever an expendable part of the team, the point is nonetheless taken: Black Thought was viewed by some as an above-average MC at best, not a future candidate for Greatest of All-Time. They heard lines like, “This directed to whoever in listening range, yo the whole state of things in the world ‘bout to change/ black rain falling from the sky look strange, the ghetto is red hot, we steppin’ on flames” and somehow, were left wanting.
That context is important to keep in mind, after Thought (now a ripe 46 years old) dropped a 10-and-a-half minute, fully memorized freestyle on Funk Flex (Ciroc Studios!) last month that immediately set Twitter ablaze, igniting campfire debates about whether he’s the best rapper alive and issuing a stern rebuke of the widely accepted notion that rap is a young man’s game. But what may have been juiciest of all was the way it overshadowed the album release of his most famous contemporary, 45-year-old Eminem, whose Revival album was immediately panned by critics from The Guardian to The Needledrop upon its release the next day. The back-to-back releases, and their polar opposite receptions, pitted Em and Black Thought against each other in an unlikely face-off painting two vastly different pictures of an endeavor that many have attempted and most have failed: aging gracefully in the world of hip-hop.
As hip-hop contemporaries whose lyrical skill was treated with such reverence by their peers, whose popular and critical peaks (early 2000’s) almost perfectly coincide, for Eminem and Black Thought to have crossed paths as little as they seemingly did, almost makes it seem as if their careers played out in parallel universes. And on second thought, maybe they did.
While Black Thought was leading a head-nodding hip-hop/jazz band (or playing sidekick to drummer Questlove Thompson, depending on who you ask) and hitting impressive peaks like No. 2 and No. 3 on the Billboard charts for hip-hop/R&B albums, Eminem was sitting at a comfortable and consistent number one. Not in hip-hop — overall. Since his debut album, The Slim Shady LP, which peaked at No. 2 on the charts in 1999, every subsequent Eminem album (starting with 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP) has spent at least one week at the No. 1 position for Billboard’s Hot 200 albums.
To rap fans, it may feel like Eminem has never been bigger than he was in 2000, when he was named XXL’s Man of the Year, memorably flooded the MTV VMAs with hundreds of Slim Shady lookalikes, and enjoyed the second-biggest opening week of sales in music-industry history by moving 1.8 million copies of The Marshall Mathers LP. But, as weird as it may sound, Eminem was actually more famous in the decade that followed. It’s a telling sign of the post-monoculture era we live in: 2010’s-era Eminem, who in no way dominated the national conversation the way early-aughts Eminem did, absolutely crushed him on the charts.
The numbers don’t lie: prior to 2009, Eminem had released just one overall No. 1 single (“Lose Yourself,” in 2002). Since 2009, he has had four. Of the 11 Eminem songs that have ever charted in the Top 10 of Hip-Hop/R&B, all but one (“Lose Yourself”) is from 2009 or later. Statistically speaking, it’s been a run of almost unassailable success. Critically speaking, it’s been a scattered and uninspired mess of material that, even prior to Revival, had relegated him to something of an artistic purgatory — the rapper who made his splash with shocking lyrics about killing his mom and drowning his girlfriend, now more than 40 years of age and struggling to figure out what to talk to us about. Rihanna may be able to take you to the top of the charts (twice), but she can’t make you an interesting person.
Black Thought, on the other hand, has never even sold a solo album (the closest we may ever hear to one, according to Questlove, was The Tipping Point, which Quest called “Tariq’s record” in his memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues). The average person on the street probably cannot give you an opinion on Black Thought; in fact, they may not even know that you’re talking about a person. But what the Dalai Lama of the mic lacks in sales, he more than makes up for in respect and near-reverence from his peers. Take it from 9th Wonder:
“Thought is your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. He’s the favorite rapper that nobody likes to say out loud… it’s just a different air when he walks in the room around rappers, bruh. The air changes because everybody knows, ‘If I gotta get on a record with this dude, it’s a possibility I might get chewed.’ I think he’s a samurai when it comes to that. He’s highly respected.”
Unshackled by an expectation of mass popularity, Thought has pursued music on his terms instead of toiling within the monotonous “intro-verse-hook-verse-hook” confines of the label-radio-industrial complex like Eminem. Rather than take part in shallowly ambitious collaborations like Ed Sheeran and Alicia Keys, he’s combined forces with respected vets like DJ Premier, Royce Da 5’9”, Styles P and Phonte; embraced up-and-comers like Logic, Action Bronson and Rapsody; and made it clear, from Tony Touch to Sway In The Morning to Funkmaster Flex, that he is still an absolute menace when it comes to a freestyle.
In the near-decade since the move to be Jimmy Fallon’s late-night house band had music writers penning the Roots’ obituary, the one-time Philadelphia art school kids have not only managed to survive as a respected and critically lauded group, they’ve flourished. And Tariq Trotter — who has somehow walked the impossible tightrope of doing silly current events freestyles every night without losing an ounce of hip-hop credibility — looks nothing short of prophetic.
As it turns out, Em and Thought actually have rapped on the same track together, a BET Cypher in 2009 that also included Mos Def. They both turn in stellar lyrical performances, but even in the space of 20 bars, then 37-year-old Eminem can’t resist threatening Taylor Swift (then 20 years old) with a picture of his genitalia along with a note saying “can’t wait to nail ya.” If this kind of rhyme — linguistically “clever” but materially repulsive and sophomoric — garnered an eye roll back then, it hardly even registers in the larger context of Eminem’s music now. In resolute defiance of the idiom that with age comes wisdom, Em has littered his recent music with lyrics that are embarrassing to read, let alone say out loud:
“I’m lookin at your tight rear like a sightseer/Your booty is heavy duty (/doody), like diarrhea” - Revival
“Since I’m manure, she’s a sewer/ And this time this piece of shit’s running through her” - Revival
“Fuck you lookin’ at, hater?/ I saw them eyes (/sodomize) like an ass raper” - Big Sean’s “No Favors”
“Ain’t no one safe from, non-believers there ain’t none/ I even make the bitches I rape cum” - Dr. Dre’s “Medicine Man”
As time passes, artists evolve — their tastes change, their circumstances change, and their art changes as well. But certain qualities are immutable and persistent. For all the thoughtful, reserved ruminations on family and fatherhood that Jay Z has delivered in recent years, he’ll never fully relinquish the unflinching swagger that carried him from “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde” to “99 Problems” to “Otis.” And well-paid bandleader of a late-night comedy show with a primarily white audience or not, Black Thought’s sandpaper voice remains an unimpeachable and authoritative Voice of God on any track he lends it to, able to combine simultaneously the bookishness of an academic with the street smarts of a hustler.
But for Eminem, the characteristics that have persisted through two decades of music aren’t flattering, they’re draining and tiresome. Raping C-list celebrities, gruesomely murdering TV personalities, beating women — to whatever degree these things can be considered “interesting” devices of artistic expression coming from a boundary-pushing 26-year-old, they are decidedly less so coming from a 45-year-old man. Em’s personal brand isn’t an aesthetic or tone that can be deftly molded to whatever new ground he wants to cover as he grows; it’s a series of unimaginative tropes that should’ve been left behind in his 20’s.
Where Eminem’s music smacks of the laziness and apathy of an assigned project, Black Thought’s seems to exude the quiet confidence that comes from a job undertaken with purpose. Though the fanfare around the band’s last two albums — 2014’s ...and then you shoot your cousin and 2011’s Undun — would never be confused for Beatles mania, both were conceptual, sonically rich journeys that inspired some of Trotter’s best writing to date. With a full-time gig as demanding as The Tonight Show, there’s presumably very little time for projects that don’t seize the collective imagination of the Roots crew, and that filtering mechanism seems to have spread to Thought’s solo work as well.
In Thought’s work, there is little filler. There are certainly no embarrassing lyrics about pooping. As a result, there are no listicles online of the “Top 10 Worst Black Thought Bars.” Black Thought made a career off telling stories in both the literal and the abstract, spending whole albums unrolling yarns of existential dread (Game Theory, Rising Down) as well as uplifting perseverance (How I Got Over), and through it all, you got the sense that there just wasn’t a lot of room to fit in diarrhea jokes. Media, money, power, corruption, poverty, love, loss: these aren’t the kind of topics that we become less invested in as an artist gets older, they’re topics we get more invested in. Fictitious and disgusting exploits with other, often much younger, celebrities? Not so much.
Past a certain age, the promotion of violence seems willfully ignorant, even boring, and desperately clutching for whatever is culturally “cool” comes off as pathetic. Black Thought, having never relied on either, is therefore immune to their gravity. He can, as Beyoncé and Eminem sing on Revival, “walk on water.” (Eminem, as if realizing this, has some attempts at soft, self-critical introspection on Revival. The style is such unfamiliar territory for Marshall, he comes off sounding like a bad imitation of Macklemore.)
Maybe that’s why his Funkmaster Flex freestyle set Twitter aflame the way it did. Or maybe, when something hits the Internet at just the right time, nothing else matters.
Regardless, the way that famous venture capitalists, entertainment personalities, hip-hop heads, sports commentators and everyday people were re-opening the conversation that a 46-year-old, no-albums, no-major-singles rapper might be the best MC on Earth, felt like a major moment in hop-hop. It felt like the “Control” verse. And this time, when the smoke cleared, there was a Detroit rapper laying mangled in the wreckage once again. It wasn’t Big Sean (God rest his soul), it was the legend, Eminem. And just as the opening verse of “Control” had been banished to the outer reaches of the hip-hop universe as soon as Kendrick uttered the words, “I’m important like the pope, I’m a muslim on pork/ I’m Makaveli’s offspring, I’m the King of New York,” Revival had been erased from our collective memory before it even had a chance to land.
Weeks later, the hip-hop fans who remember that Eminem released an album last month only do so because of its unfathomably bad lyrics, sound, concept, and while we’re at it, album art. Perhaps he’s lucky, as a mediocre release would have been forgotten entirely. What most of us can’t forget is Black Thought’s appearance on Funk Flex, and the most important number isn’t his 46 years of age. It’s the 10 straight minutes he spent rapping our ears off — the most exciting 10 minutes a rapper, of any age, put together in 2017.
P.S. - With his ninth studio album Revival debuting at No. 1, Eminem became the first artist in recorded music history to have eight straight number one albums. If Black Thought had released nine albums, they would all have gone No. 1 in our hearts.