The other day I received an email blast from a publicist about new song released by an artist (who shall remain nameless) that referred to that artist’s upcoming album as an “instant classic.” I immediately laughed, and not because I’d heard the album and was unsure of its everlasting greatness, although I was. What I didn’t like was the use of the word “classic.” I was talking to a friend (shout out to @theJK) about why hip hop heads immediately become defensive when an album is described as a “classic”, and his response was “I blame The Source”, which is hilarious.
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I’m not personally ready to lay all the blame on the one publication. Certainly some of it. I will say that over the years we’ve set stringent standards for what we consider to be timeless music. We’ve created this country club of perfect albums, and it is nearly impossible for newer works to get any critical traction as a result of it. This is the part where some of you will say, “That’s because rap sucks in 2011!” Maybe we’ll discuss why you shouldn’t feel that way at a later date. For the sake of the argument, let’s check our Golden Age fetishism at the door.
What strikes me most about this kind of thinking is that it is almost exclusive to hip hop and the genre’s climate of oneupsmanship. If I went on Twitter right now and declared, say, Arcade Fire’s Funeral to be a classic album, nobody would reply about how, no, it’s not because London Calling or Rubber Soul or Remain in Light are better. Those conversations don’t happen much outside of rap. Hip hop feels like the only corner of the music industry regularly fielding arguments about why an album is NOT classic.
For some reason, there is a block of us out there that won’t allow some of the greatest records of our time to even be considered among the pantheon of classics. What’s more, we’re fiercely protective and combative about keeping that pantheon as is. The last few rap albums that anyone dared to call a classic were relentlessly slandered by hip hop heads. Nevermind what albums they were. That’s not the point of the argument. The point is that the old classics were thrown in our face, as if to say, “Look how far we’ve fallen.” It’s as if we worry that the greatness of the music of decades gone by is tarnished by newer music getting similar accolades.News flash: calling a post-millennial hip hop album a classic does not retroactively make De La Soul Is Dead or It Takes a Nation of Millions… less singular or amazing. What’s more, lamenting the decline of quality rap while refusing to acknowledge artists struggling to inject new life into the genre only makes us look stuffy, whiny, and out of touch. This isn’t a call for us to lower our standards for what we consider “great music” by any stretch. It’s an appeal to think outside the damn box already. Over the decades, rap has undergone fundamental changes in style, technology, and ways too plentiful to count. Are we interested in the advancement of the thing, or are we going to hopelessly cling to a bygone era? Are we gatekeepers of the holy Golden Age of rap, or are we fans of a living, evolving art form that is always expanding into new territories and touching new audiences? Sometimes I can’t tell which.