It’s easy to forget, but criticism, just like music, film, or any other art, is itself open to criticism. When a journalist or critic levies an opinion on an artist’s work, the conceit and even the minutiae of their argument is fair game to be analyzed, deconstructed, and judged.
Two weeks ago, Talib Kweli and 9th Wonder released a collaborative album called Indie 500; it features production and guest appearances from Khrysis, NIKO IS, Problem, Bad Lucc, Rapsody, GQ, Halo, MK Asante, Planet Asia, K’Valentine, Slug, and Brother Ali, and was streamed on NPR’s First Listen for about a week before its release. Last week, Pitchfork published a review of the album by contributor Mosi Reeves (a staffer at Rhapsody), giving Indie 500 a score of 6.3 — by no means an outright pan, but clearly many miles away from being named Best New Music. Kweli responded with a review of his own, critiquing Reeves’ work, and assigning his Pitchfork review its own number score: 3.6.
Artists disagreeing with a critic’s assessment of their work is neither new nor inherently interesting, but what distinguishes this instance is that Kweli is considerably more intelligent and eloquent than your average musician, and his takedown of the review, while passionate, is logically argued and difficult to dismiss. He points out false assumptions made by the writer, calls him out for removing lyrics from their context to make a point, and notes several considerable (and embarrassing) factual errors that survived Pitchfork’s edit process. And along the way, he makes some salient points about the economy of music criticism in 2015. He argues:
“Blogs are trying to keep the eyes, literally by the second. This means constant, non-stop content and reviews of pieces of art that are lauded for being first, not fair. How could a writer, any writer, take in an album that took us a year or two to put together, in one day? One week? They couldn’t. So they rely on personal bias and past musical knowledge to fill in the blanks…. They rush their reviews, so they make assumptions and write reviews that are factually incorrect. They take lyrics completely out of context and judge them for the world to see, all because they didn’t have the time to let the lyrics sink in.”
This is the central conceit of Kweli’s beef with the review: digital media and blog culture don’t allow for measured response to art. There’s some truth to that, but of course, nothing happens in a vacuum. The trend of “surprise” album releases and overall paranoia associated with album leaks results in writers getting much less time with an album before they have to file their reviews. Talib says it’s not possible to “take in” his album in a week, but how much time did he give Pitchfork with his album before it was released? It’s clear that people want to read album reviews close to the album’s release date. So if an artist wants a reviewer to have enough time to “take in” an album, they’ve got to send out advances that early.
That being said, Kweli’s beef with this particular review seems to be warranted. The most serious accusations, that Reeves made three factual errors — misattributions of a speech by 9th Wonder, a verse by MK Asante, and beats by Khrysis — are valid, and Reeves has admitted as much. (While the errors have been fixed, there is no mention of the correction on Pitchfork’s site. Pitchfork staff did not respond to our request for comment on the changes.) The lesser infractions — false assumptions Reeves made about the origins of the album’s title and whether or not Kweli and 9th Wonder intended for it to be a compilation — may personally offend Kweli, but they betray more hubris than any sort of malice. Most importantly for someone reviewing hip-hop music — especially the often lyric-centric brand of hip-hop that Kweli makes — decontextualizing lyrics to serve an argument is almost unforgivable.
Reeves uses the line “promoters will walk me right to a table and be like this is your spread” as evidence that Kweli’s “humble brags” were “perfunctory.” But as Kweli points out, if you consider the line with the surrounding bars, it takes on new meaning: “Pull up to any club on a moped with some dirty ass Pro-Keds looking lo res / The bouncer be like go head / Promoters will walk me right to a table and be like this is your spread / surrounded by the dope and the coke heads burning candles at both ends.” Kweli describes the bars as “a slightly self-deprecating critique of the ridiculous pretentiousness of velvet rope club culture,” which makes the “humble brag” assessment seem quaint in comparison. No rapper is immune to this. If you cherry pick lines from any rapper, even one as vaunted as Kendrick Lamar (try “Popping pills in the lobby and I pray they don’t find her naked” from “Backseat Freestyle” on for size), they can sound foolish without the context of the verse and song in which it’s delivered.
But moreso than any mistakes one writer at one outlet may have made (and rest assured, we have all made plenty), the discourse between Kweli and Reeves invites us to revisit the nature and purpose of music criticism in 2015. The music industry is a wildly different place from what it was in 1998, when Kweli broke onto the scene with Mos Def as Black Star. Fans used to read reviews to tell them what records sounded like before they bought them. Now, however, they can instantly listen to almost any record themselves — they don’t need critics to use florid language and hyper-specific descriptors to tell them if an album is good enough, because they can decide for themselves. In 2015, reviews written in that old paradigm are written by — and mostly for — romantic music critics.
So what does that mean for the state of the record review? How can critics provide a useful service to an audience that has the world’s music at its fingertips? Well for one, we can be more concise — it’s still faster to read a 500-word review than it is to stream a whole album on NPR. And despite the ubiquitous algorithms that generate smart playlists, artist radio, and the like, people still like to turn to a trusted human source for discovery; great criticism can make you want to listen to artists you’ve never even heard of before.
But when you’re writing about an artist with high visibility, that everyone else is writing about, and that the reader can listen to at the same time they’re reading your review, without paying for either… well, then you’ve got to actually add something to the conversation. Context, insight, and perspective: these are the services that a critic is best equipped to provide. The context in which the album was released, insight into its creation, signifiers, and lyrics, and a measured perspective on what it all means. If we provide that for our readers, then we’ve served our purpose. If we haven’t, then, well…what’s the point?