“How Soon is Now?”: When Classic Albums Become Classic

Since the release of Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, the internet has exploded in all corners. Pitchfork’s wizened sages have decreed the highest of honors. Hip-hop fans both east and west have joined hands in celebration. Even the trolls have seemed silent before the monolithic throne of Lamar. Now, sure, this may be hyperbole, but it plays to the larger point here: “To Pimp a Butterfly” is really, really good. It’s so good that throughout various discussion forums across the web you can already find countless droves of people hailing Lamar’s latest a bona fide classic – an inscrutable masterpiece that will define hip-hop for decades to come.

Isn’t it a little early, guys?

I won’t deny that Lamar’s latest record is one of my favorite album’s to come out this year. It’s an album I’d certainly give an A if I were to review it now. Lamar’s lyricism is stunning – at times painfully personal and scathingly social. His poetry burns straight through the speakers to burrow deep inside. Stylistically, Lamar has never been this ambitious. Incorporating jazz, soul, and traditional production into a brilliant mix, “To Pimp a Butterfly” truly comes alive. But to call an album that’s only been on the shelves for a month a “classic” is bordering on absurd.

“Classic” albums aren’t made in the reactionary hail of praise in a record’s infancy. It takes time. Looking back at 1974 and the release of Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” is a revealing moment. When Dylan’s album was released, critics scratched their heads, baffled and confused. Those critics were the generous ones. Some went so far as to pen demolishing criticisms of Dylan’s album. Today, however, marks a new story for that record. It’s 2015, and “Blood on the Tracks” is unanimously considered a monolithic album whose influence on modern folk artists is nearly incalculable in its magnitude While the amount of time required for an album to become classic may lead to a nebulous rabbit hole of debate, it’s not an unfair statement to make that it does take some substantial amount. It’s also important to note I’m not saying critics’ initial reactions to albums determine their classic status; rather, only time, and, by extension, the influence a record casts over time, is integral to the making of a classic.

It takes calculable, documentable influence on artists and genres to come for albums to be true classics. Let’s take “Sgt. Pepper” as an example. How many bands have cited that record as one of their favorite recordings? How many bands have claimed that “Sgt. Pepper” influenced their own music? The number here is irrelevant, but the point isn’t. Surely, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Tame Impala wouldn’t exist without the trail-blazing psychedelic pop of The Beatles later-era recordings. The influence is obvious in some cases. “Solitude Is Bliss,” Tame Impala’s debut single, barely attempts to hide the Beatles worship as it winds through its kaleidoscopic verses. Here, most listeners can probably pick up the similarities in sound if they’ve heard both “Sgt. Pepper” and “Innerspeaker.” Classic albums transfuse themselves over time into the blood of other artists in ways that are apparent and material to the new music.

This overzealous knee-jerk behavior isn’t just ridiculous in its own right; it’s also unhealthy for the larger picture of music discussion. If we allow ourselves to be immediately overwhelmed by music to the point that we’re lavishing the newest releases with the highest possible honor before it’s even been released for a month, let alone a year, then we’re doing music discussion, and the music itself, an injustice. Doing this, we devalue music, turning it into some rapidly consumable commodity and forget it as the pure art that it really is. So, if we really love Kendrick Lamar, let’s do him a favor; let’s wait.

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