There are many words that get thrown around with far too much ease these days, to the point where they begin to lose their meaning.
Hero. Awesome. Shocking. Hilarious.
In music, specifically hip-hop, the most abused word is classic.
Fans now deem anything by their favorite artists or even just a highly anticipated project an immediate classic, even if they’ve never heard one second of the music. This has been especially prevalent in recent months since some of the biggest names in the game have dropped albums: J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive; Drake’s If Youre Reading This its Too Late; and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. And even just songs — Jay Electronica’s “Road to Perdition” and Kanye’s recently random output — all of which have been blessed with the “classic” distinction around the internet.
This is a problem because the word begins to lose meaning, thus tarnishing the stellar works that actually did earn the right to be employ that adjective. It usually takes time to come to the realization that something is a game changer because it is only with the benefit of hindsight that one can see how it influenced the genre and forged a path that others would follow.
This point really crystallized for me today because of two unrelated events.
The first was a Twitter exchange I had with several of my brethren from the old XXL.com days regarding a piece in Hip Hop Wired titled, “Still Waiting: 15 Veteran Rappers Who Never Dropped a Classic Album.” For what it’s worth I agree with all fifteen names, but I was informed that Lil Wayne and Method Man (!) have classic solo albums in their catalog and that Ludacris has “at least” two classics under his belt.
When I think of a classic rap album, I think of It Takes a Nation to Hold Us Back and Illmatic and The Blueprint and Paid in Full and The Low End Theory and The Chronic. Those are albums that did much more than give people an enjoyable listening experience. They revolutionized rap in one way or another and dictated the direction of the entire genre, creating scores of copycats and knockoffs. Wayne did that (and you could probably convince me he has at least one classic), but Meth and Luda did not, especially not with any single disc.
These things take time. Illmatic is much more revered twenty years later and it wasn’t until the late ‘90s that people began to look back and notice that much of the content on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… served as the inspiration for great albums like Reasonable Doubt, It Was Written, Life After Death, and others. Calling an album that drops at midnight a classic by 12:30 is almost always shortsighted if not downright silly.
Which brings us to To Pimp a Butterfly.
I had a conversation with a friend about it and he said that the album is growing on him and that it gets better with each listen. He then added that this is what made it similar to the albums of our youth. It grows in stature and weight with each subsequent playback.
An argument could be made that this is at least partially due to the fact that back then music wasn’t free and disposable and so ubiquitous, so when you bought an album you were stuck with it and no choice but to listen to it over and over again, almost willing it to be great. Now, if you hear something once and hate it, you’ll never have to hear it again, especially since there are a hundred more coming right behind it.
Still, there’s something to be said for an album that is so universally embraced, particularly one with such strong content that it not only needs its own narrative guide, but that Slate decided it needed to explain to white people how to listen to it.
That didn’t happen for Drake or J. Cole and it probably won’t happen for Jay Electronica; but it did happen for Public Enemy.
To Pimp a Butterfly is an album that needs to be unpacked and is forcing people to have deep conversations about our society, just like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. In a disposable culture, that’s not just rare, it’s virtually unheard of.
I’ll be honest that I found it tough to listen to the first few times. But the same thing happened when I first bought Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and now I pray at the Altar of the Wu, so I may change my mind. Even if I don’t, that doesn’t change the fact. We all have our own likes and tastes, but sometimes things are just clearly better or at least more important.
Even in the 90s I didn’t love every LP that was praised as a “classic,” but I did recognize their impact and how they changed the musical landscape.
Using that criteria, Kendrick Lamar is the only one that has released a true classic recently.