Broken Language: Classics

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.

Hit the skip to keep reading.

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.

20 thoughts on “Broken Language: Classics

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  1. Anonymous|

    A little late I know, and I don’t agree with your entire list, but overall there arent many that I have tons of problems with. I’d say Graduation is the only Kanye album to be even considered, and I think we forget how good Get rich or die tryin by 50 cent was.

  2. Anonymous|

    As they had no precedent that means they could move the genre forward sonically for that very reason. I think that has to be a criteria perhaps not in the unique sense of the word, ie not totally unheard of before, but in sense of timing and perfecting it.

    Take ATCQ for example, we heard them moulding that sound in the first two albums then nailed it on Midnight Marauders. Many were hitting the same sample sources but had a harder edge like Gangstarr etc, so it could achieve a different edge.

    In general there is only so much originality available across art , what resonates is how well it’s perfected and timing I guess.

  3. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead over Fantastic Damage? I love both albums but I was under the impression that FanDam was more recognized as classic. ISWYD is bad ass, though. Up All Night might be the best El joint ever.

    I’ll definitely co-sign on 3030 and Blazing Arrow. Both those albums changed my life. Actually, your “Definites” list is spot on as far as I’m concerned. Except for Shabazz Palaces; I haven’t heard it yet. But I’ll take your word for it and check it out.

  4. Musical advancement isn’t in my criteria. The early classics were groundbreaking because they had no precedent. They wrote the rules themselves. But making that one of the characteristics of a classic means that over time, the very possibility of creating a classic album dwindles. It means having knocking beats and ridiculous rhymes isn’t enough. And that’s something I can’t get with.

    It’s great where it happens, and it occasionally still does, but albums that don’t break new ground for the genre aren’t any less awesome than the ones that do. Like I don’t think Blu & Exile really did anything that hadn’t been done before with Below the Heavens, but that shit still makes me lose my mind whenever I hear it.

  5. Anonymous|

    ok, i couldn’t resist, here’s a quick ten in no order:

    Kanye – College Dropout
    Outkast – The Love Below
    Dead Prez – Let’s Get Free
    Aesop Rock – Labor Days
    Ghostface – Supreme Clientele
    Madvillain – Madvillainy
    Antipop Consortium – Tragic Epilogue
    The Roots – Phrenology
    Edan – Beauty And The Beat
    El-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead

  6. Anonymous|

    ok, i couldn’t resist, here’s a quick ten in no order:

    Kanye – College Dropout
    Outkast – The Love Below
    Dead Prez – Let’s Get Free
    Aesop Rock – Labor Days
    Ghostface – Supreme Clientele
    Madvillain – Madvillainy
    Antipop Consortium – Tragic Epilogue
    The Roots – Phrenology
    Edan – Beauty And The Beat
    El-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead

  7. Anonymous|

    two things help define what makes a classic – a musical advancement it breaks open for others to build on and secondly having room in the market to stand out. A problem many rap artists face is now a hugely overpopulated market where either you are instantly duplicated and buried by being the next ‘hot buzz’ or the impact of the musical advancement cannot breath before it disappears under the next deluge of releases.

    It’s a much tougher market out there, more crowded and so less distinct than it ever was. It comes with the territory of being such a commercial genre today and is inescapable.

  8. Craig Jenkins (from work)|

    I specifically left out the names of the albums I was talking about because I didn’t want the discussion of this to turn into the kind of contentious “Yes it is!” “No it isn’t!” kind of debate that I described in the body of the article, but since we’re on the subject, here’s a bit of my personal Shortlist of Post-millennial Hip-hop Classics. Let the games begin.

    Definites:
    Deltron 3030
    Blackalicious – Blazing Arrow
    Madvillainy
    Shabazz Palaces – Black Up (Yes, instant classic.)
    El-p – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
    Dilla – Donuts
    Little Brother – The Minstrel Show
    Blu & Exile – Below the Heavens
    FlyLo – Cosmogramma
    Kanye West – Late Registration

    Honorable mentions:
    Black Milk – Album of the Year
    Fashawn – Boy Meets World
    The Roots – Game Theory
    Saigon – The Greatest Story Never Told
    Shad – TSOL
    Tanya Morgan – Brooklynati
    Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

  9. JustPlans|

    Short explanation: it was easier to make genre defining albums when the genre was still young. Add to that the nostalgia factor and the standard for classic is so high that it’s almost impossible to achieve that status. But honestly I’d rather have it that way than kids calling every new kanye album classic, you know classics are supposed to be special so why not hold a different standard for them. And I agree with 3 of the albums that paradox listed

  10. thparadox|

    OK, here’s some personal favourites that I would have no problem calling classics:

    Little Brother – The Listening
    Little Brother – The Minstrel Show
    J Dilla – Donuts
    Common – Be
    Blu & Exile – Below the Heavens
    Souls of Mischief – Montezuma’s Revenge
    Danny! – Charm
    Jay Electronica – random folder of mp3s

    Too soon to tell:
    Big KRIT – KRIT wuz here

    not sure this fits:
    Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
    Nujabes – Metaphorical Music

  11. Anonymous|

    I agree with your point, but the one issue I have is your refusal to name specifics. I feel like you need specific examples as evidence yet you say things like “Nevermind what albums they were.” I understand that you are trying to make a general point, but i feel you could make a stronger argument with specifics. Other than that, good piece.

  12. And here I was thinking a bunch of people would disagree with me on this…

  13. D. $cience|

    Co-Signature on this whole article. I hate the attitude some hip hop heads have as if every frickin’ 90’s hip hop album was a 5 mic classic, then they sh** on modern records that were/are great in their own rights. Let the music be what it is.

  14. This was classic (sorry I had to do it)

  15. I wish it was as easy as; There is good music, and bad music, and there are opinions, both of those who hang to the past, swear by today, or keep names out and only exclusively look at the music/album as a(n) individual/whole.

  16. Anonymous|

    I completely agree with your view on this issue. It’s something which I’ve pondering myself for a while now. Due to my country of origin, where Hip-Hop has never really thrived, I rub shoulders with a lot of Heavy Metal/Rock/Blues/Jazz fans. This ‘elitism’ (if I can use the word) in Hip-Hop is unfounded, but not too hard to explain. Rap fans are boastful and secretive about their ‘music knowledge’ almost by default. A lot of them (more so when they experienced the golden-era as (near)adults) are not willing to share HipHop-related info. Considering certain albums as classic and banning all newer trialists from even thinking of joining that list, is simply a somewhat ‘territorial’ statement. ”Our era cannot be relived, matched or mimicked – ever!”, is what I can see floating in people’s minds. The overall notion of being chained to a fixed-list of classics or era, is echoed in Soul Khan’s ‘For That’ I think. No, not promoting, just think there is a slight correlation between yours and his thoughts.

    -Kyriacos

  17. co-goddamn-sign

  18. Thanks, man. Glad to hear it.

  19. i love this series

  20. This comment, instant classic. Believe that. Great piece.

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