What Defines A Classic Hip-Hop Album?


According to the dictionary, the word “classic” can be defined as either an adjective or a noun.  In its adjective form it means “judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind” and in its noun form it means “a work of art recognized and established value”.

Now, when it comes to Hip-Hop, it’s without question that to be considered a “great,” it’s imperative an artist should have at least one “classic” in their discography. But what one person considers a “classic” might not necessarily resonate with somebody else’s opinion. Which leaves us to marvel at possible answers to this one question – What defines a classic album?

Depending on who you are, you might base your answer solely on statistics. How much an album sold, how many of the singles from the album charted, or how many media placements it received. For others, it’s more objective, personal even. How that album made them feel at a particular moment in their lives or if the lyrics were relatable to their own circumstances. Some speak about the quality of the music or its influence on society, but again, that’s contingent on one’s personal musical taste and social views.

Is there even a definitive answer to this question? Probably not. The question has been asked since the days of Run D.M.C.’s self-titled album that brought Hip-Hop into the mainstream light, or possibly even before that.   

For someone who grew up on that album, “Run D.M.C.” could very well be a significant body of work. But for someone who was born years later, in an era of Hip-Hop characterized by a different sound, “Run D.M.C.” could easily sound like “trash”. Does one generation’s opinion nullify its predecessors and challenge the album’s validity as a “classic?”

Generational differences in opinions are of paramount importance, I believe, in answering this question.  Take for instance, Wes Jackson, president of Brooklyn Bodega. His definition of a “classic album” is one that is timeless. Something that has replay value years later and still gives you the initial feeling you had when you heard it. Jackson shared that “a classic album is the perfect marriage of beats and rhymes. And has moved the needle for the culture.”  

Now, for the sake of this piece, I also surveyed my peers on Facebook who grew up on Hip-Hop in various time periods. Those born in the 70’s and early 80’s all spoke to the extent of Wes’ sentiments, a classic album must be timeless, must have replay value and have emotional attachments. These seem to trump all other qualifications.

For those born in the late 80’s and 90’s, their opinions weighed heavily on the production quality and the lyrical value of an album. An album that was released three months ago, for example, could easily be declared a classic because of its booming production, relevant subject matter, as well as it popularity on social media.

Is one generation audacious enough to claim that they’re right or know better?  It doesn’t matter, man.  Who are you to tell me that Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” isn’t a bonafide classic?  As long as the question continues to be asked, and the conversations never cease, a “classic album” is an immeasurable thing. It’s a body of work that will spawn opinions whether good or bad, until the end of time. And ultimately, that is what classic music is supposed to do.

Facebook Quotes:

When you hear it later on, you remember a scent from the time, a friend you no longer hang with that comes to mind, someone you had sex with that you lost touch with. It’s more personal as now everyone has so many more things pulling for their attention that we are less capable of having an “illmatic” moment. – David “D-Stroy” Melendez, member of the Hip-Hop group, Arsonists

A classic album to me is one that transcends time. It’s the kind of album that raises the bar, but at the same time create its own lane. It’s the kind of album your children can pass on to their children. When you listen to it, you can tell the artist spent a great deal of time getting the album just right. Anyone can put out an album, but a classic piece is more than just 13+ tracks out together. – Lawrence Gee

A classic album has great production, dope or relatable concepts – where lyrics must be on point and understandable, and songs must be timeless so if I can relate to it in 2003 I can still relate to it in 2019. – Cliff Po

I think multiple things define a classic album but most importantly, the concept of “time.” I think if you’re able to enjoy a body of music during and years after the album is released it may be considered a classic. I would give it a timestamp: a minimum of 4 years to even be considered a classic. I would also include how that album effected music and its genre during the time period as well. – Ticara Davis

I feel like the rules differ for hip-hop. Generally speaking I feel like a classic album makes a cultural impact and can (for concert sake) unify opposing cultures if only for 2 hours. In hip-hop, classics are game changers. They are albums that not only impact the culture but the marketing of the music and related images. – Priya Williams