Now that I'm home and have time to do so, I'll give my answer to the main question of the thread. What makes an album a classic comes down to the influence it has on music in the years that follow it.
To go back to my statement about Kanye's first 2 albums vs. MBDTF: College Dropout was a complete breakthrough. Before that album, mainstream hip hop was all about the "gangsta" subgenre. Despite having the best connections in the industry, Kanye had an incredibly hard time actually getting a record deal as a rapper. Finally, Roc-a-fella hesitantly signed him. When he was finally able to release his album, it just blew up. It was everywhere. With that album, he proved to a doubtful hip hop industry that you could sell millions of records without excessive gangster bravado. Case in point: the big 9/11/2007 sales showdown with 50 Cent. When Kanye and 50 both released their albums on the same day, the industry was very unsure of what the outcome would be. Many people expected 50's Curtis to greatly outsell Kanye. I mean, 50 was just the image of hip hop at the time. However, Kanye made much more accessible, relatable, and not to mention critically-acclaimed music. When Kanye handily outsold 50, it changed the focus of hip hop from a hardcore gangster image to a more suburban, pop-based approach. (It's important to note that Kanye's sales were strong off the success and positive reception of the first two, making them more important to our discussion than Graduation.)
By that point, he had also changed the nature of hip hop production. His unique style of beats featuring soul samples became huge in the genre. Everyone wanted Kanye West beats, and if they couldn't get them, they got an imitation. College Dropout and Late Registration were both albums full of K. West beats, and for that reason, they were hugely influential, and eventually considered classics.
That's my case for College Dropout and Late Registration: they had a huge influence on hip hop (and pop) music as a whole. I have yet to see significant reverberations from MBDTF on music. (I know some people will argue that it has indeed had a similar effect, and I'll be happy to entertain the thought.) Also, venturing into my personal opinion here, but I don't think the rapping is as strong on MBDTF as on the first 3 albums. And unlike those first 3, there are actually a few songs on it that I could take or leave.
To get more back to the point here, I think personal opinion of the strength of an album isn't quite enough to make it a classic. Jay-Z has 3 classic albums: his debut, Reasonable Doubt; 2001's Kanye/Just Blaze helmed The Blueprint; and his faux-retirement album, The Black Album. Now in my opinion, 2007's American Gangster does stand some ground with The Blueprint and The Black Album. But that's just my opinion, and it's not overwhelmingly popular. It doesn't have the popular acclaim or the influence it takes to hold the same iconic place in music history. AG is not and never will be hailed as a classic, just a pretty solid Jay-Z album.
this is a fantastic debate and I'm excited for it to play out. For the record, I think all 3 of those records are classics, all 3 are so different and show how versatile West is. College Dropout is more a pure hip hop classic based on the production, the album's flow, and the lyrical content. Late Registration had more of Kanye tapping into that pop sound (not in the sense of something like Justin Beiber or the like, but in the fact he worked with Jon Brion on some it and whatnot; a lot of strings a lot of baroque influence, etc.). MBDTF is more of the man going deep inside his psyche, matching production with the content - being grandiose as well as vulnerable. It's like a rock opera, it's his The Wall or Sgt Pepper's, etc.
I personally rank MBDTF as tops, but I can see and understand the arguments made for his first two albums.
late rejoining the thread, but my point of view on it is a few posts up
ChaseTx is right that the first two Kanye albums were more influential, but it seems to me that general consensus places MBDTF as the better album. And if critical acclaim and fan-approval place an album as better than the classics that came before it, then I'm pretty sure that album becomes a classic by default.
I'm no so sure it is a consensus though. It might be the consensus on this site, but we're definitely not representative of his fanbase. I can't be sure because I haven't really been active on hiphop forums for a while or really talking to people about it, but I have a feeling a that people who only or mostly listen to hip hop might go for one of the first two.
I can't claim to be tapped into the overall hip hop community at all, but I think that it was the critical consensus and I believe that, in the wider musical community, that is the consensus as well. You could also argue that the latter point is the album's strongest claim to classic status: I've said before that MBDTF is a hip hop album that appeals to people who have never particularly loved hip hop. The way that appreciation for that album has been able to cross genre lines is pretty impressive, and even without big hits or a game changing impact on rap music, that's still notable.
You could also argue that the other albums would have the same appeal if they were released now. They were all very well reviewed, and they were all very accessible. In fact, I'd say MBDTF is the least accessibility because it's a lot darker than the others.Plus Kanye presents himself as less a common person than a celebrity on that album, making him a bit less relatable.
Having said that, MBDTF is sort of in tune with the dark, electronic thing that's been prevalent in pop music for the last few years, so that does add to its mainstream appeal. And as for his celebrity persona, that's very much part of the product now. It's possible that larger-than-life Kanye is just more interesting to the general public than big-headed everyman Kanye.
I agree with everything you wrote about the first two albums, great write-up. I'd say this about MBDTF (and it's probably hyperbole): I don't think it has had similar reverberations within the genre or even pop music because I don't think there's a mainstream artist that can replicate that grandiose scope and idea of an album. I think certain artists have tried to make that "epic" album now but they've failed.
Thanks for reading it. I think it's not really that important whether or not it can be replicated well, it would just be more telling to clearly see people trying to follow along the same lines. Maybe they have, I don't know I'm sort of lost among a lot of the newer hip hop artists. I've heard Drake's last album was had some similarities with it, but I just don't like Drake. Then there's fun., who were apparently influenced by MBDTF to make their album a more theatrical production. If there were more obvious examples, I'd be more sold on the influence MBDTF has had.
I don't think I follow the line of reasoning in your first sentence. Sure, they were successful and highly acclaimed (both score mid-to-high 80s on Metacritic), but they didn't receive the almost across-the-board perfect score/album of the year title reception that MBDTF got, and I personally have always thought that was because 1) the latter plays as a more cohesive whole, largely thanks to its darker themes and Kanye's self-introspection and that 2) the latter is more accessible to a broad range of genres because it is more grounded in pop music and rock n roll than any of its predecessors. I get what you're saying with the relatability issue, but for me at least (and I feel as if I'm a fairly good barometer, since I had only ever dabbled in hip hop before that album came out), there's no question that MBDTF is his most immediate, accessible, and fully-formed work to date.
I don't know a lot of the details on how MBDTF was reviewed on release, as I wasn't paying too much attention at the time. But you have to figure that some of that is momentum built up from the previous releases. Sites and magazines that wouldn't cover him before came to terms with the artist Kanye is and gave him favorable reviews. Publications that previously may have just written him off as a gimmick saw that his music had lasting power and legitimate artistry. I feel like some of the misgivings they might have had about him before had been assuaged, permitting them to go into their reviews less cautiously, without fear of being seen as scoring it higher than it warranted. Does that make sense?
For a couple years in high school, I started listening to nothing but hip-hop, and College Dropout was definitely one of the albums that made me a huge fan of the genre. It's odd to think whether MBDTF would have the same effect on me, because it just didn't have as much appeal to me at 24 as CD had at 17. It's got a few great tracks, then it's got some mediocre ones. I think CD had the right mix of pop appeal, solid songwriting, and variety to fit my tastes. And it has staying power.
Ahhh, I see what you mean now. I suppose that could be the case, but I prefer to think that the critics just saw a stronger start-to-finish record in MBDTF. In the Slant Magazine review for The College Dropout (which they gave 3.5 stars), the writer kicked off the review by saying, "Like every hip-hop album (even the great ones), Kanye West's The College Dropout is marred by too many guest artists, too many interludes, and just too many songs period. (I challenge every hip-hop artist working today to record just one album with 12 tracks or less—no skits, no guests, no filler.)" They gave Late Registration the same rating, but crowned MBDTF as the best album of 2010 and gave it a perfect 5-star rating. Pitchfork had similar reservations about Dropout, but gave Twisted Fantasy the rare 10.0 and also named it the album of the year. I agree that their misgivings were assuaged, but that's because Kanye largely dropped the gimmicks: he got rid of the skits (well, nearly), he trimmed down the number of tracks and kept many of the guest spots shared between a core group of confidantes. And as a whole, the record felt a lot less scattershot or overlong, even though it still stretched to almost 70 minutes. For me, that record flies by in what feels like half the time that it takes me to listen to the other two.
I think your second paragraph is a tough question to ask, since you obviously have a big, important personal connection to TCD. I don't think there's a weak track on MBDTF (which ones don't you like, btw?), but there are a few that I skip on both College Dropout and Late Registration. It could just be a matter of perspective, of our differing musical roots and differences in what we look for in a hip hop album, but I have, over the past two years, gotten the feeling that the appreciation for MBDTF remains very heartfelt and widespread.
In most cases, I agree that albums with over 16 tracks, several skits, and a lot of guest spots do suffer from the problems they're referring to. But, I think those first two Kanye albums are an exception. The skits are funny and revolve around a recurring theme or pattern. The guest spots are all good verses from good rappers, but Kanye is never overshadowed on the track. Because there are so many songs, it doesn't feel like he's crowded out by guests; and because of his control over the albums, they remain very much his, as opposed to feeling like an ensemble work (which are typically bad). And as to the length, every song on those two is solid, in my opinion.
Just going through MBDTF, I'm not a big fan of "So Appalled". I don't care much for the beat/feel of the song at all, and the last half of the track should have just been cut. The song would have been better with just Kanye and Jay-Z, and I could keep the Pusha verse as well, but after that, I'm done with the song. The rest of the tracks are good, I just feel the first two albums have more tracks that I get excited to hear. I'd say the length plays a big part in that.
I think the biggest issue you're not really getting is that by striving to release a "classic" album, some artists may compromise their sound to fit into the mold of previous classic albums. Not every hip-hop album needs to sound like Illmatic to be a classic, not every rock album has to sound like Sgt. Pepper's or whatever, not everyone should be trying to sound like Bon Iver just because he released a great record.
There may be some related aspects that take an album into the "classic" level that are common across many, but one I think is definitely necessary is crafting a unique style that is cohesive across an entire album. The issue comes from certain artists striving to repeat the style from a perceived greatness from one album, when they have higher potential going in a different stylistic direction. In this way, by copying the format and tone of a great "classic" album in order to release their own classic, they compromise their style to fit into a mold they don't necessarily match, while also releasing an album that is not as strong as it could have been if they just played towards their strong suits and released what they wanted to without having the pressure of needing a "classic" in their catalog.
Essentially, artists would be better off listening less to what albums fans name as instant classics, and more focusing on what they can do to make the best album in the sound they're going for.
Great post, I agree entirely. I do think artists can make a great album by replicating or expanding upon the style of the preceding album -- see Linkin Park's Meteora, Common's Finding Forever, even Late Registration -- and it can be another classic, if it continues to be influential and widely well-received.
When an artist tries to make a great album by copying stylistic decisions on another artist's album, it diminishes the greatness of their album and it's viability as a possible classic, because the sound is not unique to that artist. It does, however, reinforce the classic status of the album they're striving to recreate.