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December 21, 2010

Notice Anything About Hip Hop/Rap Music Criticism Lately?

Why the Quality Hip Hop/Rap Criticism is on the Decline

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

It's a precarious time for hip hop/rap music criticism. In recent years, the overall quality of hip hop/rap music criticism has declined so dramatically that highly judgmental, disconnected and non-analytical, or unsubstantiated “glowing” music reviews have become acceptable. By and large, the main metrics of what defines a high quality music review—objective observation of a piece or collection of music on its own merits, its projected target audience(s), it's entertainment value and/or scholarship value as well as decent writing—are largely being ignored. In fact, increasingly these days, music reviews are being guided more by popularity and appeasement than they are by a genuine or contextual analysis of the merits of a given piece or collection of music.

The causes of the current shape of hip hop/rap music criticism are varied. However, I attribute this plunge in the quality of hip hop/rap music criticism mostly to three factors: (1) the shift in coverage focus and decline in writing quality of the larger, more prominent hip hop/rap media outlets; (2) the stampede of new music bloggers; and (3) the revolving influx of new rappers and other recording artists.

Large Scale Hip Hop/Rap Media Outlets and the Quality of Hip Hop/Rap Music Criticism

Widespread massive declines in advertising dollars (and in some cases, payola-like schemes) have prompted many music publications—print and online—to dramatically change course and look for new revenue streams. Necessarily, as with any "for profit" journalistic entity, this has resulted in a series of cost-cutting measures that have directly led to many corners being cut, notably in the area of music criticism.

Although I have long questioned the qualifications of some hip hop/rap music critics (over the past 15 years), as a whole, I've found most to be at least fairly knowledgeable about hip hop/rap music's history and the current themes of the time. But today, coverage at the larger hip hop/rap music publications have shifted more towards news (in some cases, sensationalism and gossip) and away from quality analysis. Furthermore, the once more prominent music/culture publications no longer have the same sort of revolving revenue streams as they perhaps did more than a decade ago.

Thus, this shift in coverage focus, coupled with the large-scale loss of advertising revenue, means that the larger hip hop/rap media outlets can no longer retain the same number of quality writers (i.e. informed, analytical music critics) as they were once able to. Therefore, to fill this void of writers, most of the larger hip hop/rap music publications have resorted (in varying degree) to using pro-bono (for free!) freelance writers and unqualified “interns” (who may be hip hop/rap music fans, but not necessarily always decent writers or persons with solid hip hop/rap music history backgrounds) to review much of the music being released these days.

Strong writing skills aside, this is not to say that a decent knowledge of hip hop/rap music history is the most paramount qualification for a music reviewer. But the reality is, without some fairly strong sense of hip hop/rap music history, particularly of the eras, sounds, and styles that many recording artists routinely reference today, the corresponding—often critical—context is lost. And without solid knowledge of the corresponding context for a piece or collection of music, a reviewer can easily be led to issue a negative slight against that music, for something he or she simply is not aware of or does not understand, or a glowing remark, for fear of not offending or fitting in.

Now, to be fair, seniority still prevails at the larger hip hop/rap media outlets. Indeed, at those publications, most of the high profile music reviews are reserved for the most senior writers and editors, which, in theory, should assure a higher quality of criticism. But that isn't always the case. In fact, as new hip hop/rap projects either move toward or away from complexity and creativity, and as senior writers and editors grapple with the realities of how their media outlets are actually monetized (i.e. how they get paid), the decline in the quality of hip hop/rap music criticism goes mostly unchecked—even among these otherwise elite writers.

Music Bloggers and the Quality of Hip Hop/Rap Music Criticism

The overall quality hip hop/rap music criticism has also declined because of the stampede of new music bloggers. The sheer freedom of the internet has made it more possible than ever before for individuals to publish their own ideas and observations about music (or anything else for that matter). That bloggers (myself included) have been able to do so as an alternative to what the so-called “tastemakers” have to publish is particularly liberating. And to be certain, there are some really terrific (highly knowledgeable) hip hop/rap music bloggers. However, that being said, from my own two year observation of no less than 75 self-described "hip hop/rap music blogs," most "hip hop/rap bloggers" fall into two categories: (1) highly subjective fans (of one sound, style, group, or other); and (2) lower-skilled writers—the latter being the more typical and severe observation.

As a small number of these "indie" music bloggers have seen their own profiles rise (a fact in no way lost on the larger hip hop/rap media outlets), they have increasingly taken to publishing more formal music reviews. The results are mixed. In a small number of cases, these formal reviews represent some of the most lucid and engaging reviews that I have ever read. Unfortunately, however, in most cases, these formal reviews either poorly echo the tone and approach of the larger hip hop/rap media outlets, or they simply collapse under the weight of overzealous subjectivity, disconnected analysis, and/or poor writing. (Please consider the ramifications that occur when larger media outlets see—rightfully so—many of these bloggers as "readership competition.")

The Influx of New Rappers and the Quality of Hip Hop/Rap Music Criticism

Finally, the third factor that has greatly contributed to the overall decline in quality hip hop/rap music criticism is the revolving influx of new rappers. If this influx was characterized by artists who were mostly committed to creativity and originality, perhaps the state of hip hop/rap music criticism wouldn't be quite as precarious as it presently is. But the number of new acts who stand on their own styles (or even unique interpretations of current trends or styles and trends gone past), compared to the number of those acts who openly carbon copy overworked and less-substance based trends, appears to be rather low. And while everything that is "good" doesn't always find its way to the graces of most music reviewers, suffice it to say, not everything that is "bad" isn't always left out! Therefore, if the sheer number of less informed or less qualified music reviewers has increased; and if the number of new rappers has gone up dramatically; and if the filters—whatever those may be—for permitting more coverage of the "good" and blocking the "bad" (subjective as tastes may generally be) have been mostly neutralized, then it's safe to say that the metrics of what should define a high quality music review have been greatly compromised.

What's Next for Hip Hop/Rap Music Criticsm?

As I outlined above: The shift in coverage-focus by the leading hip hop/rap media outlets (and some of the top bloggers); the use of less qualified reviewers (typically, less skilled writers or pro-bono writers and fans turned bloggers who either lack a solid understanding of the history and fundamental aesthetics and priorities of the hip hop/rap music and beatmaking traditions or are ignorant of it, altogether); and the overwhelming revolving influx of new recording artists (some committed to creativity and originality, others not so much) have all contributed to the decline of the overall quality of hip hop/rap music criticism. Can this unfortunate trend be reversed? Perhaps. But without the demand from hip hop/rap music fans, I don’t think it can be reversed in the near-term.

The Fate of the Outlier Bloggers

Again, there are a number of terrific hip hop/rap music bloggers who are publishing some high quality music criticism. I'm confident that they will continue. But as their profiles rise, the lure of larger media outlets (both from hip hop/rap music and other mass-genre sectors) may prove too strong to resist. Therefore, I anticipate that some of the larger music/culture media outlets will absorb the "outlier" bloggers, i.e. the most intelliglbe, engaging, savvy, and/or creative ones, either by bringing those notable blogs—wholesale—into their networks, or by giving those bloggers paid staff, senior writer, and editor positions. If this happens, and I think it's inevitable (indeed, it’s actually already begun), will these bloggers continue to take the lead, effecting a revival of high quality hip hop/rap music criticism? Or will they ceremoniously conform?

If they conform, expect the number of bandwagon schlock-jobs (read ass-kissing covert promos and mainstream protection), masquerading as music reviews to increase. Also, expect the number of dismissive, disconnected, and often misleading "write-ups" to increase as well. But if these outlier bloggers do keep on track, and let's all hope that they do, then we will soon witness one of the most informative and engaging eras in the not-so brief history of hip hop/rap music criticism.

---
The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

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