The other day on Twitter, where I push hip-hop hot takes and obnoxiously promote this newsletter, I got to thinking aloud about how the 2010s’ arranged marriage of streaming music and social media made it all-but impossible to achieve a true consensus classic. Yes, that’s a term I kinda made up, but for my selfish purposes it’s meant to refer to those rap records that are utterly unimpeachable and near-universally beloved: Nas’ Illmatic, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die. In general, we can have our differences of opinion about rap, but anyone who listens to this music and thinks those three albums aren’t classics probably ate a lot of lead paint chips for breakfast growing up.
This isn’t some oldhead complaint, mind you. I don’t long for the days when major labels and payola-infused radio dictated to hip-hop listeners what we were supposed to fuck with. Just because we use phrases like Golden Age doesn’t mean there weren’t a lot of polished turds. It’s just that the 2010s really complicated things. While we in the media may generally be able to come together every December and agree upon a few of the preceding 11 months’ best records, topping a bunch of lists doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a consensus classic. It just means some mixture of editors and writers agreed on something at a deadline-centric point in time. (See: 2014’s Run The Jewels 2.)
Nowadays, defensive hive minds and the prevalence of stan culture lead to plenty of premature declarations of something being classic, a dicey designation that crumbles upon scrutiny from outside of those foaming fanbases. But how can you tell what’s actually great when a bunch of search-savvy tweeters with Drake and Nicki Minaj avatars and usernames like _OVOBarbie123456789 endlessly scream virtual praise for their faves? Don’t expect your favorite music publication to help either, as so much of the rap media coverage exists to satiate the click-lust surrounding a handful of SEO-friendly artists. And simultaneously all the streaming sites are curating you into a corner, somehow insisting you rock the same records—no matter which platform you happen to frequent on New Music Friday.
I’ve tried to identify consensus classics in the genre from the 2010s, reluctantly coming up with Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, incidentally the only album released in the past decade that Pitchfork gave a perfect 10.0 score to. I’d argue that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and its 2012 predecessor Good Kid, M.A.A.D City both qualify too, though the former has its critics and the latter has like a thousand skits we all wish we could skip.
But from there, things get real murky. J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive? Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap? Take Care? Pink Friday? Obviously these are commercially successful projects that a lot of people love. But are they the ones that nearly every hip-hop fan would go back and dub classics if listened to collectively today? Nah.
Obviously, the specter of subjectivity is inescapable here, and then there are generational considerations to be made. After all, we’re decades removed from The Chronic and Illmatic, and so much has changed in hip-hop—including how it sounds. Maybe the genre has grown too big and too sonically broad for everyone to achieve agreement. But from the preceding decade that kicked off our millennium, I posit that we must come together as one and acknowledge Madvillain’s Madvillainy in the consensus classic category.
A big part of why that super-powered 2004 team-up between MF Doom and Madlib stands out as deserving is that, unlike most established consensus classics in rap, this one dropped on an indie label (Stones Throw). A low fidelity and low budget affair, the duo’s “Accordion” music video contrasted with the flash and gleam we saw in promo clips of that time from moneyed rappers with major label marketing dollars. There was nothing wrong, in my opinion, with doing it big with a director like Hype Williams or Chris Robinson, but at the same time there’s something so brilliant in having Doom caught on grainy grey tape and lip-synching bars over one of Madlib’s quirkiest beats ever in a nondescript hallway.
Madvillainy was counter-programming, a blessing from the underground that went ubiquitous. No, it didn’t sell as many copies as 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Trying, which dropped a year earlier and was RIAA-certified multi-platinum within months of release. Yet if you polled rap fans who have heard both records in full, I strongly suspect the less-heard one has a more favored classic ratio. So if you take anything away from my loose change ramblings today (this newsletter is free, after all), accept Madvillain’s album into your heart completely and please don’t @ me.
Last week, I hit up a Billy Woods show and this duo opened to a pretty sizable crowd. Admittedly, some of BSTFRND’s abstract beat sonics got lost in translation live, but on Like Hajime they come through in all their avant adrift bliss. Akai Solo is what some hack might call a “conscious rapper,” and fortunately since no such thing exists anymore we don’t need to entertain that antiquated descriptor to gloss over his heady skills. He skirts nimbly around his producer’s methodically ultramodern sounds here, including galvanizing highlights like “Halcyon Company” and “Eye A God.”
Far from the drill and grime we’ve come to expect from rap outta the U.K., this solid set from the Brooklyn-born albeit London-raised Goya Gumbani follows its own natural hip-hop path. An eclectic yet cohesive effort from the mellow emcee, A Thousand Months lets its earworms wriggle freely, from the low-speed Neil Young joyride “Confrontation & Conversations” to "The Inbetweens” and its late night jazz jones. “Psalm 23” touches on his part-Jamaican heritage, while “The Lows” and skew closer to the boom bap of his birthplace.
If you were unfamiliar with Mutant Academy and Scheme Team up until now, consider Thug Tear a perfect introduction to what’s poppin’ down in Richmond, VA. Twin lyrical titans Big Kahuna OG and Monday Night rap about what they know, and thankfully what they know is that shit you want to hear. Over gratifying beats by RVA producers Graymatter and Unlucky Bastards, they drop NBA all-star bars for “Vlade Divac” and get all kinds of creative on morbidly hilarious cut “Shorty Anthem.” Soul-slathered closer “Same Year” demands rewind after rewind.
Lettuce Wraps with... Elaquent
I'm launching a new semi-regular feature with this issue. It's an email-based Q&A session with someone in the wide world of hip-hop who I respect. It's called Lettuce Wraps, which is the best name I could come up with in the two minutes before I hit publish today. Three questions. Three answers. That's it.
If you follow the Mello Music Group discography as faithfully as I do, then you no doubt already know a little something about Elaquent and his beat mastery. Ahead of Forever Is A Pretty Long Time, his second release for the label, I sit down in cyberspace with the Guelph, Ontario-bred producer to discuss the project.
Who was the first hip-hop producer whose name you learned, and what was it that brought you to their catalog or made you want to hear more of their music?
[The] first one that I knew by name and gravitated to was DJ Premier. His beats always had banging drums, great samples/chopping, and an unmistakable bounce... He was one of the first dudes I could tell was a Preemo beat before you see the credits and see it’s a Gang Starr or Jeru joint. His list of classics is super duper long.
Your forthcoming Forever Is A Pretty Long Time diverges from your previous Mello Music album Blessing In Disguise and most of your full-length discography, in that just about all of the tracks have vocals/raps? What made you opt for this "producer showcase" route?
This record was actually supposed to be another instrumental album. That’s what I was brought into Mello to do, but honestly, I was starting to get bored. Felt like I was doing the same type of record as Blessing in Disguise in the beginning, like a continuation, so I thought this was a golden opportunity to try something different and test myself. Meant to only bring in one or two artists like most of my records, but then decided that it’s time to do the showcase album. At the time, I was playing Hi-Teknology and Welcome 2 Detroit and was envisioning doing that sort of record.
You worked with a lot of talented rappers on this project. If you could secure a rapper you've never worked with for Forever Is A Pretty Long Time bonus track or remix, who would you pick and why?
Common was a guy I always wanted to work with, as his album Like Water for Chocolate is my all time favorite hip hop album. Earl Sweatshirt, Mach-Hommy, Griselda (Westside Gunn, Conway, Benny) all among my favs right now. That being said, I’m happy my features are a collection of established vets and guys that some of y’all may not be up on, and hopefully can develop into household names, so I’m happy with the roster I assembled.
Every February for six years running, I lead a month-long writing exercise on Twitter with the #MWE hashtag. The premise is simple: every day that month, listen to one album you’ve never heard in full before, then write one tweet about it. No matter what your experience level as a writer happens to be, you’re not only welcome but strongly encouraged to participate—especially if you use it as an opportunity to discover works by artists of color and especially especially women of color.
Anyways, here’s “Wonderwall.”
See you next Sunday.