By countless measures, 2017 has been a punishing year. Cultural and political incompetence, mendacity, and cruelness have been on relentless display, so much so that they have overwhelmed even hellish images of fire and flooding. Surrounded as we are by human frailty and failure, we are starved for instances of human excellence. Perhaps this is partly to explain why, last week, a video of an astonishing 10-minute freestyle by the front man of the Roots, Tariq Trotter (aka Black Thought), went viral, transfixing and winning plaudits from audiences well beyond the usual connoisseurs. Seated behind a desk and wearing shades and a fedora, Trotter opened in a calm and confident tone that immediately announced mastery, mixing earthy argot with high literary and artistic allusion and harsh autobiographical color, good hip-hop’s signature mix. He finished with his brow dripping sweat, never having moved an inch from his seat or even working for a breath, but having left viewers electrified and dumbfounded, as if they’d witnessed a death-defying act. It was a demonstration of such unusual force that many people immediately hailed it a rap performance without equal.
And this is what moved me the most. Rap is—or it always has been—decidedly a young man’s game. Black Thought is 44 years old, and while admired by serious fans and respected by peers, he has somehow kept improving even as the majority of his generation have retired or been forgotten. What is so inspiring about his unexpected moment in the limelight is what it says for the value of sustained effort and dedication to craft. You can do something well for years—for decades even—while never quite getting the credit (or attention) that many lesser, more fleeting talents constantly receive. Still, you keep doing it and improving, and then, at last, the mainstream catches up.