What Makes a Classic Album?

To be considered an extraordinary musician you must be responsible for at least one classic album. Of course, “classic” is a subjective criterion, plenty of memorable artists lack a classic in their discography.

But, as time passes it is those with the transcendent projects usually endure.

With the rise of music streaming, some contend, albums are less important than they once were. Typically arguing streaming makes music more disposable.

Albums are still the most significant way to evaluate a musician’s quality. Look at Desiigner. He blew up with ‘Panda’, his second song and achieved an extraordinary amount of success in a short period.

His mannerisms remind me of Busta Rhymes

‘Panda’ currently resides at #21 in the UK Charts after 17 weeks in the countdown. Interestingly, the song also hit the number one spot in the US Billboard charts, a feat which Future himself has yet to achieve.

Considering most people initially thought ‘Panda’ was a Future song, I suspect Fewtch is pretty pissed off. Desiigner took the whole Auto-Tune-rap-singing formula and achieved more immediate and noticeable success than the originator.

If there is one thing hip-hop history has shown, two rappers with similar styles rarely coexist. Mark my words, there will be beef. It will be the Auto-Tune version of Nas v Jay-Z. When Jay-Z came out in 1996, Nas felt like his style had been stolen. Future has an even stronger case, because Desiigner, has yet to display any originality of his own.

Because he has yet to release a studio album, the jury is out on Desiigner. His debut mixtape New English had some interesting moments, but sounded like a compilation of watered down Future tracks.

It is difficult to make judgments on Desiigner because his entire musical output is less than 20 songs. Which demonstrates the continued importance of albums in today’s landscape.

When defining a classic album, more often than we are looking for three of the following conditions:

Coherence – Oftentimes there is a theme. Something the artist is going through. Occasionally, this produces a concept album, but this isn’t necessarily the rule. Sometimes, the emotion of life is so strong that we have projects recorded in the space of a week. Good albums can conjure this emotion in the listener for a few songs. Great albums do it consistently.

here my dear - marvin gaye

Impact – although it might not receive immediate critical acclaim, the repercussions and influence of the project can be measured across time.

  • Example – Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin – was famously reviewed poorly at the time and is now considered the blueprint for heavy metal.
Led Zeppelin Review
From the 1969 Rolling Stone review

Replayability – there have to be enough quality songs to make subsequent visits worthwhile. From personal experience this requires a minimum of 6 great songs.

  • Example Illmatic – Nas – this is one of those albums that you can’t just listen to one song from. Each track is a chapter from 19-year-old Nas’ life. An album you have to appreciate in full.
nas and mother
All rappers love their mums

Of course, there are other significant factors that determine a classic album, track order, production and mastering. However, coherence, impact and replayability can make an album transcendent.

Once you make it to the top, it can be hard to maintain the level creative output. In the hip-hop world there are plenty examples of artists who failed to repeat the magic of their definitive work.

Drake is a great example. When he signed to Young Money in 2009, his potential was obvious. After two good projects Drake finally matched the hype with 2011’s Take Care. An emotionally naked, claustrophobic exploration of fame and loneliness. Despite maintaining similar themes and emotional nudity on subsequent works; Drake has been unable to reproduce the quality of his magnum opus.

take care - drake

Like boxing, people love to debate classic rap albums and rappers. Make one timeless album and you have entered a secret club. There will always be someone to viciously defend your legacy, usually in blind contradiction of all logic.

Here are a few examples from the 1990s. We can appreciate the impact of these artists because enough time has passed for us to accurately measure their legacy.

One Transcendent Album

Das EFX – Dead Serious a personal favourite of mine. A truly off the wall rhyme structure makes this riggidy right at the top of all-time fun albums. Many imitated this rhyme style and siggidy soon Das lost their edge. The same thing may happen to Migos…

Non-Rap Parallel = Boston – never again reached heady heights of their self-titled album

Two Transcendent Albums

Mobb Deep The Infamous – Hell on Earth

They have two classic albums. Some people think Mobb Deep have more, but these are wrong opinions. Reach the two classics zone and you will be considered minor legends. You wouldn’t decry someone for having Mobb Deep as their favourite rap group, but this is a minority opinion.

Non-Rap Parallel = Nirvana, for obvious reasons

Three Transcendent Albums

Gang Starr –  Daily Operation – Hard to Earn – Moment of Truth

Hallowed territory. You are considered among the bedrock of hip-hop, with a pioneering and influential body of work.

Non-Rap Parallel = Phil Collins [solo]

Four or More Transcendent Albums

We are in Jay-Z, Nas and OutKast territory. All-time greats with an undeniable impact on the genre. These figures have the utmost respect of fans regardless of relevance. People will talk about your body of work with deep reverence. Black children will be named after you

Non-Rap Parallel = Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin

nas and jay-z

In this upper echelon are a few important names like Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, who created genre-defining work. The ripples of which can be felt today.

In the case of Dre, he pioneered G-Funk. Which sampled George Clinton funk and featured laid-back delivery of gangsta rhymes. An unprecedented combination, that all but killed off the aggressive boom bap of the 1980s. When an entire sub-genre is formed as result of your influence, it makes you a special artist.

This is not dissimilar to a certain egotist who has had a major impact on modern hip-hop. Kanye Omari West, the Jose Mourinho of rap. A modern day musical genius and arguably the founder of the Auto-Tuned hip hop that is so popular currently. Next time I will look at the most influential album of the past decade, 808s and Heartbreak.

808s and heartbreak artwork

Host of Culture Hash, writer of music, TV and film opinions

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