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While nothing on this list is as egregious as choosing Vol 3 as the best Jay-Z album (a choice that bent the notion of art’s subjectivity to its breaking point), creating a list of the best MF DOOM albums and not topping it with either Madvillainy or Operation: Doomsday is still kind of baffling.
Really, these album ranking lists are pretty damn genius. Not because they produce compelling, thoughtful music journalism (which they don’t), but because they provide an endless stream of easy, antagonistc content guaranteed to generate lots of pageviews and indulge in that classic rock critic conceit of flying in the face of stodgy, old-guard consensus and championing unlikely, overlooked, perhaps even maligned albums as some form of punk rock contrarianism.
Mind you, I’m commenting, so I’m by no means above the cheap thrill of getting into pointless arguments about pop culture ephemera, and flinging the faux-outrage like it’s going out of style, but I at least have the decency to be ashamed of it.
In fairness, using a boner to draw attention IS a lot edgier than going the traditional route of tits, ass, or a potent amalgam of the two.
But seriously, I don’t think the Death Grips ethos is “Shock/Disgust With Meaning”, it’s just “Shock/Disgust”. That’s not even a critique, but just saying that they exist (at least in their minds) as some sort of flailing dervish of “fuck you” energy meant to strike at anything smooth and shiny.
I actually kind of appreciate their willingness to just be antagonistic for the sake of being antagonistic. They aren’t “clever”, and I think there’s some value to acts that just rage to rage, and demand that you pick a side in the eternal struggle between order and chaos. The fact that most of us are going to fall on the side of order doesn’t mean that being forced to make the choice wasn’t valuable as a form of self-accounting.
I think there’s a definite bias for female pop, which is why most of the big budget pop artists you see get major love on indie sites (Swift, Beyonce, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, even Perry to some extent) are ladyfolk. Not to be too much “That Guy”, but I think there still exists to some degree a sense that women’s music is intrinsically vapid/superfluous, so a female musician pumping out an unapologetic stream of high fructose corn syrup is unlikely to be seen as a detriment, and in some ways more honest. The irony is that most defenses of this kind of music tend to paint critics as themselves sexist, since they have an issue with “girly” music, the notion being that shallow, unthinking perspectives on relationships are inherently the domain of young women.
There’s more of an expectation placed upon young men to come with depth and substance, that there’s a deep pop music legacy for men to live up to, regardless of their genre. So when you have somebody like Flo Rida, or Chris Brown, who make music that’s functionally identical to their more respected female counterparts, they’re shunned relentlessly.
I mean, hell, look at the two albums in this article that are being used to exemplify the return of “good music” to the pop charts. You have Kendrick, who has created an ALBUM (caps intended), something that demands repeat listening, that fans have banded together to deconstruct and analyze and digest, because it’s such a rich piece of narrative that drips with specificities of time and place and circumstance. On the other hand, you have Swift, and the debate more or less peters out at “How many hit singles do you think the album has?”.
While a lot of critics love (or at least have a respectful tolerance of) Lady Gaga, the notion of her possibly sullying the Kendrick album has repeatedly been a point of admitted concern in most reviews of GCMC. We recoil at the notion of that superfluos girliness creeping into our “art”.
And the point isn’t that all music critics are raging sexists, but there are certains gender roles that are just hard-coded into our perception of pop music, without us even really recognizing them most of the time. The solution isn’t for all of the beardy music dudes to have a big masturbatory forum and discuss gender roles in music criticism, but just start hiring more women for these sites, who are obviously going to want/appreciated different things from their music than guys do. It’s the same way the whole “rockist” discussion in the early-aughts didn’t result in a greater diversity of voices writing for the sites/magazines, but the same 20/30-something middle class white dudes making believe they really connected with the new Jill Scott album.
So, yeah. That’s my long-winded, kind of inflammatory answer to your question.
Death Grips is a group that has absolutely, positively zero commercial/pop prospects, so it’s not as though this was a band that was “finding its voice”, with MC Ride showing up as a judge on The Voice a few years from now. They were never going to soundtrack an iPad commercial, they were never going to perform on Fallon, they were never going to do anything more than be a niche group that some people loved to death for their uncompromising punk/noise/pseudo-anarchic nature, and other people just found shrill and obnoxious.
Now, though, they’ve afforded themselves a huge dollop of anti-establishment “cred”, and will spend the next year making decent money traveling the world and playing alternative shows/festivals, further shoring up that diehard fanbase that they’re going to need if they have any hopes of making this project a long-term career choice. This literally couldn’t have worked out better for Death Grips.
Also, a major label tut-tutting “marketing and publicity stunts” is 1) epic LOLZ, and 2) a great example of why major labels are dying/dead. We’re in a weird era where artists have become more ruthless/savvy at knowing how to market and exploit their image than the labels are. The idea that you’re going to take a 17 year old and groom them into a pop star is so painfully antiquated, when that 17 year old has been studying Grimes and Lil B and The Weeknd and has already crafted their own dense mythology and attracted a substantial social media following. To be an effective “music first” company, you need an ecosystem of “music first” musicians to seek out and develop, of which there are none in 2012.
This is dramatically superior to 99.78% of the awkward indie pop/southern rap collaborations that have been immaculately conceived in the last year or so, even if just because it’s an actual song and not just some lazy rapping atop an overproduced synth track.
Plus, Little Dragon were already making music that would fit pretty comfortably under the Dungeon Family umbrella. For as much as people talk about hip-hop becoming a more expansive, experimental genre, I think more of the credit goes to alternative/college/indie rock gravitating heavily towards the sounds and rhythms of rap. It’s crazy how, in just under 10 years, the sound of traditional guitar rock has become antiquated to the point of evoking nostalgia when it does show up. I mean hell, Questlove, a DRUMMER for a RAP GROUP, is probably the most well-known, revered instrumentalist in modern music, which is awesome and mind blowing for so many reasons.
This is a genuinely fascinating piece of news. My guess at to the cause of this shift:
1) As people have already mentioned, music sales are predominantly the realm nowadays of older folks, who aren’t familiar with torrents or streaming services. It’s why artists who are legends (Bruce Springsteen) or who emulate the style/sound of legends (Adele) absolutely dominate the charts, even though they may get only a fraction of the press that hipper, more progressive acts get.
2) Modern music is frequently created, marketed and fawned over specifically because of its transient, disposable nature. People are less concerned with building music libraries and more interested in just keeping up with the near-biblical deluge of new stuff that gets thrust upon them on a daily basis. Remaining “part of the conversation” is fundamentally incompatible with engaging music on a deeper (read: slower) level. Music has always been about identity politics, but today it doesn’t have time to be anything BUT identity politics, which strips away any real archival purpose or value.
3) Simply put, the last few 5 or 6 decades have produced a shitton of music. It’s always asked “Who DOESN’T already own _______”, but the answer is “The vast majority of people”. Aside from the fact that we’re still sifting through music made before any of us were even born, even the most “pop standard” records are still unheard/owned by the vast majority of people, especially the youth. There are always going to be new generations of 13 year olds looking to engage more intimately with the world and turning to The Ramones, or Bob Marley, or Run DMC to do it. There are always going to be parents looking to introduce their kids to “real” music via The Beatles, or Dylan, or Earth Wind & Fire.
In a way, I would love for there to be just a “Year Without Media”, where no new music/movies/television/books/comics/video games etc. were produced, and all people could do is take a breath and begin sifting through the impossible backlog of stuff our culture has piled up in the last half century. Give all the professional artists a modest salary to just take the year off, let them recharge their own batteries, get off of the grind of working without respite just to keep the lights on. I promise you that we would come out of it a calmer, more sane, more thoughtful society, even if just for a bit.
For me, the frustration stems from the sense that there seems to be no real place for qualitative judgement within hip-hop nowadays. It’s annoying when it feels as though rap is the one genre where you’re not allowed to call people out for simply not being very good at it.
Maybe it’s “old-fashioned”, but I’m very firmly of the belief that there’s a genuine skill to performing a rap vocal. That’s not to say that there’s one singular “right” way to do it, or that virtuosic technical chops should be the singular judge of a rapper’s quality, but it’s a skill, and it’s something that few people can do well, and very, very few people can do great.
However, rap music as a genuine art form, a valid form of musical expression, has been increasingly on the decline over the last few decades, and that devaluation has peaked in the last 5 or so years. Rappers give away mountains of music for free, successful producers are essentially just great marketers, manufacturing a simple, easily replicable style that they can pump out fast and cheap for whoever comes calling, and the idea of taking pride in your craft is treated as luddite, by both artists and (most depressingly) critics. The actual musical output of a rapper is entirely secondary to what they represent, and how think piece friendly they are to bloggers starved for content (see: Lil B, Kitty Pride, Riff Raff, Chief Keef etc.).
The truth is, I have no problem with kids who just want to dick around and craft some goofy throwaway rap to entertain themselves and their friends, but it bothers me when this stuff is hoisted up as “very important” by people who should know better, and due to their platform, have the power to shape the conversation about this musical genre. Call it elitist if you want, but for me it’s about still holding onto the belief that hip-hop music actually means something, and that for a lot of “older” listeners (I’m 29), was a real, substantive influence on the most malleable years of their adolescence. It saddens me that a lot of younger listeners will never understand hip-hop as anything but throwaway music, or as just a sounding board for antisocial behavior.
I don’t want for people to not have fun, or for kids to not be able to shape the music to better reflect the wants and needs of their own generation, but I simply want people to care, and to do it with passion and love, and not just as ironic blog-bait or half-assed tumblr filler. Why is it so wrong to want rappers to rap good?
I’m not that bothered by there being such a strong consensus opinion about this album, because, well, it’s the internet. Choose anything, ANYTHING and there’s a near-universal consensus about it being either brilliant or pandering garbage, accompanied by a small yet vocal troupe of contrarians who accuse the opposition of being a bunch of easily-herded hipsters.
That’s part of the problem with being a “pop culture” person, in that you forfeit your ability to engage with art in an unhurried, organic manner, lest you not be “part of the conversation”, which seems to always be dishearteningly short for music that’s ostensibly so foundation-rocking. I mean, everybody seems to have already forgotten about that “game-changing” Fiona Apple record, which has only been out a few weeks. Most people probably don’t even know it exists.
As for Frank, after a few listens myself, my snap judgement is that it’s one hell of a record, but it doesn’t feel like a record built for snap judgement. This is life music, where you know it’s always laying in the cut, waiting for those moments when it can pop out and soundtrack your life in a way that makes reality feel just a bit more real. These are songs that deserve to be appreciated sporadically over a 6 – 8 month span, not just gorged on via laptop speaker over the course of a 24 hour bacchanalia. Great music isn’t an end to itself, but a means of augmenting existence, bringing beauty to the drain and mundanity of everyday life. We do it no service by rendering it nothing more than a trendy “lifestyle accessory”, as a cheap and easy form of cultural cache or as cynically experienced tweet-bait.
I’m sort of shocked to see El-P, and the NY underground scene in general, getting so much positive ink within the “hipster-hop” blogosphere of late.
It always bothered me that the “next generation” of hip-hop writers who began funneling in during the early aughts, and brought rap criticism to what had previously been largely segregated (both musically and racially) websites and publications, felt this reflexive need to tear down the critical darlings of the past, who were overnight recast as being mechanical, joyless, luddite and, worst of all, only listened to by white people (because if there’s one thing that white, male, college-educated music critics absolutely loathe, it’s the notion of rap music that appeals to white people).
I don’t get the impression that this need to bury the past was unique to that era, or to rap criticism specifically, but this instance had an especially nasty anti-intellectual undertone to it. The breadth of acceptable subject matter for a mainstream black musician, hip-hop or otherwise, has always been pretty narrow, and seeing media outlets suddenly blast “backpack” or “conscious” rap for not being “fun” enough, and being too concerned with the horrendously fucked-up state of the black community instead of just letting their hair down, popping some bottles of overpriced liqueur and making vague, nonspecific threats of violence to any brown folk who dare impede their moneymaking potential, was more than a little unsettling. I never understood the dissonance of “indie”-worshiping music outlets shitting on rappers for failing to be commercial enough.
But now, after this decade of critics hammering down on any moderately-ambitious or intellectual rap act and propping up guys like Wayne as the new black music geniuses of our era, we have a rap landscape where people like Big Sean, Tyga and MGK can not only become stars, but have to be taken seriously as “pop musicians”. It’s like the mainstream rap landscape has become such scorched earth that even the dudes evangelizing “Purple Haze” as this generation’s equivalent to “Songs in the Key of Life” have been forced to call bullshit and retreat back to the relentlessly un-commercial sounds of the past.
Great art movements are always a reaction to times and places plagued by really horrendous social, cultural or political conditions. When you consider that the original “backpack” movement was a reaction to the waning days of the Clinton administration and the “Shiny Suit” hip-hop era, which in retrospect weren’t all that terrible, the hip-hop born from this current morass of cultural and political turmoil has the potential to be some genuinely revolutionary shit. Though not overt in it’s influences, the general sentiment of that Killer Mike album feels like the first great rap record of the Occupy era, and I’m excited to see what comes next.
New Girl is a genuinely entertaining show, but by doing shit like this, you make me look like an overly precious twee-pologist when I defend it. It’s like, you’re actually talented, pretty and likeable, so why do you keep attaching yourself to reductive, stereotypical tripe like this?
“Adorkable” is going to follow you to your grave, Ms. Deschanel. Your pastel, found object constructed grave.
I think that the mistake you’re making is in looking to art and art critique expecting for them to exhibit absolute, quantifiable value, which they simply don’t have.
That’s in no way, shape or form a knock on art/criticism, but just an honest assessment. I personally think that art is incredibly valuable, and there is in turn value to assessing it and trying to figure out how or why it moves us on a more granular level, but it’s not something that has “obvious” societal value like, say, a doctor curing an illness, or a teacher conveying information about math and history. Art is something that permeates every moment of our existence, shapes the way we look at the very nature of life, but does so with such frequency and in such an innocuous manner that it’s rendered invisible, or outright meaningless, to many if not most people.
What a good culture critic is able to do is make art just a bit less invisible to us, suss out the things that are interesting, or comb the obvious to perhaps find hidden depths. So much of why we see value in things like science and engineering is because of their ability to improve our “quality of life”, and yet we have a tendency to think of that in only the most binary, absolutist terms (rich/poor, sickness/health, life/death). The idea that our internal lives, our emotional health, our imaginations, our capacity for empathy etc. are inherently invaluable, or superfluous, is to throw a huge part of what defines every human life, from the most destitute third-world slum dweller to the most bourgeoisie Westerner, completely out of the window.
Now, am I saying that every last long-winded Pitchfork article or snarky tweet is advancing the human condition? Of course not, but most of human life is just spinning your wheels and/or taking small strides towards hopefully stumbling upon something genuinely great or revelatory. Every “important” idea is built on the charred remains of petty squabbles and wrongheaded conclusions, and the internet/social media nowadays just makes it such that we get a front row seat for all of these bloopers and boners that used to remain hidden, or were confined to small, insular social circles. The fact that we’re privy to all of the messiness and “I could write that” moments doesn’t mean that there isn’t still value in having people who can dedicate their lives to thought and analysis.
I hope you don’t construe this as an attack on your original post or anything. I love people who question things at the most basic level and feel the need to rationalize what feels like an impossibly irrational world. It’s simply that I’ve struggled with a lot of these same ideas and figured I would add my two cents, and give you a perspective that might help clarify your own feelings.
Wow, it’s….wow. I have trouble believing that this song even exists.
For anybody that watches 30 Rock, this is more or less equivalent to last week’s episode where Jenna wrote a song that was so self-consciously bad that it could never be parodied by Weird Al. Maybe Madge is still stinging from “Like a Surgeon” and decided to just head Al off at the pass.
Actually, I’m black, so my mentioning of “Coronoa-addled white dudes” isn’t due to any sort of hatred of Skrillex personally (as I mentioned, my knowledge of his music is cursory, at best), but simply indicative of my broader hatred of all white people. You made the mistake of confusing my general racism for music snobbery, which offends me deeply.
But seriously, like rskva mentioned, critiquing Corona doesn’t make you a beer snob, any more than critiquing McDonald’s makes you a foodie. When I drink, I personally prefer tastes other than corn and metal in my beer, but that’s just me.
I’ll be honest in saying that I know very little about dubstep, and have no business judging the artistic merits of Skrillex vs. any other laptop warrior fueling this sort of sweaty, drug-sauna bacchanalia, but two points worth making:
1) Why is it that people are always “shocked” when someone takes a nuanced genre of music, reduces it to its most obvious, visceral components, and proceeds to make millions selling it to Corona-addled white dudes? Isn’t that typically just refereed to as “pop music”? It’s weird to me that this eternally replicating phenomenon always launches a million think pieces and conflicted hand-wringing from the music intelligentsia, as though it’s not the same basic formula being repeated over and over and over again.
Music for most people is JUST entertainment. People just want something fun and danceable to soundtrack their parties, or their drive home. I know that’s obvious, and it sounds patronizing in a way to point it out, but it being obvious doesn’t seem to stop the people from always being outraged by it.
2) With that in mind, there’s really no purpose for these “establishment defense of a cultural pariah” articles. I swear that anti-snobbery is the new snobbery, where having a deep, unironic love of Britney Spears is likely to generate less eye rolls than saying you enjoy Belle & Sebastian.
Art that’s dumb, obvious and immediate is never going to want for an audience, and to reprimand people who seek something more for daring to have standards or expectations is essentially speaking power to truth. Skrillex, or Rhianna, or Coldplay or whoever don’t need bandwidth wasted in defense of them, because the millions of people who buy their records and/or go to their concerts are already damn effective at giving these artists validation.
As a black dude (or, well, a mixed dude; black dad, white mom), I think that most of the points being made by Bobby Barlett are more or less valid. The argument might be getting made in a condescending and/or overly-presumptive manner, but they echo a lot of the feelings I’ve had regarding the trumpeting of this sort of, uhh, let’s say “post-lyrical” trap rap on sites like Stereogum and Pitchfork that (pardon my presumptions) aren’t being widely trafficked by rugged street soldiers.
Now, as someone who loves hip-hop and, by default, has a high-tolerance for nihilistic ignorance (pre-Infamy Mobb Deep is probably my favorite group, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have Flockaveli on my iPod), I’ve always rejected the idea that black artists have some overriding responsibility to be “positive”. There’s plenty of bad to be found in the “black experience”, and white-washing the unsavory aspects of that don’t make it any better. You could even make the argument that rappers from the southern trap scene, or stuff like Pill’s infamous “Trap Goin Ham” video, actually do a service of showing how brutal the living conditions are for literally millions of our fellow citizens, people who have essentially no voice and even less power.
However, being brown in this country forces you to be astutely aware of how you’re perceived, and how little of that is based on your own individual actions or demeanor. It’s difficult as a black person to look at somebody like Waka as an individual artist making individual music when you know that the image presented and statement being made jibe so cleanly with many, many people’s preconceptions about who we as a people are. In turn, there’s a natural tendency to wonder if white listeners find this music engaging from the perspective of it being a unique, individual artist documenting their own experience, or if they perceive it to be a more “authentic” black voice because they see it as NOT unique, but widely representative. It’s not a matter of screaming “HURR white hipsters are racists”, but simply a blunt recognition of the fact that the very most well-meaning or “open minded” people can be the ones most guided by paternalistic attitudes towards minorities.
But, whatever. This is an eternally thorny issue in popular music that doesn’t have clear answers or obvious villains. My goal isn’t to say that people shouldn’t be allowed to listen to what they want, or deserve finger wagging for not championing “Cosby rap”. I’ve been reading Tom’s stuff for years, since his “Status Ain’t Hood” days, and respect for his writing is the only reason I’m even wasting my time commenting on a white hipster devil music site like Stereogum. But, it bothered me to see a valid argument buried underneath defensive “I’m not ignorant, YOU’RE ignorant” fist-fighting.