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What Makes a Rap Album a Classic?

Kendrick Lamar takes home the Grammy for "Best Rap Album" in 2018 for "DAMN."

Since raps inception countless albums have been released from a large variety of different artists. Despite the overwhelmingly vast selection to choose from, a majority of people tend to home in on a select few releases time and again where they decide that the album is considered a “classic”. But what makes these albums classics?

The truth is, there are a variety of factors that dictate whether people will give the title of “classic” to one album over the countless others released around it. While some look to simple measurements like sales and streams, other people measure a classic as the music that defined an impactful era of their life. This objective approach is how many people, myself included, approach albums when deciding to give them the exclusive title of “classic”. When a project holds significant sentimental value to the listener they develop a sort of attachment to the piece and almost view it as a part of themselves, or at least a factor into what made them into the person they are. As many people have witnessed on social media, this attachment can be somewhat toxic when these fans are faced with dissenting opinions about one of their favorite projects.

An example of a multiple albums that many people consider to be classics.

One modern album that has constantly had a back-and-forth debate regarding its classic status is J. Cole’s “2014 Forest Hills Drive”. Personally, my view on this album is that is the epitome of rap and J. Cole’s career, although others may disagree. If you would like to read more on my thoughts about FHD, check out my Opinion piece where I dissect it in greater detail. Where I made strong points in favor of FHD, others could just as easily find flaws and aspects about the release they didn’t like as much. The great thing about music is that everybody has different tastes, so what you may find to be a great composition could just as easily be the worst thing somebody has ever heard in their life. Just know that your opinions on a project are just that; yours.

Nas' "Illmatic" is called the best rap album by many fans.

However, certain people look at albums in a more subjective way to determine if a project is worthy of the coveted “classic” status. Numbers such as sales, streams, downloads, etc. may help to determine to some people if an album is worthy to have a discussion around it. Others may take a deeper dive into the overall composition of the piece to see how it stands up to other works of the time. This approach generally seems like a good approach to take, given that people can’t deny raw numbers, overall performance, and musical genius with masses. An album like Nas’ “Illmatic” is considered by most rap fans to be classic due in-part to the sheer amount of people that tend to agree with this title. Undoubtedly “Illmatic” is a genre-defining piece that absolutely deserves its status, but the fact that so many people agree is evidence that multiple factors outside of pure objectivity are being considered.

To sum this up, the answer really isn’t all that simple. While some albums are instrumental in the everchanging landscape of rap, some people may enjoy more underground albums over cult-classics. The arguments around classics, to me, are wasted ones when people argue from the point of objectivity. To individually accept an album as top-tier and timeless is absolutely fine, as you are more than welcome to have your own thoughts. However, when culturally defining classics I find that objectivity revolving arguments around the quality of compositions and pure numbers is the best approach to convince someone of the impact a project had on people.

Written By: Michael Miserendino

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