Hip-Hop is possibly the only genre of music where albums are judged to a high standard as to whether they are classics or not. The Oxford Dictionary defines a classic as something ‘Judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind.’ However recent years has seen the hip-hop scene contradict the true definition of a classic. From 2010 onwards the term instant classic has become prevalent in the world of hip-hop. Dare I say that Kanye West’s opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the engine behind such a controversial term as critics and fans hailed it as an instant classic upon arrival. This extended to recent years where in 2012 Good Kid, M.A.A.D City by Kendrick Lamar was called an instant classic the very day it dropped by critics and rap fans. Complex stated that it was one of the 25 classic hip hop albums of the previous 10 years in December 2012, the same year the album dropped. Yeezus by Kanye West was also hailed as an instant classic. Then in 2015 Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly followed in the steps of its predecessor and was labelled an instant classic immediately. Due to this new phenomenon, 808sandblues has come up with its own criteria as to what makes an album a classic below and whether any rap album can truly be called an instant classic.
‘This album’s platinum sales, rap skills, and bleak vision mitigated by humor and funk, completed the revitalization of New York hip hop begun with the success of the Wu-Tang’s debut a year before.’ Peter Shapiro on Notorious B.I.G’s Ready To Die.
Does the album have some sort of impact on rap culture and rap music? Did the album have some sort of influence that led other artists to become influenced by it or did the album have some sort of influence in popular culture? These are the questions we must ask. Without a doubt this is an important criteria that is needed to assess whether an album is a classic but it is also not the end all be all as a album which has no impact but is still of substantial quality can still be deemed a classic. An example of a rap album with substantial impact is Nas’s Illmatic. Illmatic changed the rap game in the 1990s as it made a lot of New York rappers change their flows, wordplay and lyricism and brought forth somewhat a new sound. In addition it changed the way rappers could tell stories on their albums. Illmatic paints the picture of Nas growing up in Queensbridge through sick flows, dynamic lyricism and classic DJ Premier production which without a doubt influenced many rappers and most recently Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid m.a.a.d City.
Kendrick Lamar’s autobiography take on growing up in Comptom, California would not have been possible if not for the influence of Nas’s Illmatic – 808sandblues.
Another example would be Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly album. The single Alright became an anthem for the black lives matter movement throughout 2015. After the unjust shooting of unarmed black men in the United States , it ultimately became a protest song. Rolling Stones Editor Grate Tate provided that ‘Lamar’s Alright has been touted by many a comrade in today’s student activist cadre as their we shall overcome.’ In addition To Pimp a Butterfly is also being taught in high schools and universities across the USA. Georgia Tech University now has a course on the album and Harvard Library announced in February 2017 that the album has been added to the Harvard library in acknowledgement of its cultural significance. This showcases a good example of cultural impact.
‘In 2012, I was chosen to be a Harvard University Fellow at The Dubois Institute under the direction of @henrylouisgates and Dr. Marcy Morgan. I chose the research project “These Are The Breaks”….a collection of albums that are the standard of the culture…..200 in all in no particular order. These are the first four we chose to start with….to live for forever in the Harvard Library…and to be forever placed in the canon…complete with liner notes and the vinyl that was used in the production of the album…… To live forever….shouts @levelsoundz and @madtwiinz for the masterful design of the boxes and content. @HarvardUniversity @TheHipHopArchive 4 down.. 196 to go…. ‘ – 9th Wonder on choosing To Pimp a Butterfly, The miseducation of Lauren Hill, illmatic and The Low End Theory being archived in the Harvard Library.
2. Playability & Replay Value
‘Ambitious, fierce and ground breaking. I’ve had A piece of Strange for 5 years now and not once does it sound dated’ – 808andblues.
An album must have must have replay value for it to be a classic. Can you listen to the album anytime, play it front to back, not skip too many tracks and not get bored of the album? One of the unique aspects of CunninLynguists’s A Piece of Strange album is its unique and diverse catchy production. Every single track sounds different and distinct to the point where I can never seem to get board of the sound of the album. Remember Me is a fantastic instrumental song which sounds like something DJ Shadow would have made in his prime and Beautiful girl has excellent elements of jazz and the chipmunk sample makes the listen even more pleasurable. Every time I go back and listen to the album I always hear something new.
3. Critical Acclaim
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy became the most critically acclaimed album of his career receiving a perfect 10 from Pitchfork and 94/100 on Metacritic – 808andblues.
Without a doubt, critical acclaim is needed for an album to be considered a classic. It doesn’t mean that the album must have singles on the radio but it should be looked upon very favourably by the critics. Critics on average know what they are talking about than the average listener. The average listener of music is not as knowledgeable as critics and the in many cases fans are unable to set biases aside to objectively critique an album. Back in 2010 would you let a hardcore Taylor Swift fan review MBDTF for your magazine? no, because it is likely her biases would get in the way in fairly assessing the album. Critics are neutral for the most part, if they weren’t Kanye would would never have gotten such high praise for MBDTF.
The Source Magazine at its peak was the most influential hip hop magazine in the United States, It didn’t matter how much the streets fucked with your album, or how many of your hip-hop peers fucked with your shit, rappers needed that validation from The Source to confirm that an album was a classic or at the very least the album was of substantial quality. The 5 mics rating from the Source was the most revered in hip hop back in the 1990s. However The Source has lost its influential grip on hip-hop with hipster blog Pitchfork and website Metacritic which provides a summary score of all major outlets as being the two most relevant in the music world today. You won’t see Illmatic, The Infamous, Ready To Die, 1980s or 1990s rap albums on Metacritic unless they are reissues seeing as Metacritic was only formed in 2000.
“We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar. We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do.” – Tony Visconti
Classic rap albums have to be different from the regular selection while still maintaining a high standard of quality. Rap today is almost certainly dominated by trap sounds. Metro Boomin, Mike Will Made it and so on are trap producers who are highly regarded in the rap game. While Future, Gucci Mane, Lil Uzi Vert and Young Thug are rappers who use the trap sound the most. When almost every rapper uses the same sound, an individual who goes outside the box and does something different even though he or she is at risk of losing their fanbase should be awarded. To Pimp a Butterfly is such as example. One of the unique aspect of To Pimp a Butterfly is its unique and diverse catchy production. Every single track sounds different, distinct and ultimately ambitious. Wesley’s Theory has elements of funk, For Free has elements of jazz, The Blacker The Berry has elements of 90s boom rap. The production contained live instrumentals and jazz elements which are vastly missing in this current generation of rap. Remember rap was founded on the influence of jazz and blues. Kendrick could have continued with the GKMC sound or even made a GKMC 2 to double his dollars, but he choice art over monetary gains and was rightfully rewarded for it.
5. Instant classic grey area?
“the brilliance of the Roots is their ability to make it into a greater art, showcased nowhere better than on this gorgeous instant classic of an album.” – Sputnik Music
This is an area that must be addressed. Is there such thing as an instant classic rap album or an album in general? Well, its half and half simply because it goes against everything the true definition of a classic simply is which something of great quality judged over a long period time. However there are exceptions to the rule and we believe that an album can be an instant classic only if it is something which is of substantial quality. We don’t believe that on the very first day an album drops that it is an instant classic, simply because one day is not enough time to judge an album. Jay – Z explains it best in his Breakfast Club interview “Right now, the music comes out like this. People are writing a review in a day. First of all, you can’t listen to an album and rate it in a day. It’s just impossible…And when I see that I’m like ‘Oh, so this is all just bullshit.”
Rather one week is sufficient enough, if the album is of substantial quality and you can listen to it 5 – 8 times a day for a week without getting bored then it is an instant classic. Examples of instant classics are My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Atrocity Exhibition, Undun, Channel Orange, Blonde, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and To Pimp a Butterfly.