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It may come as no surprise, but hip-hop was the most popular genre of music in 2017, by an impressive margin. It was reported earlier in th...

By The Numbers: Ageism In Hip-Hop Doesn't Exist

The argument that rappers must lose relevance after a certain age is as old as hip-hop itself, and artists like Rakim, 50 Cent, LL Cool J, MC Hammer, and Public Enemy only serve to fuel this opinion. 50 Cent claims Jay-Z can't be the best rapper at age 47. Andre 3000 doesn't want to rap beyond the age of 40. Drake didn't want to be rapping post-35. Young Thug believes teenagers won't listen to you once you turn 30. On the flipside, you have older artists like The LOX claiming ageism is a myth.

Ageism implies that no-one can remain both relevant and consistent past a certain age. We can point to outliers like Dr. Dre or Jay-Z as proof this isn't true at all, but that's qualitative data that is open to subjectivity. Quantitative data, that is the facts, figures, and statistics, is a way of proving beyond doubt that ageism doesn't exist.

"Ageism" is "prejudice or discrimination based on age". While we can't survey every hip-hop fan and discover what they think of older artists, we can examine statistical facts and figures as a gauge of public perception, and draw a conclusion from those figures. If more than a small number of outliers can remain relevant and successful as they age, ageism is proven to be a myth.

I've analysed these facts and figures and can confidently conclude ageism in hip-hop is a myth. I provide the following proof.


I have gathered the following data from 570 albums, released between 1985 and 2017, from 68 separate artists and groups:
  • Album number
  • Average critical review score per album (either via metacritic, or by hand when metacritic doesn't have a score)
  • Total sales*
  • Chart Position - US Billboard 200 and Rap/Hip-Hop charts
  • How many years the artist had been in the game when the album was released, measured from their debut record (year 0)
  • How old the rapper was when the album was released
  • How many albums per year the rapper has released, measured from their debut to their most recent album 
If an album didn't chart, I have assigned it a value of 200 (100 on the hip-hop chart) to ensure the data is not compromised by missing entries.

The rest of the information about what I chose to include and why is at the bottom of the article.

Statistical Analysis

This was the hardest part. Gathering the information was tiresome, but easy. Working out how to use Excel to draw meaningful conclusions from it, as well as representing my findings visually, was incredibly tough. Ultimately, I wanted to discover if there was a correlation between age and the four main dependent variables: Critical score, album sales, and chart position (Billboard 200 and Hip-Hop). Because of the nature of the sample, I felt a regression analysis wasn't going to be terribly accurate. I relied heavily on the Pearson Correlation Coefficient, and my own eyes via graphs.

Critical Score at Age

This graph looks like a quasar, but it shows us some interesting things. First, there is no major drop-off in critical scores post-40, in fact, the lowest review score after age 37 is 46. Second, we have a massive range of results, that all congregate around 63 to 80.The Pearson Correlation Coefficient discovers if there is any correlation (note: not causation) between age and critical score. The test returns a result of -0.05, indicating there is essentially no distinct linear relationship between age and critical review score.

If we average out the critical review score for each year in a rappers life, we can see this in action. The line stays pretty constant around the mean (average) of 70.44. It can be confidently concluded that age does not signal a drop off in review score.

Using this as a marker for ageism has limitations. Critical reviews can be at odds with the greater population. A well-reviewed project doesn't necessarily mean a popular or relevant one. Public Enemy released well-reviewed projects well into their 50s, but I bet you can't name any of them. On it's own, this variable can't totally dismiss ageism, but it does prove that quality has no age limit, and that reviewers, who so often use public opinion and trends to sway their scores, certainly don't believe in ageism.

Album Sales vs Age

We could look at album sales. This is just the straight-up raw data. The outliers here, notably The Marshall Mathers LP, The Eminem Show, The Love Below/Speakerboxxx, Licensed to Ill, Country Grammar and whatever that MC Hammer album that went diamond was called, make the graph difficult to read. It looks like the peak sales period in an artists career is from around 23 to 34.

Let's make it a little easier to analyse. This is the average album sale per year of age. Now, the peak appears to be from 21 to 28.

As a rappers age progresses, on average their album sales droop. Utilizing the Pearson Correlation Coefficient, we get -0.30, indicating a "weak downhill relationship". We have such a diverse and large sample set, with large variances, which is why the Pearson Correlation Coefficient doesn't seem to match up with the graph. That graph, pictured above, shows average album sales dropping as age progresses.

There is one big limitation in interpreting this result. While things like marketing budgets and major label distribution deal are factors we want to influence this graph (an irrelevant, over-the-hill rapper isn't going to get $5 million from Def Jam to promote an album and clear samples), the major problem is piracy, and the impact that had on album sales of all genres in the period 1999 through at least 2010. Here is a separate graph, showing the average amount sold per-album (from this data set) for 4 periods: 1985-1999, 2000-2005, 2006-2010, and 2001-2017:

Piracy landed heavily in 1999 through Napster, and then progressed via Limewire, Kazaa, before taking a real hold in the mid-to-late 2000s with torrenting. Examining the literature on the effect that piracy had on the music industry is full of its own pitfalls, as this study explains. Hard facts are presented in this article, and enough study has been done to comprehensively conclude that while we aren't sure of the exact impact piracy had on album sales, it certainly did have an effect.

One problem with analysing the above graph is our sample. During the period 2000-2005, the average age of the rapper was 29, meaning they are, technically, in the prime of their career, so despite this being the period when piracy took hold, our figures don't reflect that. Meanwhile, the period 2011-2017, the average age is 39. The introduction of streaming, Youtube plays being counted as album sales, Jay-Z selling millions of albums to phone companies, and a robust consumer market that has access to almost infinite content makes these figures difficult to accurately analyse.

I'm writing all this to highlight how difficult it is to draw a conclusion from the data we have on album sales and commercial performance. There is a more accurate marker of a rapper's success given specific environmental and situational issue: Chart Position.

Billboard 200 Chart Position vs. Age
This is significantly harder to graph. Because there is a large variance (1-200), and the majority of releases are clustered around 1-10 or 200, the graph looks a bit silly.

The statistics are top and bottom heavy. There are 297 albums that charted between 1 and 10, and 49 that charted at 200 (the default position for an album that didn't chart). Just under 61% of the figures at are the top and bottom end of the graph. The trend line looks like chart position increases with age, but that isn't fool proof either, as the regression analysis used to calculate that line suffers reliability issues with a data set like this. The Pearson Correlation Coefficient is 0.21, which indicates a very weak positive relationship, meaning that chart position does increase very slightly with age.

Here is the average chart position per album at each age in our data set. We can see again that it trends upwards quite dramatically, but there are still limitations. We're comparing rappers to every other genre when utilising the Billboard 200 charts. While this is a fair reflection of an artists relevance and success in the wider market, we want to discover if ageism exists in hip-hop specifically. Even if we do base our entire argument on this chart, the period 17-21 is very similar to the period 47-50. Post-50 we only have 4 album releases, from 2 artists, so the data set suffers limitations.

Rap/Hip-Hop Chart Position vs. Age

So we analyse the chart rap/hip-hop chart position at specific ages. As you can see, it stays constant from age 21 through at least age 49, with 48 being an outlier. Again, we can dismiss post-50 as there is only 2 artists that have contributed data.

Out of all the variables analysed, the rap/hip hop chart position per age is, I believe, the most accurate. It's a measure of popularity and relevance within the genre, which normalizes albums sales and guards our data against fluctuations based on the popularity of hip-hop and the impact of piracy (a chart position is not affected by piracy as long as the entire industry is equally impacted by it, which is the case). As Public Enemy have shown with their releases post-50, if you aren't relevant, people aren't going to buy or stream your album, hence their terrible chart position and sales figures. This lends further credibility to the hip-hop chart position as a good marker to dismiss ageism. If you are selling records, you're popular and relevant.

So what can we conclude?

Both critical review score and hip-hop chart position are resistant to the impact of age

The following graph is interesting. If the data is normalized (each piece of data is divided by the sum of the array, giving us a ranking and a manageable variance so the graph can be made),  we can see how each variable behaves over time in comparison to one another:

 If ageism did exist, it's certainly not any time before 47, which goes against the analysis of the qualitative data (articles, interviews, quotes, lyrics etc), which says relevance and success dips quickly once you pass the age of 35. Someone better tell 2 Chainz. And Jay-Z, and Nas, and Dr. Dre, and Eminem, and A Tribe Called Quest... The critical review variable shows that quality doesn't have an age limit (even Public Enemy are getting good reviews post-50), and the chart metrics disprove ageism emphatically, even if the graph doesn't show it. Dr. Dre had a number 2 record at age 50 with Compton, Jay-Z took the top spot with 4:44 at age 47, and E-40 is having the most chart success of his career post-45. These aren't outliers. Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, they're all too big and important to be outliers.

The statistics have spoken. Ageism is a myth.

Here are some more pretty graphs, for the hell of it.

More Information On The Data Set:

I've only included solo records (and group records, but group records do not count for solo artists), I haven't included mixtapes, but I have included independent album releases (notably from Eminem and Joe Budden). Here is my criteria:
  • Artist must have been in the game for 6+ years and debuted prior to 2007. This means no Big Sean, no Kendrick, no Future, and no J. Cole
  • Artist must have either a platinum selling or top 5 Billboard 200 album in their discography
  • Artist must have 6 or more albums in their discography, or have released records in at least 2 separate decades (examples include Dr. Dre, Jadakiss, The LOX, 50 Cent, and Lil' Kim)
The only rapper I admitted into the sample that doesn't adhere to this criteria is 2 Chainz. His first solo record was released in 2012, and his latest in 2017. But he is 39 years old, and in the prime of his career. He is worthy of further study.

I have not included social media following, net worth, or business deals in the results. I don't believe any of these relate directly to the ageism debate. We're talking about music. 50 Cent has a huge social media following and a diverse and strong business empire (regardless of that bankruptcy debacle), and he hasn't been musically relevant since he lost that sales battle to Kanye in 2007. Jay-Z and Eminem barely even use social media, and Diddy's net worth is $810 million, but he isn't even slightly relevant as a rapper. 

I haven't included the new school, simply because they aren't in the conversation yet. Statistics on Kendrick, Future, Cole, Sean, Chance, Mac Miller etc aren't relevant to this debate, and they'd only skew the sample. I am not studying against a "control", or a standard, or a constant. I am comparing artists to themselves, on a larger scale. If Jay-Z is just as relevant now as he was in 2003, he is part of the argument that ageism doesn't exist. New school artists haven't reached the point where they enter the ageism debate.

*Note: Album sales are not easy to find, nor are they always accurate. I have estimated some figures. For example, if an album has first week sales of 30,000 in the year 2001, it's almost certain the album has sold more than 30,000 copies. Based on chart position, and previous and future sales figures, I have rounded up (conservatively) to give a more accurate figure.

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