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In Defense of Rap Critics, Defenders of the People (aka I Let J. Cole Down)

Posted by Nathan S. on 07/23/13 | Filed under Opinion, In Defense

It's hard out here for a rap critic. Sure, in many ways life is still good. We get all the perks and benefits of our stature and status. Like, say, thousands of emails from struggle rappers, but let me tell you, we're really starting to feel the heat. From Beethoven to The Beatles to Kanye West, artists and critics have always had a contentious relationship, but it really does feel like there's a rising tide of rapper willing to go on record waving a middle finger at the proverbial rap critics.

Yesterday it was Chance The Rapper, before that Jay-Z said that critics are now irrelevant, and before that, and most openly and honestly, it was J. Cole's mini-Twitter rant. Hang on, because like Bubba Sparxxx, it's about to get ugly:


First and foremost, on behalf of rap critics, I demand an apology. His insensitive and uncouth remarks have wounded us emotionally. And while we're at it, Drake should apologize too, just because I agree with some of what Cole's saying, particularly when it comes to first listen reviews. Back in the good ol' days, we'd get an album weeks ahead of time and really have time to listen and reflect before writing. In 2013, we hear the leak just like everyone else, and trust me, literally hours after that leak, I'm already getting "when is the review dropping?" tweets. The speed with which reviews happen now is cheapening some albums that demand more time to appreciate, but it's really another symptom of the larger, chronic ADD culture. Want it to change? Change how the internet works, and people's relationship to it. Or Cole could always send critics an advance copy of his next album ahead of time...yeah, that's what I thought.

Furthermore, at their worst critics are narcissistic, reflexively negative, and do far more to cheapen and diminish hip-hop culture than support it. Throw in the fact that essentially everyone with access to the internet now has a voice, and the amount of those terrible "critics" are at an all-time high. It's a legitimate problem, although I'd like to point out that you could replace "critics" with "rappers" in the last two sentences and they'd still be equally true.

But allow me my rebuttal.

For good critics, and even ignoring my earth-shattering brilliance there are a lot of good critics out there, their mission is not to criticize, but to be critical. Unlike hardcore fans, who would eat a poo sandwich from their heroes and call it delicious, we have to be willing to say something stinks, if it does. Of course that's going to run counter to what labels, publicists and artists want - who wants anything negative written about them? - but instead of that criticism being against the people, as Cole suggests in his tweets, I'd argue we do it for the people.

While in reality the waters can sometimes get muddied - critics get blinded by their own fandom, or worse get straight up paid - ideally our job is to defend the people from the literally hundreds of other people, including the artist, whose job it is, literally, to separate you from your hard-earned money. Ultimately, I could give a shit if a rapper likes me; trust me, rappers aren't paying my bills. A critics' only allegiance is to the people that read them, those are the people that pay their rent, and those people will only read you if they feel like you're giving them the truth. So I'd like to flip the formula Cole set out and say that rap critics are, much more than rappers, the true defenders of the people.

The challenge in being critical is to not lose sight of the reason you fell in love with music in the first place. (And if you never loved the music in the first place, please, find another job/hobby.) When you're defending the people against the armies of labels/publicists/rappers trying to leech money from them, it can make it hard to just outright say something's dope if it is. But that's why we get paid the big bucks in Subway gift certificates. Because it's hard and, despite what rappers seem to think, it takes real skill, talent and intelligence to do well.

Regardless of a negative or positive review, ultimately it's a critics job to inspire discussion, to prompt readers to look at the music in a different way. I done with that genuine love for the music in mind, those things don't tear down hip-hop, they build it up. No matter how much they may hate us, an artist's worst nightmare isn't a lot of bad reviews. An artist's worst nightmare is dropping an album that doesn't get reviewed at all.

So yes, by all means, be critical of the critics in return. Tell us when we're sucking. But by the same token, the next time you run into your neighbor rap critic, in the actual world or online, take a moment to pat them on the back. We do it for the people. Long live the rap critic.

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