So, I like this post Dwayne Betts wrote at Ta-Nehisi’s place over the weekend about the fact that both the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac died at twenty-five. But I’m not sure I agree with it. Dwayne writes:
If you know hip-hop, then you know the story of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace (Biggie Smalls). I’m getting older now, approaching the age where I can get a 30 and over club card. And sometimes I’m driving down I-295, and I hear a Pac song, or a Big song – and I pause. Both them cats died at 25. I was around 16 when the two passed. But the thing I find so frustrating, looking back at that time, and even thinking about it now – is that I don’t really remember people saying that it was tragic that they died at 25. I mean, what do you know at 25?
There’s a frailty in all of this. I’m thinking of father’s, and struggles and the loss of Big and Pac and the real thing I’m saying is what their deaths meant is that they wouldn’t be able to get the feeling of what it was to give someone what you’d missed. I write about prison a lot, too much for real. It’s my obsession and what I tell people is that if Milton could write about God his entire life (and be dope, I don’t deny the work Paradise Lost does) than I can make prison a metaphor for whatever. And once I wrote that I’d met my fathers in prison. I’ve had to talk about that line way too much – but what I’m saying is that there is a graveyard where the men older than me where. Maybe there are a rack of graveyards. And they were there for all kinds of reasons. But there, they dropped the jewels that living fifty years gives you. Mornings I wake up wondering about what Pac would say at 40.
I’ve written about this some with Amy Winehouse and Courtney Love. But I think you just can’t expect that Biggie and Pac would have still been writing and MCing, much less that they would have done so at the level that they were briefly, and brilliantly, in their youth. I think it still remains to be seen whether hip-hop is going to produce elder statesmen, whether someone is going to step up and play the roles that folks like Paul McCartney, Neil Young, and Eric Clapton have, to name only a few, in rock. And I don’t know if that’s just due to violent beefs, even if I can’t entirely put my fingers on the other factors. Is it that flow is hard to sustain past thirty? That guys (and women*) lose their edge? Jay-Z might be the first guy to make it to late middle age and still be productive, innovative, and sharp. Queen Latifah remains royalty, but she’s largely segued over to other media (though as this Lady Gaga remix she did shows, she can still spit with the best of ’em). In any case, I don’t think you can lament what might have been, with no guarantee that it would have happened.