Who’s Having the Best Rap Career After 40?
Illustration: Ulises Farinas

Who’s Having the Best Rap Career After 40?

These 40 MCs prove relevance is a state of mind

These 40 MCs prove relevance is a state of mind

Back in 2006, The Game made clear hip-hop’s sentiment regarding the aging MC. “You 38 and you still rappin’? Ugh!” the then-26-year-old lyricist scoffed on “It’s Okay (One Blood),” in a barely veiled shot at a still-dominant Jay-Z (who turned 37 that year). Around the same time, Cam’ron piled on, age-shaming Hov via his own Max B-featured diss record, “You Gotta Love It.” Those moving toward middle age were seen as fossils, washed-up legacy acts whose only possible fate was being surpassed by younger, hungrier competitors. Save for a few revered forebears still spittin’, the 40-year-old rapper was about as rare as the 40-year-old virgin, only without the big screen Judd Apatow treatment.

Hip-hop has since grown the hell up, and so have several of its greatest talents, many of whom are defying the laws of gravity and attrition in what’s been deemed a young person’s sport. These artists are stretching their primes well into the twilight zone, still sharpening their spears and in some cases delivering the best music of their careers — all while sizing up fresh-faced counterparts. Sure, this shouldn’t be a big deal: As long as your shit is dope, who gives a fuck about the year printed on your driver’s license? But in an age in which three generations of fans have been raised on hip-hop, the fact that there’s finally something for everyone is a worthy cause for celebration.

This being hip-hop, this development demands a debate: Who’s had the most impressive post-40 run? Answering such a question requires some rigid boundaries and criteria, particularly omitting any material released by an artist prior to the age of 40 (sorry, Doggystyle; sorry, College Dropout; sorry, Illmatic), while rewarding output, impact, momentum, craftsmanship, and evolution or ability to keep a familiar sound fresh.

The 40 rap elder statespeople we’ve selected and ranked — whittled down from a pool of 100 candidates — represent every corner of the culture, from the forever-respected lyrical technicians to those currently running up streaming numbers. There’s even a 2020 presidential hopeful in there.

Once upon a time, this list would’ve been a history lesson. Today, it’s an appreciation of the wordsmiths who’ve taken their careers into double (or triple!) overtime, those who have proven that just because you’re over the hill doesn’t mean you can’t be at the top of the mountain. — John Kennedy

40. Puff Daddy

Age: 50
Projects Released After 40: Three (one solo; two collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Last Train to Paris (with Dirty Money) Best Song Released After 40: “Hello Good Morning”

Back when Puff Daddy made his name peddling repurposed ’80s pop hits, it would’ve been difficult to imagine that the Bad Boy mogul would one day set out to imagine the sound of the future. Yet shortly after hitting 40, he did just that, pairing up with Dawn Richard and Kalenna Harper to release Dirty Money’s Last Train to Paris, a genre-melded mashup that unites stars from across generations (Grace Jones, Usher, Drake). But don’t get it twisted — Diddy can still take ’em back (see: the nostalgic concept mixtape, MMM) and his belligerent on-wax rants are as potent as ever. — Trey Alston

39. Too Short

Age: 54
Projects Released After 40: 11 (9 solo; two collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Blow The Whistle Best Song Released After 40: “Blow The Whistle”

Too Short hit 40 and sent it home in the morning in an Uber. The eldest artist on this list — more than 35 years in the game, still going strong — dropped one of his most enduring records once his career reached extra innings. “Blow the Whistle” aside, his mack-daddy persona hasn’t grayed a bit, which is exactly why artists of all ages continue to call on Too Short to bless their tracks. — TA

38. Busta Rhymes

Age: 48
Projects Released After 40: Five (two solo; three collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Year of the Dragon (with Q-Tip) Best Song After 40: “Calm Down”

Busta’s long-awaited 10th studio LP, Good God Almighty, has been tangled up in record label red tape for years, but your friendly neighborhood dungeon dragon can still roar loud enough to hijack a neophyte’s posse cut (A$AP Ferg’s “East Coast”), restore the feeling with fellow OGs (A Tribe Called Quest’s 2016 grand finale LP), or go oops upside ya head with lethal onomatopoeias. Woo-hah, he’s still got you all in check. — Luke Fox

37. Juicy J

Age: 45
Projects Released After 40: One Best Project Released After 40: Rubba Band Business Best Song Released After 40: “Neighbor”

Sure, the Three 6 Mafia pedigree alone has made younger artists stan for Juicy J, a living legend who remains trippy as fuck. But the Memphis rapper/producer doesn’t just lean on his laurels. Ever since closing out his thirties in a rejuvenated state thanks to “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” Juicy has been putting in work, pouring gasoline on twerk-ready tracks by the likes of Rae Sremmurd (“Powerglide”) and Megan Thee Stallion (“Simon Says”). He’s the same fun-loving rap fanatic looking for a new spot to turn up — that is until the achy knees are activated. — TA

36. Jeezy

Age: 42
Projects Released After 40: Two Best Project Released After 40: TM104: The Legend of the Snowman Best Song Released After 40: “Bottles Up”

Jeezy experienced great success during his prime by delivering triumphant tales from the trap (and an unforgettable ode to Barack Obama). These days, the snowfall is less frequent and doesn’t quite stick the way it did before, but every now and then — like virtually every time he hops on a track with onetime rival Rick Ross — the Snowman gives fans glimpses of the thug motivation music that got us hooked in the first place. — Julian Kimble

35. Cam’ron

Age: 44
Projects Released After 40: Three (two solo; one collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Purple Haze 2 Greatest Music Moment After 40: Settling years of tension with Mase via battle — all in good-natured sport

For a moment late last year, it felt a hell of a lot like the mid-2000s, when Cam’ron’s colorful flows and gaudy fashion statements existed on hip-hop’s center stage. The reason: Purple Haze 2, a resurgent work that recalls the hilarious wit and soulful aesthetic of its precursor. Nowadays, the grizzled lyricist’s voice is more gruff, rhymes more vivid, stories more candid. Killa Cam mostly keeps to himself, but his inner troll is intact: Pointed jabs at Kanye West and Mase in recent years got computers ’putin and Twitter tweetin’. — TA

34. MF Doom

Age: 49
Projects Released After 40: Four (zero solo; four collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Key to the Kuffs (with Jneiro Jarel) Best Song Released After 40: “Guv’nor”

Despite absolutely dominating in his thirties by way of collaborative classics like Madvillainy and The Mouse and the Mask, the KMD vet has kept a woefully low profile over the past decade. Living in exile in the U.K. after a run-in with U.S. authorities that recalls Slick Rick’s immigration woes, he’s gone all but dark in recent years. Save for shadowy projects with Czarface and Westside Gunn, he’s apparently content to merchandise his back catalog rather than venture back in a major way. Perhaps the man formerly known as Zev Love X will reemerge in his fifties with another dastardly set of worldbeaters, not unlike the comic book villain from whom he originally copped his pseudonym. — Gary Suarez

33. Roc Marciano

Age: 42
Projects Released After 40: Five Best Project Released After 40: Pimpstrumentals Best Song Released After 40: “I.G.W.T.”

Roc Marciano’s whispering bite has become more feral and refined since hitting the big 4–0 two years ago. Though the underground journeyman is still on that pimp shit (his words), his fondness for recalling the past has made him the OG of the block, steady reminiscing on harder times. Roc Marci is one of rap’s finest shit-talkers; cop one of his $30 albums and see for yourself. — TA

32. Inspectah Deck

Age: 49
Projects Released After 40: Five (one solo; four collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Czarface Meets Ghostface (with Czarface and Ghostface Killah) Best Song Released After 40: “Meddle With Metal”

Arguably the most low-key and underrated component of the mighty Wu, Inspectah Deck works well with others. With the Clan’s collective dominance petering out, the Rebel INS has dabbled in solo work but struck creative gold after linking with Boston underground duo 7L & Esoteric. Under the comic booky moniker Czarface, the triumvirate continues to lace fans of hard beats and sharp rhymes with a series of projects, adding in-depth collaborations with fellow 40-plusers MF Doom and Ghostface in recent years. Deck has taken up an interest in producing his own records, but give the baldhead 16 bars and he’ll still bomb atomically. — LF

31. Missy Elliott

Age: 49
Projects Released After 40: One Best Project Released After 40: Iconology Best Song Released After 40: “WTF (Where They From)”

When the music world watched Missy Elliott using her rope-length braided hair to turn double dutch in last year’s “Throw It Back” visual, it was the best kind of collective nostalgia — a nod to the otherworldly music videos that became her calling card in the ’90s and 2000s. More than two decades after Missy’s arrival, her spot remains vacant, no matter how seldom she graces fans with a fresh whiff of her pixie powder. Yet whenever she resurfaces — whether laying a hook for J. Cole (“Nobody’s Perfect”), riding shotgun with Lizzo (the gold-certified “Tempo”), or dropping a satisfying comeback EP for dolo (2019’s Iconology) — it’s like catching up with an old friend, with whom it feels like no time has passed at all. — JFK

30. André 3000

Age: 45
Projects Released After 40: Zero Best Project Released After 40: N/A Greatest Music Moment After 40: Appearing on Frank Ocean’s “Solo (Reprise)”

From the start, OutKast’s more eccentric half has been all about evolution; his current artistic position is part of the path he started down when Dre became André 3000. The rapper who 25 years ago publically declared the South had something to say is still so revered for his words that fans still bug out on the rare occasion that he blesses us with a fresh verse (just try untangling his tight flow on Anderson .Paak’s “Come Home”). Andre is in an envious, near anomalous, place, but his trajectory is proof that you can always keep growing — even beyond rap — then return to the mic whenever you feel the urge. — JK

29. Kanye West

Age: 42
Projects Released After 40: Four (two solo; two collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Jesus Is King Best Song After 40: “On God”

Much of Kanye’s recent material, while righteous in intent, has lacked the immediate playability and magical sauce that once made his music required listening. But there are still glimpses of his pre-MAGA mojo. While his mythical Wyoming sessions in 2018 yielded the uneven solo album Ye and a good-but-not-great Nas album (Nasir), he also cranked out sterling works from Pusha-T (Daytona), Teyana Taylor (K.T.S.E.), and Kid Cudi (the Yeezy collab project Kids See Ghosts). The next year, he recoded the genetics of gospel with Jesus is King, which includes some undeniable thumpers (“On God”) alongside head-scratchers (the Chick-fil-A anthem “Closed on Sunday”). His next album, Donda: With Child (due quite literally any minute now), is expected to keep the same spiritual swag. The project’s lead single, “Wash Us in the Blood,” fuses his pious messaging with the propulsive, industrial-style production that he’d last featured on 2013’s Yeezus, providing hope that he may have finally found a way to bridge the old Kanye with the new. — Paul Cantor

28. Method Man

Age: 49
Projects Released After 40: Five (two solo; three collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: A Better Tomorrow (with Wu-Tang Clan) Greatest Music Moment After 40: Rhyming on Teyana Taylor’s “Gonna Love Me (Remix)”

It’s been nearly three decades since he broke out with the Wu-Tang Clan, but as a rapper, actor, and television host — no, you are not imagining things, that is him hosting the TBS battle rap show, Drop the Mic, alongside Hailey Bieber — Method Man has proven to be a formidable talent. One of the biggest stars of the ’90s and early 2000s (How High, his movie with Redman, remains a cult classic), he’s comfortably grown into an elder statesman who remains razor-sharp on the mic. Solo albums were never the main draw for Meth Tical, but you can bet your ass he can still blaze a feature, as Mack Wilds (“Wild Things”), A$AP Nast (“Trillmatic”), J.I.D (“Hot Box”), and his Wu brethren can attest. — PC

27. Bun B

Age: 47
Projects Released After 40: Three Best Project Released After 40: TrillStatik Best Song Released After 40: “Blood on the Dash”

“Bitch, I’m old school like an Acura,” Bun B rhymed back in 2018 — a big mood that downplays his graceful growth into super senior status. When he’s not lecturing hip-hop courses at Rice University, the UGK half schools whippersnappers on the art of Texas trill, whether via his own strong projects or collaborations (there’s a reason he bats cleanup on the Houston all-star remix of Beyoncé’s “I Been On”). Pimp C would be proud. — LF

26. Jim Jones

Age: 43
Projects Released After 40: Three (two solo; one collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Diplomatic Ties (with Cam’ron and Juelz Santana) Best Song Released After 40: “Pity in the Summer”

Largely content to stick with formulas that worked in the past, post-40 Jones is still rhyming about Rucker Park, collaborating with Cam, and handpicking his favorite Heatmakerz soul drips to rip. He may never catch lightning in a sizzurp bottle the way he did with 2006’s “We Fly High,” but in 2018’s Wasted Talent and last year’s El Capo, he’s dropped some of the best projects of the Diplomats canon while helping to keep the crew’s flag waving proudly. — LF

25. Big Boi

Age: 45
Projects Released After 40: Two (one solo; one collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Boomiverse Best Song Released After 40: “Can’t Sleep”

With the Dungeon Family in disarray following Cee-Lo Green’s sexual misconduct case, the 2014 OutKast reunion tour at least gave fans a reassurance of the duo’s power as their thirties came to a close. But while André 3000 remains largely studio-averse, his erstwhile partner keeps the Stankonia spirit alive through his own projects. 2017’s Boomiverse found him back in the swing of things — pen sharp as ever — after the uncharacteristically flawed Vicious Lies And Dangerous Rumors five years earlier. His continued synergy with Organized Noize icon Sleepy Brown (see: “Can’t Sleep,” from their upcoming collaborative album) is hip-hop at its grown-folk funkiest, a testament to the power of keeping it all in the family. — GS

24. Nas

Age: 46
Projects Released After 40: Two Best Project Released After 40: The Lost Tapes 2 Best Song Released After 40: “Echo”

With Life Is Good, Nas gave the world an excellent middle-age rap LP at age 38. The other side of 40, however, has often seemed more concerned with growing his investment portfolio than fortifying a catalog that’s already checked every box twice over. Instead of building on the momentum of his aforementioned renaissance work, Nas cooked up Nasir, a lukewarm 2018 release that, among other issues, had the misfortune of being caught up in Kanye’s messy Wyoming rollout. But make no mistake, Esco’s pen is still a ginsu (look no further than DJ Khaled’s “Nas Album Done,” Dave East’s “Godfather 4,” or Nas’ own “Lost Freestyle” for proof). With the right music mind behind the wheel co-piloting an album, Nas can certainly catch wreck once again. — JK

23. Fabolous

Age: 42
Projects Released After 40: Two (one solo; one collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Summertime Shootout 3: Coldest Summer Ever Greatest Music Moment After 40: His guest verse on Meek Mill’s “Uptown Vibes” with Anuel AA

One of the few still-thriving voices of the early 2000s punchline rap boom, Fabolous hasn’t seen his bar work (“F vs. J Intro”) or hit-making powers (“Choosy”) slip or slide, word to Trick Daddy. Yet even late in his career, there’s room for growth beyond immortalizing Black Twitter trending topics in lyrical form. Great artists of Fab’s ilk open a portal into their lives through music — and there’s no better time for him to drop the autobiographical masterpiece of which fans have long known him to be capable. — TA

22. Jay Electronica

Age: 43
Projects Released After 40: One (zero solo; one collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: A Written Testimony Best Song Released After 40: “Ghost of Soulja Slim” (with Jay-Z)

Now, 13 years after his mixtape Act I: The Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), 11 years after “Exhibit C,” 10 years after signing to Roc Nation, eight years after Jay-Z said his album is “really close,” six years after telling MTV drugs and alcohol slowed him down — in short, after what in hip-hop amounts to a lifetime — Jay Electronica finally dropped A Written Testimony this year and, astonishingly, met its unrealistic expectations. With a kufi-donning Hov riding shotgun, the self-proclaimed Phantom of the Chakras rhymes with urgency, vulnerability, and tongue-in-cheek wit (“I bet you a Rothschild I get a bang for my dollar,” he quips), stacking his rhymes with Five Percenter references that reign supreme. You’ll bitch and moan through what’s likely to be another long drought, but whenever Jay Electronica’s sophomore album drops (2030? 2040??), you’ll likely get another bang for your dollar, too. — PC

21. Q-Tip

Age: 50
Projects Released After 40: Two (zero solo; two collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (with A Tribe called Quest) Greatest Music Moment After 40: Cursing police-brutality on second verse of ATCQ’s “The Space Program”

Beyond serving as a fitting close to A Tribe Called Quest’s discography, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service clues listeners in on Q-Tip’s take on forever-relevant American affairs, from gentrification to police brutality. His calm but furious messaging lets you know that he’s every bit as sharp and courageous as he was decades ago, and can represent at a moment’s notice. — TA

20. E-40

Age: 52
Projects Released After 40: 22 (19 solo; three collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Revenue Retrievin’: Night Shift Greatest Music Moment After 40: A scene-stealing guest verse on Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You”

We’re not convinced Earl Stevens has grown more influential with age — his early work is the stuff of Bay Area lore — but he has, astoundingly, become even more prolific. These days, it’s customary for Forty Water to drop studio releases in doubles or triplets, while bringing his unique flavor of lyrical flamboyance to any feature he touches (including the greatest Statue of Liberty punchline of all-time, on Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You”). It’s easy to remain relevant when you’ve never taken a vacation, and after nearly 30 years in the game, E-40 remains sharp on all four corners. — LF

19. Snoop Dogg

Age: 48
Projects Released After 40: 18 (13 solo; five collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Bush Greatest Music Moment After 40: Guesting on Lil Duval “Smile (Living My Best Life)”

Age has proven Snoop Dogg to be rap’s most seamless shapeshifter. Through his nearly 20 different musical projects released after 40, he’s gone from gangsta to gospel, funk to full-on rasta reggae — all while remaining cooler than C-walking barefoot on marble floors. At his core, Snoop is hip-hop; he gives game to the nephews, blazes guest verses with forever-silky vocals, and keeps it pimpin’ at all times, proving despite any passage of time, Snoop will always be that same ol’ G. — TA

18. Phonte

Age: 41
Projects Released After 40: Two (one solo; one collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: May The Lord Watch (with Little Brother) Best Song After 40: “All in a Day”

While it seemed that Little Brother had gone on permanent hiatus after 2010’s The Leftback, an on-stage reunion in 2018 gave way to Phonte and a then-39-year-old Big Pooh dropping a stellar surprise album the following year titled May The Lord Watch. On it, Phontigallo is deep in his bag, singing and rapping about overcoming struggle, Black excellence, and the futility of being the old dude in the nightclub. The focused, loosely conceptual effort reminded longtime fans of what made Little Brother so special in the first place and paved a long runway for Phonte’s continued sophistication, which will hopefully include a post-40 barrage of anthems so washed they belong on a clothesline. — PC

17. Jadakiss

Age: 45
Projects Released After 40: Five (three solo, two collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Ignatius Best Song Released After 40: “Me”

While he hasn’t had a Hot 100 single in a minute, Jada remains one of the most respected figures in rap nearly two decades after Kiss tha Game Goodbye proved there was life outside of The Lox. Jadakiss’ voice always had a raspy quality that perfectly complemented his bars; as he’s aged, that tone continues to mature in ways that make every new 16 sound like the wisdom of a street sage. His brash style resonates with the current Griselda come-up, a reminder of the shadow that his creative influence looms. The champ is here to stay. — GS

16. DJ Quik

Age: 50
Projects Released After 40: Three (two solo; one collaborative)Best Project Released After 40: The Book of DavidGreatest Music Moment After 40: “Ghetto Rendezvous” DJ Quik may be the best producer in L.A. hip-hop history (save your “forgot about Dre” quips). He brings off-kilter musicality to projects like Rosecrans, his collaboration album with young(ish) gun Problem. Yet he retained his status as one of rap’s greatest double threats with his adventurous 2011 album The Book of David, particularly on songs like the super-spacey “Poppin’” and “Killer Dope,” which ends with these legendary words: “Shouts go out, to myself. I love me, DJ Quik. Fuck the world.” — Eric Ducker

15. Ishmael Butler

Age: 51
Projects Released After 40: Seven (zero solo; seven collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: The Don of Diamond Dreams (with Shabazz Palaces) Best Song Released After 40: “Shine a Light”

Few artists from the Golden Age of hip-hop have reinvented themselves quite like Ishmael Butler. Having shed the Butterfly moniker from his Digable Planets days, the Grammy-winner reemerged as the Afrofuturist auteur behind Shabazz Palaces. Indebted to George Clinton and Sun Ra while retaining his left field hip-hop sensibilities, Butler’s albums for Sub Pop over the past decade have showcased a creative evolution that extends into the outer limits. The parallel project Knife Knights with Seattle-based engineer Erik Blood exists in the same universe much like the various 1970s P-Funk efforts did, but as a body of work, his post-40 songbook blows away that of many of his peers. — GS

14. Fat Joe

Age: 49
Projects Released After 40: Four (two solo; two collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Family Ties (with Dre) Best Song Released After 40: “All the Way Up”

For the better portion of his career, Fat Joe has pursued hit singles like storm chasers track tornadoes. That hasn’t changed — with the Remy Ma-featured “All the Way Up,” he fucked around and dropped one of the biggest records of his career, christened by a rare Jay-Z appearance on the remix. But while the Bronx legend can adapt to the ever-changing times without missing a step (see: “Yes,” the bilingual link-up with Anuel AA and Cardi B), his collaborative projects with Remy (Plata O Plomo), and Miami producer/rapper Dre (Family Ties) are equally formidable. — TA

13. Raekwon

Age: 50
Projects Released After 40: 11 (10 solo; one collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: The Wild Best Song After 40: “Marvin”

Capping off his thirties with the long-awaited and critically acclaimed sequel to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, the Chef entered his forties with a righteous triumphal air. Though some fans clamored for trilogy treatment, he has little reason to rush on their behalf. Instead, Raekwon doles out projects on his own terms. The results don’t always satisfy the sometimes stubborn Wu-Tang fandom, but solid albums like The Wild and Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang keep anyone from speaking ill on his name. Where he truly excels now is features, relishing the opportunity to challenge any rapper who dares hop on a track with him. Seeing his name on a track listing in the 2010s meant guaranteed heat for at least 16 bars, as evidenced by his enviable and awe-inspiring rhymes on Kanye’s “Gorgeous,” Cruel Summer posse cut “The Morning,” and even “Runaway Love,” on which Rae invited Justin Bieber to enter the 36 Chambers. — GS

12. Common

Age: 48
Projects Released After 40: Four (three solo; one collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Nobody’s Smiling Best Song Released After 40: “Glory”

In his prime, songs like “I Used to Love H.E.R,” “The Light,” and “The Sixth Sense” turned Common Sense into a kind of moral compass for the culture. Standing at the vanguard of what was a radical position around the turn of the century — socially conscious in an era of bling, woke before woke was a thing — he’d later work with Kanye and Pharrell and branch out to become a Hollywood player, an author, and an activist. He even beefed with Drake before that became fashionable. In his forties, Common has dropped two critically acclaimed albums — Nobody’s Smiling and Black America Again — that respectively address the turmoil in his communities both local and national and reaffirm that Chicago’s poet laureate’s words still hold major weight. You truly love to see it. — PC

11. 2 Chainz

Age: 42
Projects Released After 40: Three (two solo; one collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Rap or Go to the League Best Song Released After 40: “Threat 2 Society”

After years of running with Ludacris’ Disturbing Tha Peace Records as one-half of Playaz Circle, 2 Chainz finally experienced lasting commercial success after a solo rebrand in his midthirties. However, he’s continued to grow since turning 40: The jester energy isn’t going anywhere, but the artist formerly known as Tity Boi has leaned into the introspection his comedic timing has always overshadowed. 2 Chainz hasn’t exactly gotten somber in his forties, but a song like “Threat 2 Society” reveals how the sharp wit that makes his punchlines land can also be effective when taking stock of his life. It’s further proof that certain qualities get stronger with age. — JK

10. El-P

Age: 45
Projects Released After 40: Three (zero solo; three collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Run the Jewels 3 (with Run The Jewels) Best Song After 40: “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)”

The son of New York City jazz pianist Harry Keyes, Jaime “El-P” Meline owes his longevity to a collaborative nature and ability to elevate his co-stars to sum-greater-than-parts heights. From independent-as-fuck engine of Company Flow to underground label impresario at Def Jux to introspective solo artist, El-P’s career has come full circle. Now, he’s back in a group — and thriving. Fiercely opinionated but not too self-serious to embrace punchlines, El-P synced up with Killer Mike on a series of timely albums that are at once irreverent and relevant, earning their first Billboard top 10 with last month’s RTJ4. — LF

9. Styles P

Age: 45
Projects Released After 40: 12 (eight solo; four collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Presence Greatest Music Moment After 40: Schooling Harlem neophyte Dave East on their joint project, Beloved

Perhaps Styles P’s greatest achievement in his later years is going vegan and not telling you about it in every one of his songs. The Lox’s most imposing wordsmith has become the group’s workhorse, keeping tough talk and verbal gymnastics at a premium via a series of consistently solid releases. What’s been most exciting is hearing the Ghost go toe-to-toe with others: He brings out the best in Dave East on their impressive Beloved joint album, while The Seven with Talib Kweli is revolutionary but gangsta. Blame it on the juice. — TA

8. Rick Ross

Age: 44
Projects Released After 40: Two Best Project Released After 40: Rather You Than Me Best Song Released After 40: “Santorini Greece”

Rick Ross’ kingpin boasts reached peak grandiosity in 2010, and he’s spent the past decade sticking to the lifestyle rap script. Ross’ don persona (formidable, polished, vivid imagery) has always been a little more mature than that of his peers, so it suits his forties perfectly. He can do this for as long as he desires because he’s perfected the format over the years, which has only strengthened his album releases (Rather You Than Me, Port of Miami 2) and kept his guest verses in high demand (his contribution to “Scottie Beam” earlier this year is a highlight on Freddie Gibbs’ excellent Alfredo). Rozay’s pen remains as sharp as his ear for production; above all, he can sell extravagance with ease. — JK

7. Eminem

Age: 47
Projects Released After 40: Five Best Project Released After 40: Music To Be Murdered By Best Song Released After 40: “The Ringer”

Saying Eminem has a way with words is like complimenting Michael Phelps on his breaststroke. Puns are simply what he does, and his 10,000 hours show in the rhyme clinics he puts on with every freestyle. Sure, Marshall’s late career albums have been a mixed bag sometimes weighed down by laborious flows and copy-and-paste duets with pop stars, but Em’s shock raps still sting — which says a lot during an era that’s somehow the easiest and most difficult to get a rise out of folks. Bar for bar, there are few who can stack up. — TA

6. Ghostface Killah

Age: 50
Projects Released After 40: 10 (eight solo; two collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: The Brown Tape Best Song Released After 40: “Rise Of The Black Suits”

A lesser MC would’ve retired after the utter perfection known as Supreme Clientele, knowing that nothing that came afterward could top it. But the Wallabee Champ can’t leave rap alone, nor should he. He tapped into that classic Wu-Tang energy for the spaghetti splatterscapes of gangster epic Twelve Reasons To Die and its even-better Apollo Brown-helmed remix companion, The Brown Tape. In the years leading up to 50, Ghostface has taken on mostly collaborative projects, locking in with the jazzy Canucks of BadBadNotGood for Sour Soul and bringing Theodore Units vets and Wu regulars along for the 2019 set Ghostface Killahs. Iron man, indeed. — GS

5. Killer Mike

Age: 44
Projects Released After 40: Two (zero solo; three collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Run the Jewels 3 (with Run The Jewels) Greatest Music Moment After 40: “Holy Calamafuck”

Killer Mike is an artist for whom age is not a liability but an asset. The politically charged music he makes with producer/rapper El-P as Run The Jewels hits differently coming from someone old enough, wise enough, and woke enough to stand by each bar. That he’s really out in the world doing the work helps, too — he stumped for presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in 2015 and again four years later. Yet even as he grows into the role of an activist, Michael Render remains an absolute terror in the vocal booth. Run The Jewels’ right-on-time 2020 record, RJT4, finds the Atlanta-bred MC in top form, spitting blistering bars over El-P’s dystopian beats. — PC

4. Black Thought

Age: 48
Projects Released After 40: Five (two solo; three collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Undun (with The Roots) Greatest Music Moment After 40: A viral, 10-minute freestyle on Funkmaster Flex’s radio show

After a solid two-decade run as the lead MC of The Roots, Black Thought could’ve pivoted into middle age by simply showing up to work each day for his house band gig on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. After all, The Roots had already sold millions of records, collected a number of Grammy Awards, and received heaps of critical acclaim. Instead, the Philly rapper hit another gear. In 2014, he dropped standout verses on the group’s ambitious concept album, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, and in 2018, he followed with two volumes of a long-gestating solo series dubbed Streams of Thought, both of which proved more than worth the wait. Whether upstaging upstarts like Benny The Butcher or fellow legends like Eminem, you can always bet on Black to blow your mind. — PC

3. Pusha-T

Age: 43
Projects Released After 40: One Best Project Released After 40: Daytona Greatest Musical Moment After 40: Dismantling Drake with “Story of Adidon”

Along with his brother Malice (the now-devout No Malice), Pusha spent the better part of the early 2000s in The Clipse, where he became your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. Then came a slew of impressive solo projects that culminated in Daytona, a short, punchy album filled with his trademark dopeboy bars over sinister Kanye West beats. A critical fave, the album earned Pusha a Grammy nod, and felt like the kind of record he’d been trying to make his whole career. A veteran at the peak of his powers, Push is one of the most feared features in all of rap; even scarier is that fact that he seems to be just now hitting his stride. — PC

2. Royce Da 5’9”

Age: 43
Projects Released After 40: Three (two solo; one collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: Book of Ryan Best Song Released After 40: “Caterpillar”

At the turn of the century, Royce the 5’9” was a new rapper with an incredible buzz. Then his major label debut, Rock City, was saddled with delays, only to be released later to crickets. This sent him spiraling back to the underground, where he’s spent much of the past two decades dropping albums and mixtapes both as a soloist and occasional group member (Slaughterhouse, PRhyme, Bad Meets Evil), becoming a respected underdog in the process. But these past eight years of sobriety have given Royce’s pen a pronounced tune-up, allowing him to deliver his strongest, most vividly personal material to date via two solo records, Book of Ryan and The Allegory. On these albums we meet an older, wiser Royce, now manning his own production and speaking truth to power, yet liable to drop a punchline that’ll make you laugh your ass off. — PC

1. Jay-Z

Age: 50
Projects Released After 40: Five (two solo; three collaborative) Best Project Released After 40: 4:44 Greatest Musical Moment After 40: Setting the world record for consecutive live performances of “Niggas in Paris,” in Paris, no less

Back in 2009, months away from crossing the 40-year-old threshold, Jay-Z seemed determined to freeze time. “Young Forever,” the closing track to The Blueprint 3, relished in the present moment while pondering the future and his legacy’s place in it. It seemed to be a proper career bookend — but life doesn’t stop when the beat does. Hov’s fifth decade ushered in fatherhood, well-documented business moves, and marriage ebbs and flows that played out on TMZ. It all served as fuel for a musical victory lap that’s yielded two or three classic albums, depending on who you ask. (The smash hits, of which there have been several, are a bonus; child’s play for one of music’s best to do it.) Jay-Z’s musical life and times in middle age have delivered grandiosity (“Niggas in Paris”), introspection (“4:44”), philosophical musings (“No Church in the Wild”), and social commentary (Meek Mill’s “What’s Free”). Long ago, Jay wondered aloud, “What more can I say?” Eventually, the answer always seems to reveal itself. We’re all ears. — PC