Hip-Hop has not been an elder's game. A statement so blatantly apparent, that it should go unsaid.

Ageing rappers have their place, to be sure, whether serving as a perennial respect token feature a la Bun B or burrowing stubbornly into a Duck Down-esque niche. The climate is even less forgiving for personalities fortunate enough to have once truly been a dominant presence: Ice Cube forayed into acting, somewhat avoiding the doldrums most #1 artists become mired in: pandering for continued relevance.

Whether you're LL Cool J or Ludacris, former commercial might seeking further commercial might is a proposition more awkward than most. Other genres are more hospitable towards ageing artists sticking to familiar sounds, but were Chris Bridges to put out another 'Roll Out' in 2017? Deaf ears. One only needs to peruse his more recent singles to see the reality of what he felt was required.

This isn't to say it's the only option. Despite the somewhat baffling lack of credit he gets for it, Snoop Dogg has remained more or less doggedly consistent since 1993. He's had his lows, to be sure, but just go back to Tha Last Meal, Paid tha Cost or Tha Blue Carpet Treatment. Bet you'll be surprised. His success is twofold, stemming from both an ability to sniff out trends quicker than some of his ageing peers, whether latching onto The Neptunes (moreover, Pharrell) and Wiz Khalifa early on and a willingness to try, well, anything. Just listen to the song he has with, sigh, Lil Dicky.

Still, even he has seemed to give in to nostalgia with his latest (again, solid!) release, Neva Left. His time fighting to be at (or, at least near) the forefront seems clearly past. Into this climate so arrives 4:44.

Many will balk that it's far from the first great album from an ageing voice. To be sure. Let's be clear of the point here: Jay-Z, at 47, hasn't just made a great album, he's made a vital one. To compare to another return to form from a rapper of nearly the same generation, Raekwon's OB4CL sequel has aged gloriously over the past near decade, and still sounds as good as it did in 2008. Did it break the Wu-mold, however? Certainly not, it benefited from The Chef's tried and true persona, and as a sequel is destined to, served as a part of a musical era gone by.

4:44 reimagines what Jay-Z is, who he is an artist, and what he can mean to his listeners, new and old. He has upended what can be expected from – nay, what is possible for – an older rapper of his stature. That last word is important, as well. To be sure, the likes of Ka are making vital rap in their 40s, and 2 Chainz became a commercial entity late in his career, but neither of this sort of rapper has the burden of a titanic past on their shoulders. If anything, they've arguably been driven by a lack of recognition and a drive to make a damn mark before it was too late.

Jay-Z on the other hand, as displayed by his recent work, has had to battle complacency, fatigue, and a massive sense of preexisting accomplishment. Not to mention the certain temptation to crank out more easy hits with Rihanna, or literally any other name he could choose from his no doubt overfilled rolodex.

Instead, as we're all painfully aware of by now, he hunkered down the guy responsible for Common's recent renaissance and the bulk of Summertime '06. If you instantly thought of Jay's own "I ain't been rapping like Common since," off the Eminem-produced 'Moment of Clarity', I don't blame you. I certainly did, but the move more than paid off. It's not a Lemonade response album, but as to whether he needed the push from his wife's own artistry to rediscover his own, it ultimately doesn't matter: he did it. What we're left with are some bigger questions.

This ultimately leads us to our one time great white hope. There is arguably no artist that has been intensely awash in a generation's disappointment. Eminem meant a hell of a lot, to a hell of a lot of us, once upon a time. Frankly, as a former genuine Stan myself, I haven't revisited the man's recordings in at least a few years. Attempting to delve into his more recent projects for the sake of this piece, I was left with some new impressions. The most genuinely lamentable of the lot is the most recent, which he was foolish enough to title Marshall Mathers LP 2, besmirching his best work and creating a new mess all at once. A clear redirect following the gradual ire that his mega-hit Recovery inspired, returning now, it turns out the pop of the earlier record is preferable.

People adore hating Recovery (does anyone else wince at that 2.8 from Pitchfork?) but it was, at the very least, the man with all brain cells firing. He set out to make a straight out pop record that would return him to the sales force that he once was. Well, he certainly achieved his goal. What's happened since is more confusing.

Whether he genuinely thinks his food jokes and overly obsessive rhyme schemes are actually of interest to his fan base, we may never know. His reputation as the "fastest / most complicated" rapper is truly an odd one, however. He was once the jokester, something of hip-hop's Loki, and inspired a generation in his mixture of socially relevant pranks and emotional depth.

What I think it comes to down to is simple: the main is afraid to rap like a grown man. He considers his appeal to be entirely based in juvenile antics, and is depressingly sticking to them as an aged man. The world has no more use for sexist, homophobic jokes, whether intended as satire or no, the cleverness once behind them has been replaced by a tacky, sickly guise that fails to hide the lack of belief or enthusiasm behind them.

So time and again, fans are left with a simple question: will Eminem ever actually say something on a record again? His recent features don't provide much hope, his growing a damn beard being the best sign of potential (pun intended) growth in years.

If he never rights the ship, he will be something of an anomaly in music, made all the more painful but Jay-Z's own recent discovery of his artistry. Nearly every "definitive" musician in history has had a period without inspiration, David Bowie suffered through Never Let Me Down and Hours, before gracing us with the likes of Heathen and Blackstar.

Greatness forever collapsing into a pile of slop, however? While not unheard of, it's certainly tragic, and even artists that burn out usually offer some glimpse of their former genius. Linking up with 2 Chainz could inspire hope, he's arguably rap's greatest goofball of late, but Eminem's last foray with Atlanta royalty, T.I., didn't exactly bring out the best in him, and it's hard to imagine Shady doing little more than mining another sound that doesn't fit him naturally, and it's easy to imagine that rather than adapting, he'll awkwardly muck up the place.

The man has plenty to talk about. He once spoke of getting a million for each of his daughters and simply vanishing. That sure didn't happen, and he sure met his financial goals, so, in light of Jay-Z exploring his own ageing and maturity, Eminem has arguably even weightier questions to explore. Namely: he got it all. Now, he's afraid to just go shopping, he sits in an isolated, essentially bare mansion day in and out, surrounded by the same circle that's been there for most of his career. Was it all worth it? What does it mean to him now? We haven't heard a single word about how Marshall Mathers really feels about something in longer than it's comfortable to recall.

It's harder still to imagine what exactly it is driving him at all. He lives for the respect of his peers and audience, bending over backwards to display rap acrobatics, more recently, forever donning shirts boasting old rap album covers, yet makes music that couldn't be more disconnected from the roots he's heralding. It can only be assumed he's lost all perspective on what made his music great, and perhaps sadder still, that he's so disconnected from himself that it creates such vacuous music delivered with such seeming conviction. Sifting through the leaks of his years recording and not releasing prior to Relapse, 'Difficult' sheds the most light. A searing, simple, and downright heartbroken relation on the loss of his best friend, Proof, these emotions would somehow twist into the forced positivity of Recovery's 'You're Never Over', right around the time the human seemed to be lost behind the plastic mask we've suffered through since. It's allowed him to become the sort of name that graces Top 5 lists out of obligation, while (fairly) joked about by Earl Sweatshirt as the guy whose fan base drinks too much Powerade.

With each passing year, it seems less and less likely that an Eminem resembling a lifelike artist will never return. To be fair, he suffers pressure beyond the usual: the reputation of a rapper expected to sell (we mean sell) records, and with other people's jobs who depend on him selling said records, but to have completely lost any semblance of his own voice in the process still seems an unnecessary sacrifice. To compare him to Rivers Cuomo doesn't seem an entirely inaccurate proposal. However flawed Relapse may have been, it was clearly dear to him (as his continued talking about it each album since certainly shows) and it must have some value, the way it inspired the Odd Future generation. As it was rejected by fans and audiences alike, he seems to have emerged broken by his own Pinkerton (this is not to compare the two albums' quality).

When he was goofing around with his crew for their BET Cypher is the closest we've seen to a natural Eminem, just go back and check his verse, it's by turns playful and dark, with social punchlines that actually land (that Casey Anthony bit, phew). Removed from album restrictions and a wide audience's expectations, he seemed to have fun rapping again for a few minutes. People got excited for what was next. Then it was gone again. We know it's still in there somewhere, but as to whether he'll ever pull it off himself... is anyone's guess. We miss you, Marshall.