What makes an album a classic? Here are our criteria and 15 albums we think make the cut (with songs from each) (Food For Thought)
With the release of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city album, many are using the word “classic” (including us–though we said “modern day classic”…more on that later) about a hip-hop album for the first time in a long, long time. No doubt, just the utterance of the “c” word is enough to cause endless debate, but it made us step back and ask: What makes an album a classic? Below are our criteria, as well as a listing of albums we think make the cut (with a song). Let us know how you define a classic.
1. Groundbreaking: To be a classic, an album must be groundbreaking, both sonically and lyrically. There are many albums that are of superior quality (Chronic 2001 comes to mind) but are largely revisits of something that has already been done. Only when an album literally changes the direction of music AT THAT TIME can it be put in the discussion of being a classic. It Takes A Nation of Millions, for example, was one of the first albums to be literally and figuratively revolutionary. Similarly, The Chronic popularized G-Funk and, more importantly, made hardcore rap commercial for the first time ever. As hip-hop approaches 35 years of recorded history, many things have been covered. It is increasingly more difficult to be groundbreaking–hence, less classics over time.
2. Consistent: A truly classic album has to be of stellar quality from front to back. That doesn’t mean it has to be perfect–few albums are–but it has to be 90%+ “skip proof” to pass the threshold test of classic. There are many albums that have some of the most amazing songs ever made (think many Eminem albums) but which also have a lot of material that does not quite make the cut. Classic albums make it hard to press “stop” let alone “skip.”
3. Enduring: Yeah, ok. You can say hindsight is 20/20 (very few classics received perfect ratings when they debuted) but the fact of the matter is a defining characteristic of a classic is that it stands the test of time. Some records can be novel but their appeal quickly wears off after a few listens. Classics sound great over years…decades.
Only time will tell if good kid, m.A.A.d city withstands the test of #3. After listen number 10+ for me, however, it seems to have numbers 1 and 2 pretty well covered. Here are some key songs from some classics that have dropped over the years (in no particular order). Let us know what we missed:
1. Mobb Deep – The Infamous: Grimy hip-hop at its finest.
2. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the 36 Chambers: Created a completely new martial arts/hip-hop sub-culture and slang. Seamlessly deployed 9 lyrical assassins.
3. Nas – Illmatic: Elevated the art of storytelling to levels never seen before.
4. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: Kanye said to hell with the radio and created one of the most artistic, complicated and dark albums hip-hop has ever heard. This album paved the way for underground (like Kendrick Lamar) to become commercial…
5. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: Expanded hip-hop to include soul and put a woman in the discussion of the greatest MCs ever for the first time.
6. OutKast – Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik: Completely destroyed the notion that MCs from the South don’t have lyrical skills…forever, for ever ever…
7. The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die: Made East Coast rap relevant to the rest of the world again after 2 years of West Coast domination. One of the first truly cinematic albums.
8. Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt: One of the greatest rags to riches stories ever told on wax. Picked up the torch from Biggie and ran with that muthaf*cka.
9. De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising: One of the most sonically innovative albums ever created. Launched the “skit era.” Made it popular to be positive in hip-hop.
10. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory: Possibly the closest thing to a perfect album on this entire list. Re-defined the notion of a Posse Cut.
11. Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation of Millions: The “Black CNN” (East Coast version).
12. Ice Cube – Death Certificate: The “Black CNN” (West Coast version).
13. Run-D.M.C. – Run-D.M.C.: The first hip-hop album that could be played from start to finish and which was conceived as a full body of work. Raised the ante on what was to expect from an album in the future. Covered everything from politics (It’s Like That) to party rap (Sucker MCs) to a rock/rap hybrid (Rock Box).
14. Eric B & Rakim – Paid in Full: Made multi-syllabic rhyming the standard in hip-hop from that day forward.
15. Dr. Dre – The Chronic: Completely re-defined “pop” music. Established the West Coast sound as the most influential in hip-hop (at the time). Perfected the art of a “collaboration” album.