A photo grid of Remy Ma, Datwon Thomas, Rob Markman, and Carl Chery with the title “40 Over 40”.
A photo grid of Remy Ma, Datwon Thomas, Rob Markman, and Carl Chery with the title “40 Over 40”.
LEVEL’s 40 Over 40 panelists (clockwise from top left): Remy Ma, Datwon Thomas, Rob Markman, Carl Chery, Brian “B. Dot” Miller

40 Over 40

Revenge of the 40-Year-Old Rapper: A Roundtable Discussion

Five people. Countless opinions. Let’s get into it.

The last decade gave way to an interesting paradigm shift in hip-hop: Storied artists are transcending generational gaps, building careers that don’t necessarily flame out with age. You could blame it on the culture putting some miles on its odometer, with its most central figures in the driver’s seat and aging fans riding shotgun. Or perhaps it’s social media and the streaming era that have allowed artists to take control of their careers. Whatever the reason, artists who might conventionally be considered washed are dropping some of the dopest music out, their personal growth reflected in their raps.

This has all been the basis of LEVEL’s inaugural 40 Over 40 package paying homage to the rappers who continue to flourish. We did the work of highlighting and ranking the artists who’ve had the strongest post-40 runs in rap, but why stop there? To take things a step further, we assembled an all-star squad of music industry vets to discuss the modern landscape of rap’s elder statespeople — journalists, podcasters, artists, and executives.

LEVEL opened up a Zoom room and invited rapper Remy Ma, Genius’ Rob Markman, Brian “B. Dot” Miller of the Rap Radar Podcast, Vibe’s Datwon Thomas, and Spotify’s Carl Chery to chop it up about the growth, struggles, and triumphs of 40-plus rappers, the female rappers poised to sprint into their forties, and the long-in-the-tooth rappers who are still killing it. (And since everyone loves a good list, we had them assemble their own Top 10s as well.)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

LEVEL: If you rewind 10 or 15 years, we’re not even having this conversation. Why do you think that rappers are remaining relevant beyond their thirties these days?
Rob Markman (VP of Content Strategy, Genius):
Hip-hop is the only genre that has an age limit. That’s changing now, but a lot of that has to do with the [record] labels and the media. Remember they used to say hip-hop was a fad, it wasn’t going to last. If you were EPMD, just having four albums before the breakup was saying something. Nobody got that. Look at all our greats: Eric B and Rakim got four albums together. [Big Daddy] Kane only got…

Datwon Thomas (VP of Cultural Media, Vibe): Three.

Rob Markman: Those were the highest of the highs. They put a ceiling because they told us it was a fad. I think it comes with ownership, with artists like Jay-Z saying, “I can stretch the limits. A label doesn’t dictate to me when my career is over. I’m independent. I can rap as long as I want.” KRS is still putting out albums to this day. Media would tell us it’s a young person’s sport and the new flavor of the month will come. It was cool to have guys like Soulja Boy dissing Nas or Ice-T — media egged that on. It became this culture war. Not to get too conspiracy theory, but I feel that was a device to wrestle the culture away from us. If they keep us fighting generationally, all they got to do is give Soulja Boy a little bit and get Nas and Ice-T the fuck out of here, which you couldn’t do, clearly.

Brian “B. Dot” Miller (Journalist, Co-host, Rap Radar Podcast): Also, if you think about hip-hop, the art form is like, 40-something years old. All the guys that peaked in the ’90s were in their twenties, give or take. So we’ve never seen someone age gracefully in the genre before. Everyone now is in their forties, some in their fifties.

Rob Markman: But Aerosmith — Steven Tyler is fucking 70.

Carl Chery (Creative Director/Head of Urban Music, Spotify): The previous standard for longevity in hip-hop was, what, LL Cool J? He stopped making albums in 2006.

Datwon Thomas: That’s a good point, Carl, but what I was going to add to Rob’s is the fact that you had extensions of those same artists with their careers. They started going into business and stuff like that. So their desire for rocking a mic or having a dope-ass album compared to how much they can make from some kind of endorsement or extra business angle, that kind of diminished that too. Then the ones that went after that bag and failed, you can’t come back and have the same kind of career if you failed in business. So there’s that whole thing as well.

Remy Ma (Rapper): These are all the stupid stipulations that only get put on hip-hop artists. I agree with what B and Rob said because it’s a fairly new genre, so we haven’t had the chance to have generations and see what happens. I don’t think it was the media; I felt like the labels were dictating when they wanted to get people out. Mostly because when you got an artist that’s in their twenties or teenagers just coming in, they don’t know much about the business. After you’ve been around for a while, you put out a couple of albums, you start knowing things — they don’t want to deal with that. When hip-hop started becoming a business, it was “okay, how do we market this so that it’s beneficial to us?” When you market things, the consumer usually is a younger generation that you’re marketing to. So you want to have somebody that looks like that. What about the people that were young when these artists were young? We still have a desire for a certain type of music and a certain type of lifestyle. That’s why certain people are still able to be around. There is a market for that.

Do you find yourself looking for something different from artists as they get older and progress in their career?

Datwon Thomas: We ask for that, but then when they give it to us, we be like, “What they doing, man?” Like Snoop’s “Sensual Seduction” — you’d be, “I don’t like it,” but then it’s in your head. Then he goes and he does so many different things.

Rob Markman: I’ma keep it a buck: I ain’t ask for that Snoop Lion album. “Sensual Seduction” was hot. That was a dope record. Snoop gets to experiment. Snoop made a Rasta album based in the principles of Rastafari and then turned around and did a gospel album. I was confused. Every year Snoop reinvents himself to something different. He’s the only one that we let really get away with that.

Remy Ma: I don’t feel like 40 is what we thought 40 was. We all grew up really fast. You take a 25-, 26-year-old right now, the life they’re living, they have no responsibilities at all. By the time I was 26, I was taking care of my whole family. We had to grow up faster. So when we were 16, 40 was ancient to us. It was a lifetime away. Whereas now if you’re 35, 40, 45, you can actually be on the same level and enjoy some of the same things as somebody that’s 25 or 30 because the life that you’re living is different. When you get to 40, this is when you get a chance to relax and enjoy some of the money that you made, so you want to party. You want to have fun. You don’t want to be sitting there talking about “I’m over the hill.”

Rob Markman: You know what I hate? I hate anytime a rapper aging, [people say] he should retire. Who retires at 40? Your pops work in the post office until he’s 65. Why do I got to hang it up at 40 if I’m Jay-Z or Nas? There’s this concept of you have to get out the way so that the younger generation can thrive.

Remy Ma: “Let a 30-year-old young boy live” — get out of here!

Datwon Thomas: I think they do that because they equate hip-hop to a sport as well. In sports, people age and they don’t have that step anymore. Because of the competitive factor, you attribute it to a sport. When you look at a sport, you don’t see mad old people in there.

Remy Ma: It’s a bad comparison. Sports are athletic; that’s the body. This right here — this just gets stronger. You don’t start losing the strength in this until late sixties, seventies. When you’re in your forties, you just got wiser than you’ve ever been. That’s not a good analogy.

Datwon Thomas: The only reason I say that is because of the competitiveness. We can all say KRS still got it, but he’s not being competitive within the market that says [whether] he’s dope or not. That’s where that comes from.

“In any craft that you’re in, when it’s not physical, you’re supposed to get better. If you’re building houses or you draw architecture, over the years you figure out what works, what doesn’t work. We have to allow ourselves to realize that’s what’s supposed to happen.”

Rob Markman: Of course. The competitiveness is the thing. “Get out the way and let me take the spot” is not competing. Competing is when Drake says to Jay and Kanye, “The throne is for the taking, watch me take it.” I respect that. He went to war with Jay. Say what you want about Drake. Drake ain’t afraid to mix it up. That’s the competitiveness that we need. You want the spot? Come take it. Nelly did it to KRS-One. He came at KRS-One’s neck.

Datwon Thomas: But Nelly was doing 10 mil! What was KRS doing?

Remy Ma: That’s the problem: People compare based on money.

Datwon Thomas: No, I’m not thinking about the money aspect of 10 mil. It’s not like, Oh Nelly saying “I got more money than KRS.” He’s saying that my status is better, so I’m a better rapper. That’s not the case.

Remy Ma: I got a question for you. You need somebody to write a rap to save your life: You’re going to get Nelly to write it or KRS?

Datwon Thomas: I agree with you.

Remy Ma: I love Nelly; he’s a friend of mine. I’m just saying, my life is on the line?

Datwon Thomas: I’m going to have you write it.

Remy Ma: That may be the smartest thing.

Datwon Thomas: There we go.

Remy Ma: That’s another place where we messed up though and where age played a factor. Where they started tabulating popularity and record sales and comparing that to who had the most skills? I tell people all the time, the nicest rappers that I know never made no real money in this industry. The nicest ones that I know never really made it. Some of the most wackiest, horrible ones that I ever encountered is caked up.

Datwon Thomas: That’s how the game is set up. The older you get, if you don’t have the sales or the bag, that means you’re wack. That’s how the game is set up. You just explained it.

Carl Chery: There’s a separation that happens. I want to jump back on what Rob said specifically about competing and how Drake was going to Kanye and Jay. We look at Jay as God level now; we exempt him from a “best rapper alive” conversation. Is that the way to go?

Remy Ma: No, it’s because Jay’s really dead nice though. It’s not just like we’re making this up and we’re just giving him cool points because it’s Jay.

Carl Chery: That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that we’re now not even comparing him to the field. Elliot [Wilson] does that comparison all the time. He’s like, “I don’t want to be looked at as a legend; I want to be competing with the boys.” I feel like a lot of the audience does that. I was like “you’re a legend. You’re God level.” Now it’s Kendrick, Drake, and Cole.

“Nasir Jones is one of the best rappers that has ever put a pen to a pad. There’s numerous rappers that we look up to and that we like that crafted their entire life around what Nas did when he was a kid. However, today I don’t get that when I hear Nas. It pains me, actually. It breaks my heart.”

Rob Markman: That’s because they don’t want to compete. Listen, Kendrick wants to compete. Drake wants to compete. If you’re nice, if you got that MC thing in you, you want to compete. I don’t want Jay to be eliminated from the conversation and then you say I’m the best. No, I want to be better than Jay.

Datwon Thomas: You want Jordan in there. If Jordan on the court, don’t sit down when I get in.

Remy Ma: You’re comparing it to sports again. I feel like with Jordan, once you reach a certain level, we’re not even doing this no more. You’re not playing no more. We understand you doing other things. You’re selling sneakers and doing those other… but you put in so much work while you was here and at such a high level that you get the carte blanche. You get the privilege to sit over there on Mount Rushmore. You understand? And I think that’s what happens with Jay that he put in so much work. He still fake retires and comes back…

Datwon Thomas: That’s what billionaires do?

Remy Ma: Right. You know what Jay, we’re not even going to play with you no more. All right. You made your point. That’s why people like him get that. Then there’s people like Nas, who, in my opinion, some people name their top five, and Nas is always going to be on there. To me, I feel like Nas did this [motions hand in downward slope] in his career. As opposed to Jay, who did this [motions hand upward], and then he plateaued. It was a couple of joints that Nas put out and I’m like, “What? Where’s the Illmatic guy?”

Rob Markman: I’m such a huge Nas fan. Like on my top 10 list. Nas is one of the greatest of all times — but post-40, he’s not on my list.

Remy Ma: That’s what I was saying. Please no one misconstrue what I’m saying. Nasir Jones is one of the best rappers that has ever put a pen to a pad. There’s numerous rappers that we look up to and that we like that crafted their entire life around what Nas did when he was a kid. However, today I don’t get that when I hear Nas. It pains me, actually. It breaks my heart.

Rob Markman: Life Is Good, to me, was the last real Nas project that I love. And after that… like The Lost Tapes 2, I wasn’t really jacking that like that. The Kanye[-produced] album [Nasir], I wasn’t really all the way there for like that. I wanted to love it. But he’s still Nas. He’s Mount Rushmore.

Datwon Thomas: Nas will have these one-offs that are crazy, these verses that’ll be dope. But the full projects might not be where they were before. Also, him jumping into the business lane — it takes the direction off this way because we’ve seen Jay go into the business lane and be at a high level. It’s not an excuse. It’s just different when you’re doing it at a different age, a little bit later in your years. His verse on that intro to the BET Awards, though, that joint was serious.

Rob Markman: Nas needs to be set up. It’s about having the right producer. I don’t doubt that Nas could still drop amazing material, but it’s like, who’s at the helm? Who’s making the decisions as far as beats, direction, and stuff like that? Kanye was a good idea on paper, but we know that whole Kanye album every week was just…

Remy Ma: Horrible. That wasn’t even good on paper, bro. Let’s not be politically correct here. It was a horrible idea, all around the board. Another thing that hurt my heart.

Remy made a point about artists who are good for a verse, but the full projects don’t hold up to earlier works. Do you find you’re more lenient with projects as long as you get great songs or verses?
Remy Ma:
I don’t even know how that works. But I do think those rappers that come from that era — we expect projects from them, beginning to end, because that’s what they’ve given us before. Whereas with new artists, we’re shocked if the album is good. I expect a good single, a hot feature verse. When you have artists from a specific era, you expect a project from them. And I probably shouldn’t because I’m being biased. But I want a project from this artist, and a song from this artist. They do it to me all the time: “Where’s your album?”

Rob Markman: You’re right. But Rem — we need the album. It’s true, though. That’s why my top 10 list of rappers over 40, André 3000 is not on it. If I need a guest verse, he might be at the top of the list, ’cause you know he’s going to kill a feature. But one 16 every year — that 16 better be fire. You got the whole year to work on it. I got to disqualify you, man. Big Boi’s still putting out dope albums. I love Three Stacks, but you can’t get by just giving me a dope verse.

Brian “B. Dot” Miller: Yeah, we’ve been conditioned. Like Remy said, you’ve been in the game for decades, I’m expecting full bodies of work. That’s why I hate the praise that 3000 gets. He’s great on the mic, but that dude hasn’t put out a full project [unless] you count The Love Below.

Rob Markman: And he was singing.

Brian “B. Dot” Miller: Meanwhile Big Boi is dropping fire projects. His solo albums have not missed, in my opinion. I need that full body.

Could you see a hip-hop career that begins after the age of 40 and is successful?
Brian “B. Dot” Miller:
A lot of times we forget that artists like Pharrell and Kanye are in their forties. They don’t come off like a 40-year-old — I don’t even know what a 40-year-old supposed to look like. Growing up, 40 had a look. It looked like your parents.

Rob Markman: Not like Pharrell.

Brian “B. Dot” Miller: But if someone comes off with a relatability and a sensibility people can identify with, I think it could work. But they would have to really be nice.

Carl Chery: 2 Chainz was like late thirties, right?

Brian “B. Dot” Miller: He was already grandfathered in.

Rob Markman: He started out earlier.

Remy Ma: You 33 and you grandfathered in. This is crazy. Grandfathered at 33?

Rob Markman: Jay Electronica just dropped that album.

Datwon Thomas: He’s 43.

Rob Markman: All due respect to the god — you split that album with Hov? Your debut album?

Remy Ma: All due respect to the god — Hov split an album with me! Let’s go.

Datwon Thomas: Remy, you’ll take a 50-year-old Jay rapping?

Remy Ma: You can say what y’all want — he’s still as competitive as ever. He’s a real rapper. He’s not going to feel comfortable letting me go in there and tear his head off every verse. Because that’s what I’m going to try to do. I already feel like he still kind of want payback for the “All the Way Up” remix. When you’re a real rapper — your pen really goes — you never lose that competitiveness. Even Jay Electronica — like this is this man’s debut album! Why you going in like that?! This is your friend.

Datwon Thomas: Jay, just do the hooks!

Remy Ma: He was going in. He didn’t hold no punches at all. But that’s what I would want. It goes back to what Rob was saying: Don’t just give it to me, don’t let me go in and skate on you.

While the 40-year-old rapper is a relatively new development, there aren’t many female rappers whose careers have extended deep into their forties at this point. Why do you think that is?
Rob Markman:
It goes back to that thing where we talked about the labels and the business of hip-hop. People not from the culture who have a controlling stake in this thing, who tried to dictate when we can start and stop our careers. We know that historically women have never got the fair shake.

Remy Ma: Talk about it, king.

Rob Markman: The women — we’re taught that they have to be overly sexualized to sell or be relevant. If they feel they can’t market you at 40 as somebody’s sex fantasy, they’re going to sign the 25-year-old or the 21-year-old. It’s fucked up. But I’m really excited — there’s a lot of women approaching 40. The next couple of years is going to be interesting.

Remy Ma: Nicki [Minaj]. Who you talking about?

Rob Markman: Rap[sody]. I don’t know Rapsody’s exact age. The other thing is our pioneers like Queen Latifah, who just rapped on Rapsody’s project, [for] one verse. She started diving into acting, her talk show, producing movies.

Datwon Thomas: That takes them away.

“I want to hear some menopause raps, man.”

Remy Ma: With women, it’s not just the look. Maybe a couple of years ago I would’ve went with the look. But I feel a lot of it goes with that pen. The pen is going to go where the popularity is. It’s the same thing with production. When you’re hot, the hottest producers are going to come to you. And when you’re not, they might come, but you’re not getting the best quality no more. They’re going to give you from this pile. They want to give [their best] to who they think they’re going to get the best profit from, the best look. It’s a lot of those things in combination. Women always had it harder and had to do way more than men.

Carl Chery: The women that are eligible now haven’t been as active. There’s a few of them that don’t have any projects or maybe they have one. Missy had a couple near moments — the Super Bowl with Katy Perry was big. She had a single with Pharell that charted. She gave us a glimpse of what it could be, but never gave us a body of work. I definitely think it’s coming. To Remy’s point, the next class is going to have a moment on a bigger scale.

Rob Markman: And props to Missy ’cause Missy had health issues that caused her to pause for a while, and then step back into music. It still feels like Missy is revving up for the comeback that we’re all expecting. Even though it was years ago, jail really derailed what Kim had going on. We always tell the myth that jail makes you hot.

Remy Ma: Lies.

Rob Markman: Jail is jail. That shit derails you.

Remy Ma: If you look at somebody like Trina, she’s beautiful as ever. But I’m pretty sure when she go in the studio and when she go to work, producer’s not giving her the fire they would’ve gave her 20 years ago.

Datwon Thomas: But Rem, is there a stark difference between an older woman in hip-hop and their topics and an older dude in hip-hop in their topics?

Remy Ma: It depends. With men, you can talk about the same thing at any age — women, money, whatever. That’s cool. Whereas with a woman, once you get a certain age, they’re like, “Why is she twerking? Or why is she talking about this? Don’t she got a kid?” It’s always a double standard with women. Just because you’re in your forties, do you not feel sexy? Do you not want to be out there? They expect different things from women — you’re supposed to be a wife, a mom. You’re supposed to be boring. Go sit down. Whatever.

Brian “B. Dot” Miller: I want to hear some menopause raps, man. Who’s going to be that pioneer to change the narrative for women in hip-hop that are 40-plus?

Rob Markman: Rem, when you get to that age, I think Rem is in position to do that. Nicki is in position to do that. Rapsody. It’s going to be interesting.

Remy Ma: This wave of women that are going into their forties, we’re a little bit different. We’re super in tune with everything that’s going on, we’re aging with the culture instead of outside of the culture. What happens sometimes — and not just the females — there’s a bridge, a gap. I don’t know how it got there, but people weren’t able to cross over. Some people got stuck on the other side of that bridge. If you got stuck on the other side of that bridge, people look at you as old. And you can pretty much be the same age. I remember when everything was going on with me and Nick, they were like, “Oh, you’re old.” I’m like 18 months older than her! But they don’t know that because I was away and I also have a different perspective. I have a husband, I have a baby. I don’t think a baby puts age on you, but a husband makes you seem older than you really are. Those things are becoming more accepted now because we have people like Cardi [B], who has a baby and a husband. You have these things that are normally associated with older women and older men now being obtained by people who are considered cool and young.

Datwon Thomas: Having that family package is more accepted now than it was back in the day. That would’ve been something that a female artist would hide. Now it’s more like, “This is what I’m doing with my life,” and it’s more celebrated.

Carl Chery: Lauryn Hill had to deal with it. Was it more accepted because The Miseducation was more R&B and she wasn’t rapping as much? Like “Zion” is… she’s explaining the narrative: People like “Lauryn, what are you doing having a kid?”

Datwon Thomas: I think that was the change. It was a big thing to see Lauryn pregnant in the “Doo-Wop” video. That was a thing we all talked about.

Carl Chery: We hadn’t seen that before.

Remy Ma: Wait. She was pregnant in that video? I used to smoke mad weed back then. How did I miss that?

Everyone has made their own top 10 lists. Who are some of the artists you think have thrived in their forties?
Remy Ma:
I know everyone is going to think that my list is biased, but I have facts. Of course, Fat Joe is number one. If he’s not at least top three on every last one of y’all list, y’all are out of y’all minds. Let’s be clear: Fat Joe’s not 41 or 42. He didn’t just get into the 40 club. He’s actually about to be 50. If you need Joe to go in, Joe’s going to go in. But he’s almost triple-platinum. The Plato O Plomo album — not just because I’m on it — was an amazing album. “All the Way Up,” “Money Showers,” all those records. Family Ties, the record he did with Dre, I think it’s one of the best projects in hip-hop in a long time, from beginning to end. Look at the class Joe came in — what ’92? ’93? Look at the rest of the class photo. I don’t think any of them have front teeth. They’re doing bad!

“Look at the class Joe came in — what ’92? ’93? Look at the rest of the class photo. I don’t think any of them have front teeth. They’re doing bad!”

Rob Markman: The thing about Joe is he’s had a hit in every decade. Joe was the guy that you can never count out. Just when you think he might be slowing down, he’ll pop up with a #1 hit that’s super fitting with what’s going on. But it’s not him changing who he is; more so than Jay. And let me be clear, like 4:44, there wasn’t necessarily a hit that came from that. It was the album as a whole, Jay is giving you entire projects and thought processes. There’s value to that. That’s why he’s super high on my list with Joe. If you need a hit, Joe will show up and then, like, bong — it’s number one.

Remy Ma: He sent me something two days ago; I’m like, “Joe, I thought you retired!” He won’t stop.

Carl Chery: Joe ages gracefully. I agree with Rem and Rob: He adapts but he doesn’t conform. He’s one of the few dudes from his era who could stand next to the kids and not look weird. He’s not going to chase the young, goofy stuff. He’s still going to do him. That’s hard to do. There’s a lot of dudes on that list that you could look up and find those moments where they were rapping out of character or trying to chase something.

Remy Ma: I get to see the process firsthand, so I know what he puts into it. I know how many times he scraps and starts over, how many times he goes in the middle of the night and stands in clubs in different areas, trying to catch the vibe. Hov is Hov. If Joe didn’t exist, Hov could be number one. He’s the most consistent. Like I don’t understand how somebody that was nice gets wack. Seriously. How does your brain stop putting words together in a good way? How do you get unwitty? I don’t feel like Hov has ever hit that mark. He’s remained Hov. He deserves that spot on Mount Rushmore.

Carl Chery: He set the foundation for everyone that’s eligible to be a successful rapper in your forties. He’s probably your first rapper to go platinum in his forties.

Remy Ma: As far as Papoose, yes, he’s my husband, but he’s also one of those rappers — like I told you — never really got what they were supposed to get in this game, in my opinion. I will put him against anybody’s pen, on any topic, any beat. Rap is what he does. I’ve watched him take beats and write three different versions to the same song, and pick the best one. Ridiculous. Who does that?

Rob Markman: Do y’all battle at home? Y’all be having rap battles at the dinner table?

Remy Ma: Nah, we don’t discuss rapping here. It gets real crazy. We have totally different ideas of music. We decided to stop talking about music in our relationship when he asked me my top five one day. And then after I told him, he told me Pun rolling over in his grave. I can’t think of no rapper that doesn’t want or hasn’t had a Jadakiss feature at some point because he’s just that nice. I wasn’t so crazy about the Ignatius project that he put out, but his pen still goes.

Rob Markman: I’ve never heard a wack Jada verse in my life.

Remy Ma: That pen go. I feel the same way about Styles P. I still drive around and listen to the project with Styles and Dave East. Styles was so good that he made Dave East sound better to me. I love Dave, but I wasn’t a Dave East fan. Styles brought him up a level.

Datwon Thomas: He made him step up. When you’re Magic Johnson and you make everybody around you better, that means your raps are that crazy. So I love Styles, and I love the growth.

Rob Markman: He on his fruits-and-veggies shit. When we talk about growth, let’s understand: Styles is not pussy. The old Styles P was a fucking goon. He was that gangster and gentleman. To see him now, still rap dead nice, still talking about shit relevant to the streets… Styles P is my favorite out The Lox, no disrespect to Jada. Styles is putting out like four albums a year, shit is crazy, and he’s dead nice.

Remy Ma: Fab to me is still a rapper’s rapper. His Summer Shootouts, I loved them. I look forward to them.

Carl Chery: He’s still active with the tapes, but he’s always been really good at weaving pop culture references into his lyrics. It’s amazing to watch him evolve and still have that taste and that filter to leave the corny shit aside.

Remy Ma: I know Fab is going to make a fire bar out of everything that happened [during his Verzuz battle with Jadakiss].

Carl Chery: There’s going to be a drunk Jada punchline.

Remy Ma: Eminem is in the verse category with me. I never really liked Em’s projects — they wasn’t really for me. But as a rapper, Em is Em.

Rob Markman: I agree. I never was super tied to Eminem’s projects. I never felt like they exactly spoke to me. There were songs that did. But when you just talk about the technicality of his pen and how he puts words together — I know a lot of people think it’s cool to clown Em now. Em is dead nice. There’s few rappers who put words together like him.

Remy Ma: 2 Chainz can still make records. That last record he put out with Ariana, I loved it. It had all the components of a hit record.

Rob Markman: Chainz got better — go back to Playaz Circle. Chainz is a rapper’s rapper… Number one for me was Royce Da 5'9". I judged this on two things: Sales and impact are very important, but whose pen is still sharp? Like Rem said, how do you get wack? I think it means your heart’s not in it. You stopped trying to push yourself and outdo your last verse. When Royce first came into the game with Em, he was already insane. His pen was just unmatched. And then we find out that he was battling alcoholism and he got sober. Since then, albums like Layers, The Allegory, he got more clear and he found his purpose. He starts producing like 15 years, almost 20 years in his career. He’s not rapping just to rap anymore. The Allegory, that shit is jewels. That shit will make you run to the library and look up shit about our history. And a lot of what was going on in the news now, White supremacy — all that shit is in that album. He’s gotten better with time.

Datwon Thomas: He’s gotten better after he’s gotten sober and opened up his own studio. That’s one of the main things that helped him out. He was able to go straight into his dream and do some illness.

Rob Markman: Jay-Z is my number two; needs no explanation. He’s my number one all time… Black Thought is dead nice. When you see that shit that he did on the Flex freestyle, incredible.

Carl Chery: He’s just a rhyme animal. If he only had the fucking Funk Flex freestyle, I would’ve put him on just for that.

Rob Markman: I got Phonte on my list. When you talk about grown-man bars and elevating with where we are in life — what he did on that Little Brother album May the Lord Watch. Phonte puts words together better than anybody, but he makes it so relatable.

Datwon Thomas: Since 2010, when Ghostface turned 40 — his pen just fly, man. All of them darts that he be putting on every one of those joints, from Apollo Kids, 12 Reasons to Die, 36 Seasons… And Killer Mike. Run The Jewels might not be the thing for everybody because those beats are kind of crazy, but if you break down what he’s infusing into those raps, all the political, the Blackness, the Atlanta-ness. This shit is ill.

Carl Chery: I just love the way he’s been able to reinvent himself.

Datwon Thomas: I got Nas on there. He’s still dope to me, man. It’s almost like he’s in a race with all types of shit on him, and he’s still beating everybody. The curveball is Masta Ace. He’s older than Big Daddy Kane and Rakim. The fact that he’s able to do a joint with MF Doom, then do these conceptualized albums where it’s a story and the bars are still there. He’s incredible, man. I got Murs with his Unimaginable and The Iliad is Dead with 9th Wonder — those two projects are a year apart and are incredible. You gotta be able to listen to somebody from the West Coast that could speak in a whole different language than what’s going on and still be relevant to his space. Another one from the West Coast is MC Eiht. He’s beyond dope, still.

Carl Chery: A couple backpackers in there.

Datwon Thomas: I had too, man. There were some ill rhymes in there.

Remy Ma: Sorry guys, you lost me with Nas. I had to take a break.

Rob Markman: We’ll tell you about MC Eiht later then.

Datwon Thomas: Yes, Masta Ace. I’m telling you, listen to them albums. Y’all will bug out.

Rob Markman: Nah, Masta Ace last year was dope.

Carl Chery: Pusha might be the only rapper on his list that you could make a case that he’s in his prime now versus back then. Back then you had the Clipse; you had bigger hits, Neptunes production. But he had an incredible moment with Daytona being Grammy-nominated. His features are sharp as shit. He doesn’t waste a bar. And he went toe-to-toe with Drake and won.

Remy Ma: When you send him a verse and you tell him you want him on it, he sends it back mad fast.

Rob Markman: I didn’t hear that one yet.

Remy Ma: Shout out to Push.

Carl Chery: Listen, I love Kanye. I’m a fan, historically. [The Life of] Pablo was his last great project. He was 39, and then the next project, he just took a dive. But the impact is still there.

Remy Ma: I don’t think the magic is gone with Kanye. I think he needs to be around other people that are dope.

Carl Chery: You still hear the flashes of genius in every fucking thing he does. It’s just not executed as well as he used to.

Remy Ma: He needs to be in the studio with his version of Styles P.

Rob Markman: Listen, this has been my hot take for years and everybody gets mad when I say it: Jim’s been better than Cam’ron for a long time. Jim’s last two albums were fire.

Remy Ma: I need to be there while he’s writing it. That last album, Joe called me like, “Yo, have you heard Jim’s new album? He’s spitting.” I’m like, “Jim?” It was Cam and Jim. And then Jim got super better. I’m like, “Hold on, wait, wait, wait.” I love Jim. He’s the bro.

Rob Markman: I love Rem for that. Rem’s the writing police. I feel like nobody cares about that shit no more.

Carl Chery: I can’t sit here and tell you I’m the biggest E-40 fan, but he’s the most prolific out of the bunch. He’s put out so much music. And he’s still current with the kids on the West Coast.

Datwon Thomas: I didn’t know E-40 did that many records, yo.

Rob Markman: When E-40 drops a project he drops three albums at a time.

Datwon Thomas: I’m pretty sure if you play one of his new ones, you wouldn’t know what year [he made it].

Remy Ma: He is one of those people that was able to stay exactly how he was and people would still accept him. With the East Coast rappers, if we don’t conform to what’s going on now it’s over, it’s a dub.

We’ve discussed a lot of artists today — some who entered their forties and fifties with momentum and others who have been late bloomers or found a second wind in middle age. Who are some artists who have continued to improve?
Brian “B. Dot” Miller:
Obviously Jay Z, but after everything we’ve been talking about, I’d definitely say Rick Ross and Pusha T stand out in my mind the most.

Datwon Thomas: I have to say Royce Da 5’9”, Styles P.

Remy Ma: In any craft that you’re in, when it’s not physical, you’re supposed to get better. If you’re building houses or you draw architecture, over the years you figure out what works, what doesn’t work. That’s what’s supposed to happen, but we have to allow ourselves to realize that that’s what’s supposed to happen. Don’t let politics and the bullshit that they’re doing try to trick us into thinking that they’re not of value. This is the only genre where we throw away our greats. You’re not going to see a Country Music Awards without Garth Brooks.

Datwon Thomas: They keep their staples.

Remy Ma: They raise them up, and you can’t touch them. You can’t say nothing about them. Don’t even try it. We need to do that. Not just with our hip-hop artists, but with our athletes, with anything that’s of our culture.

Carl Chery: The queen has spoken.

Senior Editor, LEVEL

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