What Makes It A Classic?

by Joshua Chevannes

If one day you ever wake up in an argumentative mood, one of the easiest ways to get into a dispute with a friend is to call them and ask what is their top 5 Hip Hop/Rap albums of all time. As I was writing this very article, I found myself in constant debate with multiple friends of mine on what album belongs where. This topic can turn the best of friends against each other momentarily or solidify their relationship even more in moments of agreement. No matter how many valid points may be made, the opposing party will stay with their original stance as it reflects their values, personal experiences, and beliefs. That is why there is no better common ground to get into a heated argument than when discussing Hip Hop/Rap albums, as the genre itself was breaded by the true definition of controversy. The heated topics within rap has changed over the years as the genre has evolved with different artists, sounds and sub-genre’s, and become more acceptable but one thing that will always stay consistent is the constant disagreement. Hip Hop/Rap albums are such a big part of modern American history as it has such huge influence on the fashion trends, language, sensitive social injustice matter, and the acceptance of black culture today. As such a pillar in what America is today and so many important albums, it makes sense why the consumers continue to debate what projects are the best musically and which are defined as classics that last a lifetime. 

While compiling my list of carefully selected projects, I have decided that I will restrict it to only released albums as there are many elements that can go into the creation of a rap album that would not be involved in the process of making a mixtape. A mixtape is more of a random compilation of the artist’s unreleased music. The reason why an album is put on a pedestal compared to a mixtape is because this is the project that goes mainstream and the labels pushes hard for in press runs. This creates an elevated level of expectations in the effort put forward by the artists. Some of the elements that go into the construction of an album are a consistent theme, the order and placement for the songs, beats and production, the artists’ flow, delivery, lyricism, etc. With so many different factors, how can the public put pressure on these artists to create a perfect album? What makes an album a perfect one or in other words a classic is even more complex and is even less defined by a general consensus. Is it a classic simply because it sounds good? Is it because the artist is popular and the album did great in sales? Is it what sticks to the roots of Hip Hop the most? Is it how many songs are on it? Undoubtedly, these are all elements that a mainstream artist would need to be successful with their project, but perhaps what may elevate the album from a great one to a classic is not how well it stays within the guidelines of Hip Hop/Rap, but how it defies them, pushes cultural barriers, and does not maintain status quo. That is how certain albums by mainstream Hip Hop artists are able to seize the moment of their era, dominate charts, and also influence the next generation and sound while not sounding outdated for the eras to come. 

Arguably, the most notable example of this is when the rap group N.W.A came out with their debut album Straight Outta Compton in 1988. It is an album that defied the rules of mainstream radio and brought a very controversial level of explicitness, rawness, and influence of the street. This opened the doors for 2Pac, Biggie, Snoop Dog, and so on, allowing them to become pioneers in the development of the genre as well. Twenty years later an artist by the name of Kanye West released an album named “808’s and Heartbreak” which redefined the limits of Hip Hop once again as he popularized the idea of melodies and vulnerability in a genre that generally glorified hardness and flamboyancy. Of course, there are many examples in between and after for various other reasons but all simply come down to the idea of being different. That is the true roots of the genre itself and the albums that are classics reflect that as well. 

So, these are the five Hip Hop/Rap albums that have had a major impact on the culture, the time period, and the genre and are considered undeniable classics 

5.) Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city (Deluxe Version) 2012 

Kendrick is arguably the best rapper of his time and happened to released best pure rap album of the 2010s. After this album was released, many considered Kendrick Lamar to be this new generation’s Tupac, with his lyricism and storytelling ability. Also, with undeniable talent he received the co-sign by many Hip Hop and West Coast artist legends such as Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and The Game. While Hip-Hop is trending at this point away from the original sounds of the genre with the likes of Drake and Kanye West dominating the charts and with “mumble-rap” knocking on the door, Kendrick Lamar was the perfect new-age throwback artist that was missing. This album truly solidified him as a great in his era, created expectations for him and possibly an all time-artist already in his early career at the time. The sound of this project is quite unique as Kendrick discusses finding balance in life in such a unique way. On one hand, there’s the traditional “West Coast” sound with funk samples, banging snares, and a slower paced beat where Kendrick raps about violence, lust, influence, and struggle. However, what makes the project great is how there is just about an equal amount of songs that discuss religion, love, and prosperity. 

4.) 50 cent – Get Rich or Die Tryin’ 2003 

50 Cent was the last of a dying breed in gangsta rap. Although the likes of a Jay-Z and more were still around, nobody was keeping it as street as 50 and had the same amount of buzz in the late 90s & early 2000s. Arguably having the hottest mixtapes until his album release in 2003, 50 Cent did not disappoint with Get Rich or Die Tryin. 50 Cent was considered the King of New York after this album with no one on either coast to rival him truly. He had such a monopoly on both the streets and mainstream radio with this album that even the “OG’s” who did not respect 50 for his controversial ways before, respected him now. Many artists from the South especially after seeing the success of 50, tried to replicate the exact footsteps that he took to be successful in the mixtape era. Up until 2008 when the 50 Cent vs Kanye West campaign by the label took place, 50 was the most prominent rapper and this album was a large part of the reason why. Within this album, 50 Cent takes a look back at his past and details some of his experiences with a new perspective as he has now lived through it and changed his lifestyle. Apart from the pop singles with catchy hooks, 50 Cent stays true to the New York hard hitting sound along with his authenticity to make this project a great one. 

3.) Lil Wayne – Tha Carter 3 2008 

Lil Wayne is of the artists that followed the recipe to success of 50 Cent, in releasing mixtapes to create buzz. With the release of Tha Carter 3, Lil Wayne went from a known rapper to an absolute rockstar. With arguably both the greatest lyricism and most unorthodox flows ever, it was only destiny for Lil Wayne to catch the fire that he did from this album on. With many hip hop and R&B hits on this one album, it made sense why this classic has done the numbers that it has and also for Cash Money records label to make Lil Wayne as the face of a new era. Following the success of this album, the label granted Lil Wayne the ability to bring Drake and Nicki Minaj as his protégé’s and influence the genre for the next decade on. Lil Wayne has many great albums but as the numbers can tell, none bigger and more successful than Tha Carter 3. There is not a simple way to describe the sound of this album apart from it being a Lil Wayne project. The project shows his range by making having soul, pop, reggae, and other influences throughout the songs on the project. His undeniable punchlines, range of tone, and use of samples always keeps his audience guessing and intrigued to his musical genius and it was on full display throughout Tha Carter 3

2.) Jay Z – The Blueprint 2001 

In 2001, Jay-Z was still a very controversial artist. He was not that far removed from his life of crime with selling illegal drugs. He had two pending criminal trials, as well as having public rap-beefs with Nas who was his biggest rival M.C from the same home grounds of New York. Many believe that his best album ever was The Blueprint which was the beginning of an epic trilogy with The BluePrint projects. Now as a seasoned veteran in rap, Jay-Z works with some of the best producers in the game like a young Kanye West and Timbaland which created amazing production and added his talent and storytelling ability to make it a classic. This album is a staple in his career as it is here where one can note Jay Z turning himself from being just a great rapper to a Hip-Hop mogul. That is why in the music throughout this project with a few exceptions such as “Song Cry” Jay-Z creates a theme of such elegance and prestige. That is reflected in both the lyrical content as well as the heavy samples of soul music. 

1.) 2Pac – All Eyez on Me’ 1996 

To name someone who was larger than life more than 2Pac after the release of All Eyez on Me is extremely difficult. 2Pac was already a name in Hollywood, a star in movies, and had previous successful albums. He then signed with the number one and most controversial record label at the time, Death Row Records, to work with the hottest producer, Dr.Dre. It was a match made in heaven for Pac. He quickly became the most popular rapper in the world and the leading figure for West Coast and Gangsta Rap music. There have been documentaries, docu-series and movies based on the impact and success of Tupac with this album. Pac took both the influence of the time period he was living in where West Coast vs East Coast Rap was at an all-time high and the personality of his label to become absolutely aggressive, fun and fearless. This album is where it can be seen that 2pac embraced the sound of the West Coast rather than just being a conscious and poetic rapper. The lyrical content for the most part is about being unapologetic for who he is and about his “Thug-Life” lifestyle. 

These five albums cannot be denied about their place in Hip-Hop/Rap history. Although others have their own preference and believe that other projects should be on the list, no matter what, any real Hip-Hop fan can acknowledge the greatness of these as they hold weight to their part of history. They were all instrumental and important to the culture and helped popularize the genre to bring us to where we are today.

Joshua Chevannes is a Mass Media major at HBU. He is firm believer in keeping up to date with current pop culture and trends and looking to break into the world of media himself. In his spare time, he devotes himself to working out, listening to music and obsessively keeping up with sports news.

Send this to a friend