On Eminem and What Constitutes a Classic Rap Album

Last Friday, Eminem shocked everyone by pulling a Beyonce and dropping his surprise 10th album, Kamikaze. Since it came only eight months after his last album, Revival, I knew before I hit play that Kamikaze would be Em’s “Oh yeah?? I’ll show you guys” rejoinder to criticism over Revival. Which was valid considering that album is about as painful to listen to as Rev. Jasper Williams’ eulogy at Aretha Franklin’s funeral.

Indeed, Kamikaze is a better album; Eminem drops every name in hip-hop and bars everyone and their baby’s mama half to death, demonstrating why he’s arguably the best technical rapper ever while making you forget that his ear for beats has always left something to be desired. Sure enough, cats on Twitter are reaching for the stars by dubbing Kamikaze an “instant classic.”  

 It should come as no surprise since the word “classic” gets bandied about in hip-hop as recklessly as the N-word from your one white friend who thinks it’s cool because they have swirl babies: internet stans (a phrase Eminem coined, ironically) hop on Twitter and hail projects “classic” at 12:03 a.m. the night it drops in the time it would take to fully listen to just one track.

Denotatively, time and context are required before any piece of media earns the “classic” title. Giving an album instant classic status is akin to calling LeBron James a basketball legend out of high school – he was an excellent player then, but still many years from earning the “legend” title that no one with a functioning brain would deny him today. Led Zeppelin’s first three albums are prime examples of the time requirement: Rolling Stone and others infamously shat on the LPs when they dropped in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but they’re indisputable classics damn near a half century later.

I think we can predict what might eventually be considered a classic album: Kendrick Lamar is the first contemporary rapper that comes to mind as someone whose albums will ultimately be considered classic. To Pimp a Butterfly might earn the distinction from cultural impact alone, even if Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is the musically superior album.

Determining what factors go into a classic hip-hop album is where arguments break out and your good friend threatens to shank you. In a recent discussion with Panama of VSB, he told me that Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak is a classic album, which made me reflexively wince since it was the first (but not the last) West album that made me think, “what the fuck is he doing?!?” But, when viewed as a body of work that inspired an entire generation of rapper-singer-ass niggas who employ Auto-Tune to support their nonexistent vocals, perhaps 808s is a classic.

In that same discussion, I called Nas’ Illmatic the “most important” debut hip-hop album of all time, and Panama disagreed by claiming that Dr. Dre’s The Chronic holds that distinction. Now, Illmatic is a seminal classic to just about everyone who loves rap, but The Chronic created a soundscape for an entire region and beget other classics (chief among them Snoop’s Doggystyle). I had to (begrudgingly) concede that, in that sense, Illmatic is a less- “important” classic debut.

But if influence is a significant factor in classic albums, to whom do we assign credit (or blame) for the current overabundance of triplicate-flow trap rappers who flex second-grade lyrics over catchy beats and bring all the early-2000s babies to the yard? Future, perhaps…? Is Dirty Sprite 2 a classic, then?

In my eyes, Future is not even capable of a classic. But I realize how easily one’s personal biases can creep into the discussion, which made it easier for me to concede that a weed plate like 808s might actually be a classic. When (usually younger) people say that Lil’ Wayne’s Tha Carter III a bona-fide classic that I think it’s just decent, I’m less likely to argue than I used to be.

I’ve noticed that albums with unique distinctions tend to get overlooked in the larger conversation of classics. No real hip-hop fan would omit Biggie’s Ready to Die from any list of classics, but many people disregard or flat-out forget about golden era rap classics. Groundbreakers like LL Cool J’s Radio and Run-DMC’s Raising Hell (the first platinum rap album ever) don’t come up because no one is bumping those albums the way we still bump Biggie. Eric B. and Rakim’s debut Paid in Full belongs in the classic conversation, but is as often forgotten as Rakim himself is in the G.O.A.T. discussion.

Underground and regional classics also get overlooked. Few Bay Area rap fans would leave E-40s In a Major Way off of their classics list. “Backpackers” whose collge dorm rooms were pungent with the scent of patchouli oil in the early 2000s consider Little Brother’s The Listening and Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star classics. But there are legions of Ready to Die fans who aren’t even familiar with any of the aforementioned records.

Of course, determining classics will always involve some degree of subjectivity (which makes it so much fun to argue about), but I’ll always scoff at using sales as a metric. The Billboard Top 100 is littered with songs whose titles we won’t remember by the next time we have to renew our annual Amazon Prime membership. The list of the 10 all-time highest-selling rap albums includes MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em and Nelly’s Country Grammar – only rap dilettantes would consider either of those classic.

With the possible exception of the aforementioned golden era hip-hop, I believe true classics still need to ride decades after they drop. (OutKast’s ATLiens turned 22 this week, and we still blast it like it dropped last week.) For that reason, I don’t believe that most of these rainbow-haired, face-tatted rappers have the capacity to create a classic, mainly because their talents don’t extend far past exploiting the trend du jour.

 Albums from Kodak Black, Tekashi6ix9ine and the like are designed to age like half-and-half left out on a windowsill; 25 years from now, these 2000s babies will roll their eyes at whatever fuckery their teenagers are bumping, yet will barely be able to recall the recycle bin music from their favorite “Lil’s” when they were teenagers.

Clearly, the conversation about classic albums is nuanced, but it always makes for a great argument between niggas who will get into borderline shouting matches with each other to make their point. One thing is for sure, though: as an album with two, maybe three truly dope cuts and a bunch of filler that no one will remember when the fall equinox hits in a few weeks, Kamikaze is basically…another Eminem album. Last time I checked, no one outside of his stans consider any Em album a classic.

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