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From “Illmatic” to “GKMC”, the Start-to-Finish Classic Albums List

Posted by Ryan Buell on 07/08/13 | Filed under Opinion, Debates
A lot of albums seem to be just a compilation of random songs that an artist recorded in a given amount of time and released together. But some albums are more than that; they are coherent bodies of work that unite every song under a common theme, narration, or sonic impulse. These albums demand being listened to in their entirety, from beginning to end, in order to glean the artist’s thoughts and intentions. No one definition matches this type of album, though the term ‘concept album’ often applies to them. The Start-to-Finish album necessitates a unifying story or concept, but also requires seamless transitions and a significantly larger meaning or emotion within the work as a whole.

For me, the foremost example of this rare category of album is 2 Chainz’ "Based on a Tru Story" Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The allegory of a wall to represent society carries the album conceptually and unifies Roger Waters’ thought process into a thought provoking musical journey. The transitions are flawless, and the rise and falls of the album capture the band’s struggle in coming to terms with a perceived emptiness in modern society. “Another Brick into the Wall” fading into “Goodbye Cruel World” is the very definition of nuance.

As far as hip-hop goes, "Illmatic" is the pinnacle of Start-to-Finish albums. In ten songs, Nas paints a better picture of an impoverished life in NYC than anyone ever had, or has since (with the possible exception of Biggie, whose albums don’t meet this category for me personally, which I’ll admit could be due to my own musical preferences). Roughly once a month, I sit down and listen to Illmatic in its entirety, and that’s really the only way to fully appreciate the greatest hip-hop album of all time.

The other album that immediately comes to mind is "Good Kid, mAAd City". Kendrick’s storytelling and lyrical imagery is unrivaled in today’s hip-hop scene. On the album, he depicts a story from his adolescence that casts a startling picture of the struggles of America’s black youth. To summarize in a line, “I wasn’t jealous of the talents they got, I was terrified they’d be the last black boys to fly….Out of Compton.” The album essentially follows a plot arc, building up through the trials on “Art of Peer Pressure,” the sins of diving in “Swimming Pools” of liquor, and into the resurrection of “Dying of Thirst,” before resolving into a grandiose summation on the aptly titled “Compton.” It’s accomplished through vivid skits, a central narrative, and K.Dot’s astounding penchant for passionate imagery, but the end result is an album that requires a start-to-finish listen.

While certain albums obviously fall into this category, the line gets hazy real fast. "College Dropout" seems to fall right on that line. Obviously "Dropout" has a ton of standout songs that can be listened to individually and without any inclination to sit through the entire album. There isn’t one coherent theme to the album, but rather a number of conflicting ideas and moral dilemmas of a young and up start Kanye. Yet the skits lend the album something of a backbone by connecting these quandaries with the question of dropping out of college. The sequencing of songs is impeccable and takes the listener through the up and downs that Yeezy was dealing with at the time. I’m going to go ahead and include "Dropout" on my list, and loosely define the Start-to-Finish Album as any album that is intended to listen to in full to grasp the artist’s intentions, and that is a regular part of your music rotation to do so.

Without further ado, here are my other nominees for this designation. Leave your personal choices in the comments Refined Hype Nation.

The List:
"Illmatic" - Nas
"GKMC" - Kendrick Lamar
"College Dropout" - Kanye West
"The Infamous" – Mobb Deep
"Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory" – Tupac
"Random Access Memories" – Daft Punk (I know it’s new and not hip-hop, but seriously, go listen to that shit)
"Reasonable Doubt" and "American Gangster" – Jay-Z
"The Cool" – Lupe Fiasco

Honorable Mentions:
"Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" – Wu-Tang Clan
"Aquemini and ATLiens" – OutKast
"Stillmatic" – Nas
"MBDTF" – Kanye
"4EvaNaDay" - KRIT

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