On Rappers & Fathers: Hip Hop Grows Up

Jay-Z: An MC who raps about fatherhood

Jay-Z; Photo by Alex Johnson via Wikimedia Commons

I grew up listening to hip hop, and hip hop has grown up with me. Like rock n’ roll, a genre that once favored the young but now sees seasoned veterans and elder statesmen releasing vibrant albums (like, most recently, David Bowie’s excellent The Next Day), the hip hoppers that I used to nod my head to in middle school are now in their forties and still going strong.

As they’ve aged, hip hop artists have come to tackle grown-up subject matter. Especially in the past few years, that’s come to include the subject of fatherhood. Nas rapped about his daughter on his last album, Life is Good, on a song called, appropriately enough, “Daughters.” He described his anxiety over his teenage daughter posting a picture of a box of condoms on Instagram. “I’m too loose, too cool with her,” he says, a line that captures a struggle of contemporary parenting — how do you retain a sense of self, especially a self that likes blaring party anthems and enjoys chilling out and playing it loose, while being a authority-figure and role-model? Though Nas’s situation, with a public image built on being a bad boy, might be extreme, he describes a challenge that I think resonates with many parents, wanting to be both responsible and fun-loving at once.

Nas’s rival Jay-Z has addressed parenting as well, releasing the song “Glory” two days after the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy. On that track, he raps “Hard not to spoil you rotten, looking like little me” and mentioning, if briefly, worries after Beyonce miscarried a previous pregnancy. I can’t say I listen to the song much, but it’s an amazing departure in subject matter for an artist known more for boasting about his hustle, wealth, and past sins as a drug dealer than reflecting on his emotions as a family man. But increasingly, on albums since The Black Album, Jay-Z has rapped with great honesty and sensitivity about his father abandoning the family, and the effect that had on him as a young man.

Despite these parent-themed tracks, I often cringe when I’m hanging with my son and some of my favorite jams come up on iTunes. Tracks by Dr. Dre and The Notorious B.I.G., to name two of the most extreme examples, are just too violent and explicit for me to feel comfortable playing around my all-ears, ever-attentive son. Dropping a curse here and there in a verse I’m ok with; I do this myself when I talk sometimes. But when those words and certain subject matter come to the fore, I can’t in good faith play the song when my son is around. I save these tunes for when I’m doing the dishes and he’s in bed.

Perhaps this explains Snoop Dogg’s recent “reincarnation” as Snoop Lion, a Rastafarian-minded pacifist who sings more than raps. Snoop’s smooth delivery makes this switch less jarring than one might expect. On the tune, “No Guns Allowed,” he croons about gun violence and how we should spend more time with our kids, and he includes his teenage daughter singing with a choir in the hook. While I’m sure — or, to be honest, I hope — that the old gin-and-juice party loving, Old Testament vengeful Snoop Dogg will have his comeback, I don’t think his new personae is entirely a marketing play on Snoop’s part, but a reflection of a middle-aged guy with kids wanting to make art that better reflects his views as a father.

Hip-hop’s not just changing its tone in taking about kids, but in talking to kids as well. Science Genius, an initiative by the website Rap Genius, Columbia University Teachers College Assistant Professor Chris Edmin, and Wu-Tang master-rapper GZA, The Genius, brings hip-hop into high school classrooms, using it as a vehicle to encourage students to study science concepts. GZA, a natural born rapper who drops clever, well-thought out verses seemingly without effort, has a science concept album out later this year called Dark Matter that he describes as “a cosmic journey through the universe.”

Works like this show, to paraphrase Andre 3000 from OutKast, that hip-hop’s about more than just guns and alcohol. And it’s my hope that the maturation of hip-hop subject matter will allow me to keep it on rotation as my son grows up. Felix already loves Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” which he calls “The New York song,” and listening to “Forever Young” (both from The Blueprint 3) made an impact as well. “Why is this song kind of sad?” he asked.

“It’s about aging, and how everyone gets old, but you still have the good memories of being a kid, and you keep making good memories.”

I’m confident that, even as a parent, I’ll continue growing memories with a hip-hop soundtrack. As a song like “Forever Young” demonstrates, this music can be youthful in spirit and deep in thought at once.

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