In the era of disposable music, people have forgotten the definition of the word “classic”. There was a time when you bought an album, brought it home, enjoyed it alone for a few spins, and waited until the next day at school or whatever to discuss your thoughts on it…after having given yourself sufficient time to sink your teeth into it. In the age of instant gratification, we’re able to tweet or update Facebook as we’re listening to an album, giving immediate first impressions song by song without allowing any time to reflect or digest the product. Even if the listener’s mind changes later, they’d be hard-pressed to back-track and admit to their audience that a song isn’t as good as they thought it was initially.
And now we come to the misuse of the word “classic”. In my opinion, it’s basically impossible to call an album a classic within even a year of its release. Replay value and the ability to stand the test of time play too much of a role in calling something classic and both of those qualities cannot be determined properly in less than a year after an album release. You may, of course, say that something has the “makings” of a classic based on how you believe it may fare in those categories, but there are plenty of albums that I thought would gain that title that I eventually changed my mind about, based on either a maturing of taste or based on the album simply becoming less relevant over time.
Example? Reasonable Doubt was a classic. It wasn’t like anything that came before or after it. Every song was good and every song belonged there. From 1996 to the present, one can listen to it and perhaps feel nostalgia, but not that it’s dated. Steve Juon of RapReviews.com once wrote that “It’s possible to live without having heard it – but after you do, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it”. I think this is a very accurate summation of the feeling the album has. Hip-hop is a culture that’s ever-changing, due to the rapid-fire changing of popular slang, style of dress, etc. The fact that an album like this can still remain relevant considering all of those things 16 years later is an amazing accomplishment. Classic.
Classic also refers to the breadth of the album, not on a scale of “well, these two tracks are terrible, but the rest is great”. That’s like saying you had a great pizza, except that two of the slices had a dead roach on them. Not very appetizing, is it? That’s how it feels to me when someone is overzealous and applies the title of “classic” to an album that doesn’t deserve it. In a time where one can log into iTunes and buy only the songs they like from an album or download a mixtape and toss what they don’t like in the recycle bin, we’ve forgotten how to appreciate an album as a whole and the artist has forgotten how to make albums that can be appreciated as a whole. Instead of being true to who they are as an artist, they’re making this song to appeal to this group and that song to appeal to that group. I can’t say I blame them, per se, considering how difficult it is to sell records these days, but it all comes back to what you’re in the game for. If you want respect, there’s a lane for attaining that and if you want money and fame, there’s another route for that. Only a chosen few navigate the lane to both, as it’s the road less traveled and it usually takes longer to get to its endpoint.
We as hip-hop fans have got to stop judging new albums relative only to what is currently available when it comes to handing out the weighty title of “classic”. Classic albums are timeless. When you call something classic, you compare it to every album of its genre and every other genre in music history. If you’re not prepared to think that hard about it, then you’re not ready to use that word when talking about music. We’ve got to demand more of MCs than comparing them only to the meager offerings we’ve seen in the past ten years. Hip-hop history is too rich for that and we sell the culture’s future short that way. Don’t do it.