The release of Kendrick Lamar's new album, and the questions it raises about today's fast-paced, hyperbolic cycle of criticism.
Written by Ernest Baker (@newbornrodeo) and Noah Callahan-Bever (@N_C_B)
This week saw the official release of Kendrick Lamar's major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city. It's the best-reviewed rap album since Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, lauded and slobbed by everyone from us to Pitchfork to everyone on Twitter and beyond (except Shyne, of course). The question isn't whether or not the album's of quality—that's universally acknowledged.
The question is whether or not it’s a “classic.”
It's especially significant because—in the troll-ridden world we occupy—there's a manic rush to assign hyperbolic value to every shoe prior to it hitting the floor.
In the troll-ridden world we occupy—there's a manic rush to assign hyperbolic value to every shoe prior to it hitting the floor.
Classic is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as something that's "judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind." Classic albums are more than just "great."
They're game changers, inflection points in creativity. And it's a truth that can only unfold over time. How many fine artists died in obscurity, their work achieving acclaim in their absence? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby took two reprints and nearly 30 years to receive acknowledgement as a Great American Novel, long after his death.
But we’re talking about hip-hop, where “wait and see” has never been a popular mantra. Consider albums recently deemed “classic(s)” prior to their release, by publications like XXL and The Source: Nas’s Stillmatic, Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, and Common’s Be.
The latter two are clearly perfect albums, absent of any discernible flaws, but years later, do they stand up—in terms of sheer impact, specifically—to records like Ready To Die or Illmatic?
Be honest. Stillmatic is far from a perfect album, but it did manage to successfully ride a wave of anti-Jiggaman sentiment to an inflated reception. It was a moment of triumph for Nas, sure. But not for hip-hop. Or in a broader sense: for culture.
Is the designation of "classic" more about impact and influence, or is it a pure measure of overall quality?
Albums like All Eyez On Me, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, and The Marshall Mathers LP were critically lauded as “pretty good” to “very good” albums, but as the years passed, each earned its own mythology, and eventually became calcified in the pantheon of essential rap recordings.
When considering the canon of rap classics, what seems to differentiate hyped, flash-in-the-pan albums from classics is: Were they were quality outliers, or genre-shifting pace-setters?
Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III is a classic for similar reasons—a million-plus units moved in the first week, a Grammy, etc.—but with one crucial difference: It didn't have five records to get rid of, it had five records worth keeping.
Believe it or not, readers under 30, even Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt was touted as just “surprisingly good” when it dropped. No one was screaming about its immortality. Yet years later, having had the opportunity to absorb the album’s nuance and observe its ripples of influence on just about every person to put out a rap album since—and grow in value as a crucial piece in understanding the origin legend of Jay-Z, today—to call Reasonable Doubt anything other than a classic is absurd.
When considering the canon of rap classics, what seems to differentiate hyped, flash-in-the-pan albums from classics is: Were they were quality outliers, or genre-shifting pace-setters? Were they good albums in a shit year, or did they go from good, to great, to absolutely necessary over time?
It’s that long-tail influence that affirmed an album like Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’s standing. The quality was always there, but it wasn’t until its lush stylings and mafioso narratives unfolded in later releases—not from Rae, but from Jay-Z, Nas, and The Notorious B.I.G.—that we realize how its influence was seeded.
Which brings us back to Kendrick Lamar, and good kid, m.A.A.d city.
Is it a great album? Definitely.
Is it a perfect album? Quite possibly.
But is it a classic?
The level of conversation that the album inspired this week is perhaps what’s most indicative of its potential to be considered one down the line.
[Incidentally enough, it was Dr. Dre’s last prominent protégé, 50 Cent, whose Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ is cemented in classic status by way of conversation just as much as by content. Upon release, and for many months after, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ was impossible to avoid.]
Give it a decade. Are storyline-driven albums part of a regular rap repertoire? Has the range of off-kilter cadences narrowed or broadened?
Even Lamar himself is aware that classic standing doesn't come overnight. When asked about the response to good kid, m.A.A.d city in an interview Complex ran with him today, he replied:
"It's classic worthy. Once it gets a few years behind it, they'll be looking back, saying: 'Yeah, Kendrick Lamar made a classic his first album.'"
Whether or not that's the case, we'll eventually know—not in a few days, or a few weeks, but in time—beyond a reasonable doubt.
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