JukeBoxDC Editorial: What Makes A Hip-Hop Album Classic?

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With Jay-Z’s immaculate classic The Blueprint celebrating its 10 year anniversary on September 11th, I thought it was only right to write about his classic masterpiece. But, not just this classic album, but most of them. We can associate a classic album as a fine dish. It has to have the right ingredients, made the right way and made by someone who put a lot of hard work, love and care into it. Then, once completed, everyone loves it, wants more of it, recommends your dish to everyone, etc. Seems doable, right? It is. Easy? Not so fast my friend. Getting the approval of the label, fan endorsement, album sales and ultimately being critically-acclaimed by various publications all at once is a tedious task. Luckily enough, more than a few artists have pulled this off and some even, more than once.


Before we can breakdown the bulk of what makes a classic album classic, let’s talk about the word classic. Merriam-Webster defines it as serving a standard of excellence, historically memorable and authentic. Wow. Strong words, right? Now, aside from diabetes STILL being a factor in America and the STD outbreak in my generation, one of my biggest issues is how loosely we use the word classic. People will tweet hashtags of classic with anything. I love Three 6 Mafia just as much as the next thug nigga, but they have never released a classic album. I love Tweet’s Southern Hummingbird as any lover of neo soul/R&B but she never released a classic album. Lil Wayne’s Carter I got a lot of rotation in my car, but it is not a classic album. We call these albums, personal favorites. A personal favorite relates to you. It speaks to you. Its your theme music for months upon months. However, most personal favorites never meet mass appeal, hardly sell a good amount of records(at least Gold) and is usually, an artist’s best album out of their entire collection (Not by a little bit either, but a lot). Therefore, if you see someone throw around classic, just give them the speech on personal favorites. Minds will change. Now, let’s meet the sensational six.

1. Content/Lyrical Prowess:
Example: Notorious B.I.G’s Ready to Die
Close But Not Quite: 2Pac’s Me Against the World
See what I just did there? A 2Pac fan probably just stopped reading this, but let me break it down, before you blow up the comments box. Ready to Die gave a story than is unmatched in hip hop except for about 4-5 albums. Me Against the World had a great story and 2Pac had great content on this album, but he missed out on another key element to a classic album (production). If MATW isn’t formed in such a small time period and Pac been better on his beats, this is a classic. Think of the Kevin Dyson and the Titans against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV.

2. Production:
Example: Common’s Be
Close But Not Quite: Jay-Z’s American Gangster
I love American Gangster. It took a while to grow on me, but it’s definitely in Jay-Z’s top 5 albums of his catalog. Even with the awesome beats that Puffy and the Hitmen gave to Hov, the album falls short on the end of having one too many skippable songs. As for Be, Kanye West gave his Chicago brethren an artist-reviving LP to bump for years and years. Be’s ability to be played through and through with impeccable production gets a nod. American Gangster can go into the personal favorites section.

3. Memorable Songs/No Skips
Example: Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt
Close But Not Quite: T.I.’s Paper Trail
Jay-Z has the most classic albums by any solo rapper (RD, BP1 & Black). Reasonable Doubt is quite honestly, the best rap album ever made. Put the album on shuffle, turn your music the loudest and you will feel the winter of 1996 coming through your speakers. As for Paper Trail, tons of hits, tons of success, but the album lacks the “You Know Where You Were When You First Heard It” factor. Songs were leaking left and right, that when you first heard Paper Trail, half the album already got 10 spins on your iPod. That’s not cool Tip. Solid album it is, but not a classic, nor the best in his collection (Reference: Trap Muzik).

4. Impact
Example: Kanye West’s College Dropout
Close But Not Quite: Nas’ Untitled
These two albums are part of my “Will Never Leave the iPod Ever, Ever” collection. One is a classic and the other is a complete album that is missing the impact factor. College Dropout was slept on, but after that first listen and hearing the story of a guy named Kanye, you immediately fell in love with the soul beats and this new sound he was just beginning to usher in. As for Untitled, Nas made a conscious effort to sulk into the mind’s of the youth, but lacking videos, promotion and not having a strong radio push, the album fell through the cracks. Lack of impact ruined this one. Untitled is considered a personal favorite in my book.

5. You Know Where You Were When You First Heard It
Example: Drake’s So Far Gone
Close But Not Quite: Lil Wayne’s No Ceilings
Now this is a weird rule for the simple fact that most 80’s babies can’t relate to any album in the 90’s for this factor, nor can a 90’s baby do the same with early 2000’s albums. Therefore, this rule only applies for post 2005 records depending on age. To make this more intriguing, I selected two of YMCMB’s best mixtapes ever. First, So Far Gone spread like wildfire among the streets. It was fresh, this guy could rap (and sing) and it was something we haven’t seen in a while, a hostile takeover (i.e. 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Trying Era). It had everything an album has except for the fact, it wasn’t an album. As for No Ceilings, it was simply awesome. Wayne gave away free remixes to keep one hit wonders alive and on the radio and in clubs (“Swag Surf”, “Ice Cream”). No Ceilings lacks the content and depth that previous Wayne mixtapes brought to the table though. Car trunk approved. Classic rating denied.

6. Expectations/Timing
Example: Kanye West’s Late Registration
Close But Not Quite: Kanye West’s Graduation
Kanye’s two most debated albums and honestly, I will take Late Registration over Graduation. The expectations and when the album is released are the biggest difference. Yes, I know expectations don’t have to nothing to do with the music and timing can’t truly be justified but that’s what so great about debating music, its more than just music. After College Dropout, most thought Kanye was a one album wonder and would continue to be a genius behind the board. That didn’t happen. He would release an album just as good as College Dropout, but this time he was a better rapper. (Impact makes Dropout better than Registration). Anyways, with Graduation, Kanye had two major hits (“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and ”Stronger”) and the album couldn’t live up to those songs. That’s how good they were. Think of the early 2000’s Lakers dynasty, Shaq and Kobe and them. Great duo, but from top to bottom they don’t compare to other basketball franchises.
Now, that you’ve heard the sensational six let’s talk about a few other factors that’s aren’t as key, but could be a way to sway viewers.
Album Cover: Take a look at any 90’s OutKast cover and your eyes might get the munchies. It’s a visual orgasm with colors and symbolism. Artwork is a factor.
Features: Dr. Dre’s Chronic and 2001 albums would not be where they are today without the help of a few of his comrades. Great music was made by Dre and company well before he made some very expensive headphones.
Skits: Say what you want about Eminem, but he is a one of a kind artist and his skits are living proof. Through his sick and demented humor, Em always kept people laughing, talking about or having a guilty pleasure for his skits.
Videos: *insert Hype Williams 90’s video here*
Now, that we’ve discussed the difference from classic versus personal favorite, the key and not so key ingredients to a classic album, there is one glaring factor I must establish. The length of time is a significant factor, because if you judge an album too quick you have already become a prisoner of the moment. So you gave Watch the Throne, two complete spins and its classic? Or on the flipside, you gave the Carter IV four spins and its the worst album of the year? Settle down my friends. Being a prisoner of the moment can cause irrational thinking and judgment. Personally, I like to hear an album 4-5 times over a week’s span before I give my verdict. With that being said, an album can not be deemed “classic” until 18 months after its release. Yes, a complete year and a half. Some might say a year, but most classic albums still have a significant radio single and/or video out. Let’s hear the album with fresh ears. Some might say why not do a full two years? I like this notion, but that wait is too long. We shouldn’t have for its 2nd birthday to crown it a gem. This can be sort of like the NFL and it’s 5 year wait period for the Hall of Fame. After 18 months, then we can consider if you’re eligible. Speaking of eligibilty a few albums are up for consideration including Rick Ross’ Teflon Don, Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and long shot Wiz Khalifa’s Kush & Orange Juice project. All were solid in my eyes, but still need a little more time on the shelf before being deemed classic.

As of right now, there are four potentially classic albums due out in the upcoming months that have a classic buzz to them. Jeezy returns with his highly anticipated TM103, Drake and Wale debut their sophmore LPs with Take Care and Ambition, and RocNation’s own J. Cole will finally release Cole World: Sideline Story this September. The buzz is there for all four to make a splash but which will actually come through is the question.
It was a pleasure breaking down what exactly a hip hop classic is and isn’t. Hopefully you paid attention and took notes. Class is dismissed.

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