Written by: Julian Keaton
This week marks the 20th anniversary of Nas’ Illmatic album, and there are several reasons why this particular album is still relevant today. Illmatic has a unique and collaborative production sound, superb storytelling, cultural transcendence, and originality. It’s no coincidence that other timeless hip hop albums—like OutKast’s ATLiens, Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city—also have these characteristics. If you want your hip hop record to withstand the test of time, these are important factors to consider.
It’s important to have talented producers working on your album, but they have to be able to work together. When working as a unit, studio sessions go smoother, the songwriting is better, and you can bounce ideas off everyone to get the best out of the song. Illmatic had five producers who worked together to make a well-knit, well-produced album. The Marshall Mathers LP had three main producers. ATLiens was mainly produced by Organized Noise. Because these groups of producers were tight-knit and able to collaborate, they created unique sounds that cannot be replicated.
In today’s music world, it’s no secret that labels arrange writing camps, where they pull together a team of the best songwriters in the country with the sole purpose of writing songs that will be commercially successful and, hopefully, lead to hit records. This approach, which utilizes the complimentary strengths of each writer, can result in songs with superb storylines, catchy melodies, and solid beats. It’s less common in hip-hop than in other genres—like R&B, pop, and country music—but it does still happen. In fact, some of the most impactful hip-hop songs come from collaboration, including Run-D.M.C.’s “My Adidas” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”. While you don’t have to collaborate to come up with quality music, doing so can open you to the ideas and methods of other artists.
Superb storytelling in these songs is what allowed them to transcend and impact culture. For example, many of the songs on Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut dealt with economic disenfranchisement, gang violence, and peer pressure—all of which are core to the culture of hip-hop. These same themes, though, connected Lamar’s songs with the millennial generation, made the album so influential, and caused a paradigm shift in the culture.
Lastly, and just as importantly as the other factors, each of the above albums stands out and stays relevant because the artists focused on maintaining their originality. A perfect example of a group focused on originality is Odd Future. Odd Future made a huge splash in the national music scene in 2010 because of its originality and unpredictability. Being able to stand on your own beliefs and ideas keeps your music fresh and original, while being different and intentionally not following trends makes you stand out. Fans definitely notice and often appreciate this focus on originality.
These factors can help your hip hop album stand out, be impactful, and withstand the test of time.