2017 represented a fork in the road for two, aging, capital “L” Lyrical; wordsmiths in an era of hip-hop that was rapidly moving away from that. Toward the end of 2016, Joe Budden released what would be his final album in Rage & The Machine. The collection of technically proficient, moody music was a fitting exit.
Opinionated as ever about the state of hip-hop on his podcast and songs like “Uncle Joe,” the New Jersey rapper pointed out the difference between himself and the current crop of artists. In the months following Rage & The Machine’s release, that difference became more and more evident. He critiqued Drake’s album Views on The Joe Budden Podcast, eventually engaging in a battle with the Toronto superstar in which Budden appeared to be the only active participant. As he continued to watch the gulf widen between himself—a traditional lyricist par excellence—and the artists that were topping the charts, the New Jersey rapper took the bold step of announcing his retirement.
The announcement was definitive and pointed. It was less a concession that his best years as a rapper were behind him, and more of an acknowledgment that his best years as something else were ahead of him. He was not planning to fade quietly into obscurity like his peers before him, and since Budden had proven himself a charismatic content creator long before that was a common phrase, he didn’t have to.
Besides creating content, he also had a knack for being ahead of the curve and forecasting trends. He served as a co-host of Hot 97’s morning show in 2004—foreshadowing his career as a podcaster. The voyeuristically personal Mood Musik mixtape series would inspire fan-turned-nemesis Drake, among many others, to bare their innermost thoughts and demons in their music. Even his Joe Budden TV YouTube channel and his early adoption of Twitter are examples of the many trends Budden set in hip-hop culture while others received the credit and accolades.
Instead of becoming bitter, Joe Budden responded to the changing world around him by parlaying his charisma and insider’s perspective into becoming hip-hop’s most popular talking head on Complex’s Everyday Struggle, while still hosting his increasingly popular, self-titled podcast.
The other aging emcee who had a turning point in 2017 was Eminem. Instead of finding a new way to address the world that was changing around him, he responded by releasing Revival. Em’s late-career singles “Not Afraid,” “Love The Way You Lie,” and “The Monster,” are more Dr. Luke than Dr. Dre, but were also all huge commercial hits. Unfortunately, the Detroit rapper went back to that well one time too many for Revival, surrounding more navel-gazing pop ballads with 101-level political discourse and scatological humor. Revival was a mix of the worst impulses from his worst work.
“Eminem’s response to the criticism of his last album should not have been to lash out at every critic. It should have been to make better music.”
It was met with mixed reviews and a relatively lethargic commercial response. Even with features from the likes of Beyonce, Ed Sheeran, and Alicia Keys, Revival disappeared from hip-hop fans’ collective consciousness like an Instagram Story. On its lead single, the Beyonce-featured “Walk On Water,” the Detroit emcee lamented setting the bar so high early in his career, that he was unsure that he could clear it again as a middle-aged veteran. “Into the dark, I plummet/Now the sky’s blackening, I know the mark’s high/Butterflies rip apart my stomach/Knowing that no matter what bars I come with/You’re gonna hark, gripe, and that’s a hard Vicodin to swallow,” he rapped. The album even missed commercial success, being his first album to not reach the RIAA platinum certification. He did indeed fall short in 2017, which led some to question if the battle-tested 45-year-old would reach those heights again.
In a contact sport of a different kind, Washington Redskins running back Adrian Peterson was the subject of harsh criticism from former players-turned-television personalities Cris Carter and Shannon Sharpe. After news broke that the 33-year-old was continuing his career with the Redskins, both Sharpe and Carter expressed skepticism that the former MVP would be able to perform at a high level again. Peterson responded that “watching some of the things they said about me, man, it really hurt me to the core… ‘he’s washed up and this, that, and the other, and he should just retire.’ How dare you?”
On August 31, 2018, hip-hop’s former MVP responded to criticism in a similarly combative fashion. Eminem unexpectedly dropped his tenth studio album, Kamikaze. The album is a sharp turn from Revival with a motivated Eminem spending a significant portion of the album lashing out at critics, including journalists and artists like Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt—both of whom cite Em as an early influence. Of the many rappers who caught strays, the one sent Joe Budden’s way felt the most personal. On “Fall,” Eminem says, “Somebody tell Budden before I snap, he better fasten it/ Or have his body baggage zipped/ The closest thing he’s had to hits is smacking b***hes.”
The shot was not expected. Joe Budden has created a lane for himself that previously only existed for athletes, becoming the Cris Carter and Shannon Sharpe to Eminem’s Peterson. He’s now an ex-jock turned broadcaster. Similar to the sports world, rappers are very careful to not critique other rappers, unless they are universally disregarded as unworthy of respect. An additional layer to the Eminem and Joe Budden relationship is the fact that Eminem signed Budden’s group Slaughterhouse to Shady Records, where they remain under contract. So when Budden called Revival single “Untouchable” “one of the worst songs I ever heard,” the line was crossed, and the gauntlet was thrown down. On Wednesday (Sept. 5), Budden fired off his response to “Fall” on his new podcast episode, “TV & Mayonnaise.”
“I’ve been better than you this entire f**king decade,” he said to Em. “You gotta say something. You have not said anything for the better part of a whole f**king decade!”
Eminem is an all-time great emcee and has earned the right to rap until he is 100 years old if he wants. The ageism in hip-hop is just as unfair as the fogeyism that has caused established artists to decry their younger counterparts for taking the genre into new and different directions. However, Eminem, nor any other artist, is above reproach. Eminem’s response to the criticism of his last album should not have been to lash out at every critic. It should have been to make better music. As it stands, he managed to tarnish the latter by doing the former.
While it doesn’t stand up to his groundbreaking early albums, Kamikaze is a return to form as the Detroit emcee sounds like he’s having fun rapping again. However, the bitter taste of Revival taints the fresher approach of Kamikaze; maybe Em is in on the joke. On the “Paul” skit, his business partner and now Def Jam head honcho Paul Rosenberg wonders, “What’s next? Kamikaze 2, the album where you reply to everybody who didn’t like the previous album? It’s a slippery slope.”
As for Budden, he chose a different path. Instead of complaining about how different hip-hop became or his detractors, he created new options for hip-hop legacy acts to thrive. His eponymous podcast is among the most downloaded on the iTunes charts and was just picked up by streaming conglomerate Spotify. He’s also announced a new show State of the Culture on Revolt TV, which will bring his pointed takes on hip-hop and beyond to millions of TV screens.
Hip-hop is a 40-year-old genre that doesn’t seem to know what to do with its 40-year-old artists. Innovation and open-mindedness will decide whether hip-hop’s elders will fade away like their predecessors, or remain in the public eye. Artists can either choose to change what they don’t like about the state of hip-hop culture or complain themselves into obscurity.