In both life and career, we all want to script our ending; to walk away with that great proclamation - that statement that proudly tells the world why we matter. Some choose to quit, to walk away looking back occasionally to make sure they're being watched. Some write their last words and take their lives into their own hands tragically. There is a trail of aftermath on both paths. The slow walk away seldom brings tears and pleas to come back, but that trip into the horizon brings emotions of anger and resentment of such a selfish act. “Walk with your eyes forward,” my grandmother always said. Our Hip Hop artists have their heads on a swivel – every ounce of their self-worth is seemingly based upon who's looking, watching, reading and sometimes even listening. Sadly, today's rapper will quit just to feel loved.
When we reflect on the great musicians, we think of time. Specifically, we think of the manner in which they made timeless music, how they were before their time and often how tragedy took them before their time. From Sam Cooke, to Marvin Gaye, all the way to Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, and Big Pun, we talk about their music and time in the same breath. These greats never cheated us out of music, contemplated quitting, or begged for unneeded attention – they simply created. It’s what separates the good artist from the great. They never needed to demand attention because their art took care of that for them. Jazz giant John Coltrane once said about innovators in all realms of art, “Whatever the case, whether accepted or rejected, rich or poor, they are forever guided by that great and eternal constant – The creative urge.” The great artists are pushed by this urge, our eyes and words mean nothing to them.
Without question the creative urge is present in Hip Hop. From Kanye’s experimental album 808’s & Heartbreak to Nas & Damian Marley’s Distant Relatives, Hip Hop continues to evolve. We have a handful of artists who are willing to step outside of their comfort zone and push the craft. Hip Hop as an art-form is ever vibrant with expanding rhyme schemes, production techniques, instrumentation, and vocal deliveries. This evolution is the reason Hip Hop is so beloved, the reason people place their entire existence within the culture. Numbers and popular trends aside, if you’re reading this, Hip Hop has almost certainly played a significant role in your life. The creative urge is present unfortunately other motives have begun to cloud its existence. Instead of striving to be great, and following that urge, we have emcees who are guided by fame and attention.
Rappers are retiring at a troubling rate. All too many take the “I’m bigger than this” approach. They quit in a condescending manner, avoiding such timely things like class or respect. A critically-acclaimed new artist like Kid Cudi hinted at an extremely early retirement once by saying, “I’m too real for this high school musical shit.” It may have been an unintentional slight towards his forefathers and peers but it nevertheless was disrespectful to those that paved the way. Instead of allowing his then yet to be released album Man On The Moon: The End of Day answer critics and haters, he took to his blog to quit. Sure, it was followed by a “I’m not going anywhere” blog a few days or week later, but it was said nonetheless. Cudi questioned each fan's devotion to his art and each emcee's worth to the culture. By doing so, he planted a seed of doubt, which has continued to sprout. Even after the critically-acclaimed debut album, he more recently said, “I plan to make five more albums before I retire for good.” Apparently no lesson was learned, humility escaped him, and he once again stood above the culture looking down telling it what he would give. That doubt has blossomed and we all are left pondering his intentions of creating in the first place. Is that urge present?
Part of the blame can be directly related to social networking sites. With the ability to blog, tweet or post videos, artists are given the opportunity to post their feelings at a second’s notice. In a world of instant media coverage, words and actions can not be taken back. Regardless of whether the post or tweet stays active, once it is said, it can not be reversed - ask Asher Roth. Unfortunately, these words begin to compromise and artist’s worth. Inevitably, fans begin to question their devotion to the craft, and instead of garnering sympathy from these postings they are instead attacked with a wrath.
When Too Short first “retired” in 1996, he had to rely on The Source and radio hosts to spread the word. It took a lot of work to publicize Short Dog's exit from the game. It was a drastically different world 14 years ago than it is now. Eventually it came to light that Too Short’s retirement was linked to frustrations with Jive Records contract negotiations and it was his way of getting leverage. These days that same situation is a MySpace post from Saigon saying “I quit,” Jean Grae alluding to the same, or an open letter from an album-less Nino Bless expressing his displeasure with the business, attempting to justify walking away. Thousands of people see it instantly. Media sources eat it up. Souljah Boy gets fed up with the hate and tweets a novel saying, “I’m taking my money and leaving.” Social networking has allowed angry, hurt and impulsive artists to have the world on the tip of their fingers and unfortunately, they’re ready to quit with a simple click. A professor once told me there is no such thing as a dormant (retired) writer; you either write, await inspiration to write or you claim another profession.” Musically, the same logic reigns true.
Q-Tip recently said about retiring “I just don’t even understand that. It just frustrated me. Like, why deprive us of your talent forever and say you’ve retired? I could understand sabbaticals and taking time off. Or even if you’re a group, I could understand a group disbanding, but still in their own ways as individuals still remaining creative. So when you say you’ve retired, that means basically that you’re not touching it no more, no more music.” It’s that type of logic that everyday fans think with, the logic that the true school era of emcees write with. It’s the reason why we have under-appreciated and under-supported artists from the '80s still making music. It speaks to why Rev Run found the Lord and time to make music, and why Mase retired and came back when he felt the time was right.
Where do we go as culture when emcees think they are now bigger than Hip Hop? How do we actually take retirement threats seriously when emcees use it as promotional tools? Game said, “My third album might be my last album — so look out,"” in attempts to generate buzz around L.A.X. 50 Cent said he’d retire if Curtis didn’t outsell Kanye West's Graduation, and then later blamed it on his label, Interscope. Lupe Fiasco said, “My whole energy for making Hip Hop music is slowing down” and then continued to say that he may retire after his third album. Too Short retired, but never really stayed out of the mix and returned with a heavily-promoted comeback album Can’t Stay Away. Scarface did this with 2008's Emeritus, then became a free agent and released a retail mixtape in Dopeman Music earlier this year. When Jay-Z hung up the mic, he didn’t leave us because he ventured as far as he could musically; he left us with Fade To Black to watch and The Black Album to purchase. It is getting increasingly more difficult to trust artist’s intentions. Sales first, even if it means a retirement threat. Anything to drum up attention.
While Game and Cudi sit pounding on that drum, Lupe’s claim is boredom. The quote is so ego-centered it’s unbelievable. Part of any art form is the fact that any artist can venture into new territories. Lupe Fiasco is essentially is saying that the confines of the game, bore him, unaware that he at any time can step outside of those confines and create. Maybe Lupe pushed his insane rhyme schemes as far as he could possibly take them, but is that really all he can do musically? Kanye got bored down and created 808’s & Heartbreak. Common got bored and made a questionable Universal Mind Control. You can’t knock some one for pushing the boundaries, testing themselves, even if the experiment goes array. In Jazz, Coltrane’s original quartet was as good as any group in Jazz History and created some of the most timeless music in any genre. As they progressed as a unit, their method and sound began to bore Coltrane. Even though, groups to this day still try to replicate their sound, he wanted more. Instead of hanging up his saxophone, he pushed the envelope of sound further than any Jazz musician before or after him, all in the name of that creative urge.He never publicly criticized the established standards of Jazz or provided fans with a public contemplation of quitting. It was the contrary; he pushed the envelope as far as he could possibly push it. He embraced his art, looking desperately for inspiration when the current form didn’t provide it.
The steady decline in sales has also led to emcees venturing into other forms of art or business. It, in my opinion, is a positive thing. Emcees have become more involved in film more so than any other musician. By all means artists should support themselves by other means if that is what they choose to do. Ice Cube makes his money in film yet find someone who says that Ice Cube isn’t a Hip Hop artist. Ask Ice Cube if he considers retiring. He’s already prepping a new record that he thinks will change the way we look at the west coast. Ice-T is a millionaire because of television, but he gets giddy with excitement when talking about Mobb Deep or new records with Canibus or Immortal Technique. Common is slowly becoming more ingrained in the movie industry, but I dare anybody to question his artistry as a poet or emcee. You can do both if you are inspired to create. When Cudi says, “I want to leave behind music and just do acting,” he isn’t stating that he loves acting as much as he’s stating that music was never really his calling. In many ways, it’s a sucker punch to artists who aren’t nearly as successful as Kid Cudi but have devoted more of themselves to their art. The statement, "I only got into the music business to tell my story and inspire some people. I think four albums will do it, and when I’m done with my four, five albums, I’ll switch it up. Once the story is told [musically], there’s nothing else to say,” is an unfortunate way of thinking. The whole stepping stone mentality, I’ll use this to get me what I want, is harmful to all involved. When Kevin Federline released his mess of an album (2006's Playing With Fire), it wasn’t because he loved Hip Hop, it was because he wanted to use Hip Hop to increase his visibility. Is there a difference?
Follow the leader. As disappointing as Rakim’s The Seventh Seal may have been, it was beautiful to see the God emcee hungry. KRS-One’s joint-venture with Buckshot, Survival Skills, demonstrates how he continually wants to make music, regardless of the numbers that he pushes. Give Grandmaster Melle Mel a mic and he is thrilled. I’ve seen it. Jay-Z couldn’t stay away – Game acts like he never made the statement. Artists create. The thought of them giving up their talents for something else sounds like a decision of life or death. Maybe it’s an allusion to think that every artist cares as much as you or I do. Maybe I’m be a hypocrite when I say how offended I was that an established artist like Khia says that “Hip Hop is gone,” and goes onto say that she is retired from rapping, when I hate her music to begin with. Yet I felt a genuine loss when Jean Grae announced her retirement. As Killer Mike once said, “I need my favorite rappers rappin’, ‘cause life is hard, and I don’t believe in preachers.”
Independent music king Tech N9ne responded to a question about retiring with this, “I have to reach my plateau. I have to tread every piece of this earth before I go, man.” Jay Z told XXL, "I think I pulled the retirement ripcord too many times. People [are] looking at me like, `Please shut up.' I was looking at [my retirement movie] Fade To Black the other day. I was embarrassed. I couldn't watch. I'm not playing with you. I had to turn it off.” Saigon’s back, without an explanation, Game has kept working, as have artists like Souljah Boy, Scarface, and 50 Cent. Jay acknowledged his mistake and promised “never to do it again” and that “he’d just let nature take its course.” Tech worked to hard to establish a fan base to walk away, when making music is all he ever wanted to do. When it stops being a sales pitch, suddenly staying put makes a whole lot of sense.
The act of retirement has become the art of deception. No one walks away as the sun is setting with his or her music softly playing in the background. We as fans don’t even get the opportunity to beg for their return because them leaving is so orchestrated and at times fabricated that we can’t even play along. The illusion is over. Artists either create, attempt to create, or cease to exist. As Black Sheep would say, "The Choice is yours."
The views and opinions expressed in the following feature editorial are those expressly of the writer of this piece and do not necessarily reflect those of HipHopDX.