I’m sure critics have their purpose, and they’re supposed to do what they do, but sometimes they get a little carried away with what they think someone should have done, rather than concerning themselves with what he did. – Duke Ellington
One of the biggest obstacles to writing a good album review is having the time to really listen to the music uninterrupted and over a week ago I was presented with a rare opportunity. I had a four-hour flight to Arizona for Sha Money XL’s One Stop Shop producer conference and the Relapse album leaked. So before I left the office I loaded up my flash drive with the mp3s and the Rihanna nudie pics. Hey, it was a long ass flight.
I’ve been an admirer of Em’s work ever since I interviewed him for The Source’s Mic Check section way back when Clinton was in office. I consider myself quite familiar with his content, flow, themes, etc. and I looked forward to hearing what one of the best pure lyricists in the game had to say after four years, especially since I named Relapse one of the most anticipated albums of 2009. But after a good two hours it felt like a TV had thrown up on me. The constant barrage of disjointed pop culture references and scrotum cheese jokes was too much. I raised the white flag. With the exception of “Beautiful” and “Underground” the “shock and awe” campaign didn’t move me. But more importantly, with half the world already playing the leak just like me and Twittering all day about it, I just couldn’t justify the hours of my life that I wouldn’t get back defending why I was disappointed. I was too lazy to hate.
When I first started writing record reviews in the 1990s I felt like I was doing a public service. From then to maybe five years ago journalists actually got to hear music before the masses and took pride in letting folks know where they should place their hard earned money. At The Source we fought over who would get to write the lead review of the biggest album coming out that month. It was equivalent to screaming “first” on a message board except your post stayed at the top for everyone to see.
But now that people aren’t even buying much music, there are a million bloggers chiming in on a project, and albums get streamed on MySpace or Blackplanet prior to release does one critic’s opinion still matter? Frankly, I feel like album reviews are going the way of the word ‘album’ itself, CD singles and Tower Records. (R.I.P.)
“A publicist friend (whose roster includes ALL urban, not just rap) tells me that she and her label cohorts do not care one iota about reviews anymore. And neither do the artists,” says veteran Carlito Rodriguez, one-time Editor-In-Chief of The Source magazine. “In our current cult of personality-driven world, I’d say that reviews from certain people or media outlets do generate buzz. Do they affect sales? Nah.”
Before you jump on me, yes I do share my opinions constantly via lists and blogs for the Urban Daily. The difference for me is that those are a) fun and b) more akin to the real conversations I have with my peers in real life. Everyone loves to debate the top “10 greatest this” and the “20 worst that” so it feels natural. I love to take jabs at songs, trends or antics that I think are either dumb or will stimulate conversation but there is no fun in telling you how bad an entire album is. But I decided to ask some of my peers who still do.
“It’s obvious that album reviews- especially in hip-hop, are less notable then they were 10 years ago,” says Rob Markman, Music Editor for XXL magazine. “[But] with the hip-hop conversation broadening to the infinite boarders that is the Internet, there are a growing number of fans who look toward print publications to help formulate an opinion that is more centralized, and less bias.”
“Good reviews put the music in proper context and reveal nuances of the music that the reader may previously had been unaware of,” adds Alvin Blanco, who used to edit reviews for Allhiphop.com. “What if you’re a passing fan or just got into Eminem. It would help to see where the album falls in his discography. Sure, what the album is here and now is important, but what led up to said album has some relevance.”
To both their points, I can see giving an artist like Eminem a proper set-up to familiarize the unfamiliar since he has been away for four years. And with the Redman & Method Man album dropping today some context for the uninitiated is definitely warranted. But I respectfully disagree that any one magazine or blog still holds the ability to sway public opinion on any real level. For better or worse the Internet is the home of the passionate who have their minds made up and reviews mostly appeal to those looking for direction and guidance.
Hence, this is a very humbling time to be a music critic. The more the playing field is leveled the more you become aware of your own mortality, but the game isn’t over. To answer my own question from earlier, we still need tastemakers and filters, especially with the glut of music being shoved down our throats, but I liken myself to a DJ now. A DJ is not going to play what he/she thinks is wack and as tastemakers music journalists may do more good to the industry by simply telling the fans what they like. The most popular blogs on the web filter through the garbage and tell you what’s hot by posting it with maybe a line or two of pithy copy. The Twitter link is the review 2.0.
“As writers with vested interest in pop culture, reviews do matter,” says Rodriguez who is producing a feature film based on the life of DJ Disco Wiz, hip-hop’s first Latino DJ. “As do our voices, because, quite simply, we’re doing our part to chronicle the social psychology of our days and times, beyond whatever works we’re reviewing.”
So if you really care at all why I was disappointed in Relapse it’s not that Eminem can’t rhyme or that the beats were not good. I simply feel that the formula, no matter how well executed, is old: Make fun of dead male idol, fantasize about having sex with wholesome starlet, yell at your mom, pop a pill, insert a few “faggots,” smack a lesbian, fart and repeat. I can get all of the same lyrical gymnastics, macabre story telling and mind-bending punchlines with just a touch more soul listening to Pharoahe Monch. Tweet that.
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