Won't Stop Rocking 'Til I Retire: Hip Hop's Year of Retirement Fever

Nicki Minaj
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Nicki Minaj attends The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 6, 2019 in New York City. 

When Jay-Z released his supposed swan song, 2003’s The Black Album, and then cut his retirement short in 2006, rap’s next generation of stars was ready with wisecracks. “You 38 and you’re still rappin’? Ugh! I’m 26 and so is the dubs,” Compton insurgent The Game rapped on his hit “It's Okay (One Blood)” (Jay was 36 at the time, but nobody doubted the target of Game’s one liner). 

The Game was still rapping at 38, but he appears to be ready to take his own advice, if belatedly: November 29 is his 40th birthday, and also the release date of what he says will be his final album, Born 2 Rap. “I’ve had a great run & surpassed my rap goals a long time ago,” The Game recently stated in a post on Instagram.

Two days after The Game’s swan song was released, the frequently controversial rapper Azealia Banks, 28, announced on Instagram her immediate retirement from music. Five days after that, New York rap veteran Fat Joe, 49, released Family Ties, which he says will probably be his final album. “I think I’m retiring,” he hedged to CBS News. “I’ve been flirting with it.” 

The year is ending with a rash of rap retirements, but they’ve been happening steadily for all of 2019. Jeezy, who stopped being “Young” Jeezy a few years ago, released his 9th album, TM104: The Legend of the Snowman, in August, fulfilling his Def Jam contract and officially beginning retirement a few weeks before his 42nd birthday. Wale, 35, opened his October release Wow…That’s Crazy with a song that confirmed a tweet earlier this year that it could be his final LP: “My sixth album my last, I’m super sick of this business.” And Lil Uzi Vert, who’s only 25, has been in a stalemate with his label since his last album came out in 2017, and in January declared that he’s “done with music.” 

Some recent rap retirements have been left a little more ambiguous. Nicki Minaj, 36, shocked the world in September when she tweeted “I’ve decided to retire & have my family.” But she started to backtrack on that statement almost immediately, and at this point it’s not clear whether she still plans to release her 5th album, announced in July, or whether it will be her last. Rapper/actor Donald Glover, 36, gave the last scheduled performance of his hip hop alter ego Childish Gambino’s This Is America Tour in October, after announcing in 2018 that his next album and tour would be his last. The strange part, however, is that the last Gambino album never materialized, despite a chart-topping single and months of touring. Serial retiree Lupe Fiasco, 37, first said his next album would be his last in 2009. Then he said it again in 2012, and cancelled another album with a retirement announcement in 2016. Having since released two more albums, he’s once more hinted that he’s done in 2019, tweeting “On to new things and new avenues…rap was good to me” in February.

So what’s up with all of these rap stars, most of them in their 30s or early 40s, retiring faster than GOP congressmen in the Trump era? When a rapper announces their intentions to retire from music while still in the prime of their life, it can be a little hard to take the statement as face value, thanks largely to Jay-Z. For the first few years of his career, he’d frequently hint at an early retirement, only to recant with a boast like “Can’t leave rap alone, the game needs me.” Even when he did wave goodbye with the highly anticipated 2003 swan song The Black Album, he lasted only 3 years. And despite the fact that most of the album plays like a farewell party for someone who never left, robbing the album of some of its emotional impact it’s continued to be celebrated as one of Jay’s best. The Black Album has no doubt stayed in the minds of many rap stars who’d love to attend their career’s own funeral and feel celebrated as a departing legend. 

Of course, Jay-Z isn’t the only rapper who’s cried wolf about leaving the game. Scarface said 2008’s Emeritus was his final solo album, but then he slipped back in through the mixtape loophole with 2010’s Dopeman Music, and then made another proper album, 2015’s Deeply Rooted. Lil Wayne said many times that he’d retire at the age of 35 or sooner – instead, he released 2018’s long-delayed Tha Carter V just after his 36th birthday, and has since resumed his career with no further mention of quitting the game.

Naturally, many of these rappers have already made enough money that they could leave the entertainment industry at any time, whether it’s a love of the spotlight, creative urges, or a hunger to earn more that keeps them coming back. But there’s a darker subtext: many of their peers and idols didn’t live long enough to kick their feet up and rest on their laurels. In one of his final interviews in 1997, the Notorious B.I.G. told Spin that he wanted to “quit the game and just chill and watch my kids grow up – live the life of a normal rich person.” Thoughts like that were probably on Jay-Z’s mind when he spent most of the late ‘90s and early 2000s on the verge of retiring.  

But the fleeting nature of most rap retirements, which make even Jay-Z’s three years look like an impressive commitment, have trivialized whatever sincere concerns might tempt artists to hang it up. Toronto rapper NAV, 30, briefly piggybacked on a collaborator’s retirement earlier this year, posting “If Lil Uzi Vert quit I’m out too” on Instagram, and then "returning" to release his new album two months later. Nicki Minaj resumed her steady routine of singles and features almost immediately after floating her farewell, leading to amusing and confusing headlines about her “first new song post-retirement.” Perhaps some of these artists just need to learn to embrace more temporary terms like “hiatus,” or simply not telling the world when they’ve decided to take a vacation.

Some rappers have promised to stop rapping and have stuck to it so far, but it helps if they have an outlet that allows them to remain in the public eye and involved in music. Dr. Dre said years that his third solo album would be his last, and he remains so busy as a producer and executive that few expect him to go back on that promise after releasing 2015’s Compton. Joe Budden announced his retirement from rapping in 2017, but his work as a podcaster and media personality has brought him wider fame and fortune.  

Perhaps hip hop’s obsession with youth, and the constant insurgence of new kids from Soundcloud and Tik Tok, has made rap’s established stars feel irrelevant, or taken for granted. But even artists under 30 are toying with the idea of stepping away from the music industry, and not just Lil Uzi Vert. Logic, 29, used a skit on his third album, 2017’s Everybody, to announce that his 4th album would be his last (a promise he’s already broken, releasing two albums, a mixtape and a soundtrack since then). 

Meanwhile, 2019’s youngest breakthrough rapper, Lil Tecca, turned 17 in August, the same week he released his debut mixtape We Love You Tecca. But a week later, he expressed unhappiness about his newfound fame, tweeting “I love y’all but this s--t won’t b continuing as long as y’all thought.” This could be the end of Lil Tecca’s run as a rapper, or the beginning of a long career of false retirements, as he partakes in one of hip hop’s favorite pastimes.