What defines a classic record? For a lot of people, it varies. Some people think it comes down to strictly the music and that it needs to be exceptional to be called a classic but in today’s increasingly short attention span and lifespan of an album’s relevancy, it’s hard to really call anything a classic. Even though people will jump out the window and call albums a classic within 24 hours (i.e. any solo Kendrick album), it can be hard to tell if something really is a classic. Looking at the hip-hop landscape, how will we make the rules off these classics and how can we tell if a project can earn that title?
To put it simply, we don’t. Good to decent to terrible albums are released every week. We don’t know the impact on the culture until we see the branches on the tree sprouted from the seed. Hindsight is 20/20 after all. A person can maybe tell if an album is good or not on the first few listens but can an album change the landscape of music? Can the album stand the test of time? Can the album cause a shift in the sound? Can the album create a moment that will go down in the history books of hip-hop? Those are the standards. To me, that is what makes an album a classic or not. But…let’s play the what if game, shall we? If we’re going to indulge ourselves in this conversation, let’s dive into some projects. In my opinion, I think there are some albums that have caused enough of a stir to maybe earn that ‘classic’ label in time. Let’s look at this year’s highest-profile hip-hop albums, and see which have the potential.
1. J. Cole – KOD
Cole released his fifth studio album that circled around drug use, the need for clout, and addiction. To be as poignant and blunt as possible – no pun intended – he released it on the national stoner holiday 4/20. Cole wanted to balance the scales himself. Highlighting the cons to this culture he believed that was being glorified. In an interview with Vulture, Cole stated, “We live in a society where all this drug use is normalized, it’s the norm, it’s okay, it’s fucking encouraged, it’s fucking promoted.” The tone alone paints the picture of a man who is sick and tired. The discussion of drug use in hip-hop has gained traction with the major deaths of an up-and-comer, Lil Peep, and friend of Cole’s and rap veteran, Mac Miller. The music was poignant. Cole mixed jazz, boom-bap and southern melodies to craft this album. Going further, he borrowed from the trap flows from Atlanta rappers while simultaneously dissing them. It may have seemed redundant but it got the point across. It dates the album but it also creates a time capsule for all to see what the generation was facing. Cole fans were pleased and enough people were pissed to pay attention.
Known for being the recluse and regular dude by many, Cole didn’t do interviews for a while. This was a modern rarity. The closest thing people saw to a promo run from Cole was four years ago with 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Not only this but Cole started to be seen in a videos again. He was actually doing a promo run but instead of a promo run, it felt more like a man trying to get a message across. After being in the game for almost 10 years, he has become an OG. He is aware of his importance and wanted to use his platform. He sat down with his young adversary, Lil Pump, and he stated with Billboard that he talked to XXXtentacion before his passing. It was the year of game from Cole. The shadows were destroyed and the Fayetville native came to the light.
Examining it further, you can say that Cole was emerging from his self made fortress with his run of features that began in late 2017, but this year was different. His first video guest feature since 2015 came in this past April’s “Come Through and Chill” by Miguel and real solo video outside a documentary with “ATM.” He also showed up and showed out in label signees Bas and J.I.D.’s singles. Counting up the guest features for a grand total of 13 this year, Cole hasn’t stopped. It is the most features he’s had since 2012. Outside of just rapping, he executive produced Swizz Beatz’s album, Poison. The narrative outside the album helped it and made sure that is was in year end discussions and even had people question why it wasn’t nominated for Rap Album of the Year at the Grammys. All of these factors can and will contribute to Cole’s year and album that will be heard and discussed on whether Cole has a classic. I, for one, will not oppose it.
2. Pusha T – Daytona
Pusha T might go down as the biggest super villian in hip-hop history. That is the narrative he has created for himself this year. His highly anticipated album impressed listeners when it dropped and caused the snowball effect to make a baby appear. But let me roll it back, because I’m getting ahead of myself. To discuss Daytona, you have to go back to even before it’s release. In a Twitter tirade, Kanye West announced a series of albums which he executive produced from sessions in Wyoming and that each would be 7 songs (except Teyana Taylor’s album). The first on the docket was Daytona. The album was previously titled King Push and has been anticipated since the 2015 appetizer King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude. With production originally handled by The Neptunes and others, the album was scrapped after West said he could do better and they got to work. But soon after the release, Pusha took the President position at G.O.O.D Music. I personally thought it was the album that was never going to come. Low and behold, we finally got it and boy, did it make an impact.
The album had a live listening party the night before and all were excited. It was the only release of the sessions to get that proper rollout – even though it was only completely finished two days before the release. To put it simply, the album was and still is amazing. West created a sonic landscape for Pusha to spit the most luxurious drug raps. Each song was murdered and left dead for public display. A drive by that was sick and people loved it. In the age of long, over-produced albums, this was a breath of fresh air. Within 24 hours, many were dubbing Daytona album of the year. Everyone had to talk about it. Twitter got into fuss about the quality, the rhymes and the most importantly, the diss. “Infrared”, the last song on the album saw Pusha took aim at Drake. Which isn’t anything new. The two have been going back and forth for years. But this time it started an avalanche. Drake responded with “Duppy Freestyle” and even sent in an invoice to Push for the sales he will be getting for his response. It was classic Drake and seemed to look like a victory. But….that was just the set up, all a scam. Toronto’s hero fell prey to the bait and Pusha was waiting to break his back.
“The Story of Adidon” made the 6 God bleed. It changed the narrative. Mud was slung and people loved the dirt that was dug up. It made Drake change his album. Subliminals were shot but they never truly hit. Pusha T had won against the biggest artist in the game. He continued to give more moments of pure pettiness with Joe Budden. An album that was so short helped lead the narrative for a long year. It has appeared on year end lists and secured that Rap Album of the Year Grammy slot – one which Drake didn’t receive. It’s also the only release from the Wyoming sessions to secure any nominations. A moment that originally belonged to West and Drake went to the Virginia native. If that isn’t classic material, I don’t know what is.
3. Kendrick Lamar & Various Artists – Black Panther The Album
Disney hired a rapper to not only do a song for a superhero movie, but they had him curate a soundtrack for a superhero movie. That’s it. That’s the reason this is a classic in the making. I’m done.
Okay in all seriousness, there is a reason that this is so important because it’s also my job. Disney is one the biggest corporations in the world. They own ESPN, ABC, A&E, The History Channel, Lifetime, Lucasfilm, and Marvel, just to name a few visual media entities. They are responsible for curating parts of my childhood, my parent’s childhood, my nieces’ and nephews’, and many childhoods all across the globe. And this huge corporation, with the movie’s director, Ryan Coogler, got a rapper and his label from Compton, California to curate a soundtrack for a Marvel film. This is the first rapper to curate a superhero soundtrack and the first artist to do so since AC/DC did with the first and second Iron Man film, none of which were original songs for those respective films. This is putting on for hip-hop on an astronomical level.
This wasn’t the only soundtrack to be curated by a hip-hop artist this year (Future doing Superfly and Mike WILL Made-It doing Creed II) but this is the one with the biggest impact. We’ve seen it appear on year end lists and now, even be nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys. It’s the first album of the 2010s to do this and only the second from the 21st century. The predecessor, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, won the prestigious award. If it [Black Panther The Album] wins it would make it the second win for soundtracks in the century, and the third hip-hop album to ever take home the award. It would also give Kendrick his first win in the general category. The album is a win for the culture and with the weight of everything behind it, it will go down in history for what an artist can do in a mainstream space outside of its traditional perimeters.
These are albums I see having a discussion that outlives this year. The albums along with the noise their respective artists created will outlive the moments in which we first heard them. While there are other projects that will be remembered for a myriad of reasons like death or streaming accolades, these are projects I personally believe that will change the landscape. But once again, these are just guesses. We’ll see where all these albums land as they continue to make that cycle.