Anybody reading this piece has likely referred to a hip-hop album as a classic at some point. It’s inevitable, really. Conversations centering around rap’s greatest bodies of work have helped shape the cultural canon, to the point where an undeniable repertoire has been widely acknowledged by those familiar with the genre. Names like NasIllmatic, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt,Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP -- the list goes on, and anyone with familiarity and respect for hip-hop history can recite a number of the essentials.

While there isn’t exactly a preset criteria on what makes a classic, the term does carry a certain unspoken weight. Like any word, it runs the risk of undergoing pejoration, losing its meaning with each frivolous use. As a result, it has gotten to the point where anything less than a classic -- or at the very least, a possible classic-- feels somehow inferior. An unfortunate casualty revealing a disturbing truth. The patience for a great album is not exactly high, especially in the whirlwind climate of today. Given the endless bombardment of music that drops during a given year, it can be genuinely difficult to assess which projects have real staying power. And that’s another question: how long does an album have to resonate before it can earn the prestigious title?

In reality, assessing the individual bones that make up the skeleton of a classic is a conversation for another piece. The canon is, while largely shaped decades of discourse, widely understood and accepted. Yet as is always the case, exceptions do exist. Some projects divide, drawing passionate praise from one corner and apathy from the next. Others are cult classics, failing to captivate the mainstream while delivering ample depth to loyal fans. Universality and general impact may be an important quality for some critics, while others can appreciate an album’s contribution to smaller cultural movements. In any case, there are many projects where a case for classic status can be made, though they may not be widely accepted as such. It feels appropriate to highlight some potential candidates, gauging the temperature as to whether or not they should be accepted into the canon with open arms.


Jadakiss Kiss Tha Game Goodbye

2001 Ruff Ryders

It has been often argued that, despite his widely agreed-upon status as a hip-hop legend, Jadakiss does not have a classic album to his name. Boasting a discography of five studio albums, many have concluded that Kiss is capable of delivering enjoyable, if tonally inconsistent, bodies of work. Yet none of his albums sit comfortably within the classic canon, a curious conflict considering the frequency with which he appears in the best rapper conversation.

Released in August of 2001, nineteen years ago, Jadakiss’ debut album Kiss Tha Game Goodbye was released by Ruff Ryders Entertainment. With features from LOX members Styles P and Sheek Louch, DMX, Eve, Drag-On, Snoop Dogg, Nas, Nate Dogg, the project worked wonders in highlighting Kiss’ strengths well also displaying his versatility. Prior, many had grown accustomed to hearing him rapping over a certain style of beat. Here, he explored several different musical avenues, including collaborations with The Neptunes and Timbaland. Songs like the sinister Nas-assisted “Show Discipline” and the back-and-forth duet with Styles P “We Gon Make It” are easily top tier, and there’s plenty more where those two came from. Not to mention how effectively it captures a moment in time, a transitional phase between the golden era’s sunset and the dawn of the new millennium. For that reason, Kiss Tha Game Goodbye remains an interesting contender for classic status -- especially given how much Jada has brought to the table.

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Ludacris Word Of Mouf

2001 The Island Def Jam Music Group

Another project from 2001, Ludacris’ sophomore album Word Of Mouf picked up where its predecessor left off and improved in about every conceivable away. Never have the dual facets of Luda’s personalities -- the sex-crazed comedian and the genuinely intimidating aggressor-- blended so effectively. And all throughout the eighteen-track endeavor are some of rap’s most unique bars, delivered with endless charisma by an imaginative Atlanta emcee. An unconventional emcee, but one that has rightfully earned praise for his lyricism -- a conversation sparked largely in part due to his work on Word Of Mouf.

The album is versatile on both the thematic and musical level, boasting incredible odes to love in the Twista-assisted “Freaky Thangs” and the timeless “Area Codes,” as well as more contemplative cuts like “Cold Outside” and “Growing Pains.” Those seeking punchlines need only revisit “Coming 2 America,” while straight-up bangers arrive by way of singles “Rollout,” “Move Bitch,” and “Saturday.” Like Jadakiss, Luda is an artist that often goes celebrated without being allotted a universally praised classic album. Perhaps, nearly twenty years removed from its initial release, the narrative can finally change.

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Obie Trice Cheers

2003 Shady Records

Many will look to Eminem’s triumphant run with Shady Records in the early millennium and rightfully look to his own work, that of 50 Cent, and possibly even D12. Yet in September of 2003, Detroit rapper Obie Trice came forward with his debut album Cheers, a project boasting production largely crafted by the tandem of Dr. Dre and Eminem. Prior to its release, even Shady aficionados had little idea what to expect from Obie; only a smattering of disparate singles and 8 MileSoundtrack served to give any real indication. When Cheers arrived in full, listeners were swiftly ushered into Obie’s world with the haunting introduction “Average Man,” a guitar-driven banger that commanded instant attention.

One thing that immediately stands out on Cheers is the strength of the production. Those who appreciate the somber, minor-key work of both Eminem and Dr. Dre will find some truly interesting instrumentals, with the latter pulling all the stops on the album highlight “Oh.” There’s a distinctively Shady feel to Cheers, and Obie acquaints himself well to the soundscapes, diving deeper into his psychology and flexing an impressive pen game throughout. “The Set Up” and “Don’t Come Down” find him stepping into his storytelling bag, while menacing posse cuts like the D12-assisted “Outro” and the incendiary “We All Die One Day” showcase a roster at the height of their confidence. Though Obie Trice is seldom discussed as a hip-hop great, there’s no denying that his debut project captured lightning in a bottle -- but is it enough to deem it a classic?

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Royce Da 5'9" Death Is Certain

E1 Music

Detroit lyricist Royce Da 5’9” continues to earn acclaim to this day, with many fans confidently hailing his 2018 album Book Of Ryan to be his magnum opus. And while it still feels premature to call that one a classic, Royce’s 2004 sophomore project Death Is Certain has been long deemed as such by the rapper’s dedicated fans. Following the release of his eclectic debut Rock City, Death Is Certain marked a major stylistic departure for Nickel. Highly influenced by the darkness plaguing his personal life, fueled in part by conflict with former friends and the toxicity of alcohol dependence, the project is easily one of Royce’s most challenging bodies of work.

Yet there’s a compelling, if not bleak, throughline. At times, Royce dabbles in nihilistic philosophies, seeming to embrace and even find comfort in the title’s unsettling truth. All the while, there’s a permeating tension brought to life by grimy and cinematic production largely handled by Carlos “6 July” Broady. It’s so bleak that Royce can’t listen to the project to this day. Still, there are a fair number of fans who feel that Death Is Certain deserves to be celebrated as a classic, as it captured the raw emotions of an artist at his darkest point. 

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Sticky Fingaz Black Trash The Autobiography Of Kirk Jones

2000 Universal Records

Sticky Fingaz initially made an impression on the rap game when he exploded onto the scene as part of Onyx, holding it down alongside Fredo Starr, Big DS, and Sonny Seeza. With no shortage of aggression and unapologetic braggadocio, Sticky quickly gained a reputation as one of the game's most exciting -- and intimidating --rappers. Following the group's departure from Def Jam in the late nineties, Sticky found himself exploring his options as a solo artist. In 2001, he released his debut album Black Trash: The Autobiography Of Kirk Jones, a project that featured appearances from Raekwon, Eminem, Redman, Canibus, and Petey Pablo.

Where the surprise came, however, was in the album's highly conceptual nature, not to mention the versatility displayed within Sticky's songwriting. Loosely following the autobiographical storyline of Kirk Jones, listeners are swept into the deep trenches of a gangsta rap epic, lined with contemplations on money, violence, poverty, religion, incarceration, and race. Shades of the Onyx days remain on highlights like the incendiary back to back of "Come On" and "My Dogz Iz My Gunz," yet they are contrasted by more reflective and thought-provoking songs like "Money Talks" and "Oh My God." Overall, it's one of hip-hop's unsung gems, a refreshing and entertaining journey even now, nineteen years later. Does Black Trash deserve a re-examination? 

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