With all the recent quibbles about Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city being a classic or not, one point of criticism continues to come up: “You old heads never give new albums their due,” “Of course it’s not Illmatic,” “You guys are stuck in the ’90s” or endless variations thereof. While I don’t think there’s such a thing as an instant classic (an album might deserve to be, but only time will tell if it receives the recognition and has the influence to become one) even this old head has to admit the ’80s and ’90s are overly romanticized. So in order to shine a light on a more recent state of affairs, here are five albums from the latter half of the 00s that should be considered capital-C classics.
Kanye West – Late Registration (2005)
Kanye had a hard time swallowing the fact that many critics considered College Dropout to be a very a good album, in his eyes anything less than “classic” was an insult. He got his due when his sophomore album was released in 2005 and managed to surpass the high expectations people had for it. Landing both commercial and critical succes, Kanye collaborated with Jon Brion to take his orchestration to the next level and create an album that sounds as lavish as it does soulful. Kanye organically reappropriated current trends (like the chopped ‘n screwed part in ‘Drive Slow’) and blended them seamlessly into his own aesthetic. The guest artists delivered top notch performances and for a moment we all wanted to believe that, contrary to our better judgements, “diamonds” truely are “forever.” Thematically the album covered issues both intimate and global and took samples both obvious and obscure to all use them to great effect. Years after, Kanye has crafted one of the most consistent careers in rap and always has his fingers on the pulse of the game, but his second album still remains as the most cohesive and balanced record of his career and can easily be considered timeless.
J Dilla – Donuts (2006)
Dilla created his magnum opus on his deathbed, managing to find the strength to still hit the MPC when he could barely move his fingers from the pain inflicted upon him by a crippling disease. The story is both tragic and beautiful, casting a light on the album that makes it feel even more important. Not that Donuts needs any additional elements outside of its own sounds to appeal or be considered a classic. When the record came out, a week before his passing, I remember getting it at the store and immediately playing it three times in a row when I got home. I phoned a friend and find out he did the exact same thing. The sheer amount of ideas contained in the record, the exquisite digging and flipping of samples, the ridiculously impressive creative force at work, it was just too much to take in at once. Years later emcees are still revisiting beats on the album to lace them with lyrics, an entire generation of beatcreators has stepped up inspired by it and fans are still discovering new things in the infinite loop of Donuts. Many fans who, to the chagrin of earlier loyalists, didn’t even know about him before his death (Sidenote: It’s ridiculous to complain and call out “bandwagon-jumpers” since the album certainly deserves all additional accolades and listeners, and even though they may not have known his music during his lifetime, their appreciation for what he created can be just as genuine). Dilla will forever be missed, but his work remains to entertain and inspire us still.
Clipse – Hell Hath No Fury (2006)
A record years in the making, held back by the label time and again, enraging both fans and the Thornton brothers themselves. A record conceived as the sequel to an album that had the game on lock during the height of The Neptunes reign. A record following a series of mixtapes clamored for by fans and critics, who were collectively scratching their heads at the ignorance of Jive Records, until the bosses of Britney Spears ‘n them could no longer deny the deafening roar for the conquistadors of crack rap. How could an album like that not dissapoint? Well, for one thing, it seemed as if all the beats The Neptunes had created through the years that were simply too grimy, experimental, minimalistic or plain weird, ended up in a folder labeled ‘HHNF.’ Malice and Pusha knew how to handle these beats like no others and used their fraternal chemistry to bless them with superior tales of powder-pushing, colder than Leo D at the end of Titanic. The paranoia that comes with living the life of a hustler permeated the whole album and made a chilling wind blow through even the most celebratory tracks on the album. In hip-hop’s subgenre of crack rap this is still standing as the pinnacle and should be considered nothing less than a classic.
UGK – Underground Kingz (2007)
Hip-hop has a somewhat troubled past when it comes to double albums. Several of the genre’s most beloved and iconic artists fell for the trap laid by their egos: like BIG, Pac and the Wu, they needed a double album in their discography to enter the pantheon of legendary rappers. Unfortunately, the longer tracklists often do no favors to the arc of the album and it’s hard to shake the feeling they would have worked better as a single disc with stronger track selection (cough *Blueprint 2* cough cough *Street’s Disciple*). This is not the case for UGK’s double album. Sure, some fat could’ve been trimmed, but more than enough would remain to justify the double disc format. Pimp C and Bun B were at the triumphing moment of their collaborative career, with Bun having upheld the UGK banner for years while Pimp was incarecerated. Finally the duo reunited and could spit on Pimp’s buttersmooth productions again. Their experience in the game shined through in a positive way, showing mature, conceptual work as well as hardboiled street anthems, and features involved friends from various eras end continents. The collaborations with other producers also yielded great results, most notably on what was originally a track by Project Pat, produced by DJ Paul and Juicy J, and featured that other legendary southern duo: Outkast. ‘International Players Anthem (I Choose You)’ would almost by itself determine the album as a classis, but the rest of this southern rap staple is nothing to sneeze at either.
Q-Tip – The Renaissance (2008)
Q-Tip’s third solo album had quite a run-up. While his first album rubbed many people the wrong way in how it employed a more electronic and ‘bouncing’ sound (something that in later years would become dominant in the charts) than people were used to from the jazzy tribesman, his second album wasn’t even given a chance to gain traction among the audience. It was shelved after extremely mixed reviews made the industry suits hesitant to invest in its promotion. The Abstract didn’t seem bothered by this troubled history at all when he crafted his next solo album for Motown though, perhaps his prolonged absence from the game when he focused on his career as an actor made him reappreciate the joy of making music. With a nimble flow, strong penmanship and a willingness to push the boundaries of rap, Q-Tip created an album that doesn’t try to conform to any perceived standard of what a rap album sounds like. Intead, it’s an album that has its own, wholly developed sound. The sound of a man appreciative of soul and jazz, who holds rap in an equally high regard and blends all three into an intoxicating cocktail of grown man rap. Proof that a veteran can still reshape rap and that Q-Tip hasn’t lost a step since his days as a young’n.