Imagine dining at an exquisite, world-renowned restaurant. You’re dressed, perhaps, in your Sunday best, and you’re ready for a good meal. Instead of receiving the kind of meal you expect, you get a meager burger with cold fries—the sort of meal you could get at a bad McDonald’s. When you send the food back, with hopes of receiving something tastier, the chef comes out and calls you a hater. He walks back to the kitchen. You sit there—hungry and confused.
Although this scenario is a bit overstated, it can serve as a metaphor for hip-hop’s relationship with critique. Because artists (and fans) are so eager to call others “haters,” hip-hop has lost its method for determining the difference between good quality music and subpar music. Quite often in hip-hop, criticism is met with “you just hatin’ cause they got more money than you” or “you just hatin’ cause they shinin’.” Both comments link potentially good criticism with jealousy, which not only absolves the artist of his or her responsibility to produce good music but also vilifies the critic.
Before the internet, cultural gatekeepers such as DJs or magazine writers established standards for good and bad music. In the age of lightning-fast tweets and reactions, however, die-hard fans and the artists themselves determine whether their content is exceptional. Because of YouTube and other social media sites, an artist can now produce their own music and take that music directly to their fans.
Haters are antagonists: the kind of people who intentionally try to stop others from achieving success. In a hip-hop context, this goes beyond disliking the content or style of an artist’s music; rather, it’s saying awful things about a person without cause, without a real argument against the art.
Today, there are a massive number of haters on the internet, people who take personal shots at artists through YouTube comments and other methods of trolling available on social media. Haters produce the sort of commentary that chastises instead of corrects; their comments are often emotional, lacking a line of reasoning. Although rappers like to play tough about the hating they receive, they come to realize, as even a middle school bully does, that the whole “sticks and stones” rhyme isn’t necessarily true. They realize that words hurt, and their music doesn’t necessarily shield them from being hurt by others’ comments. In fact, the music, being something that artists pour all of their time, effort and creative energy into, makes those comments especially hurtful.
This humanity has produced hip-hop’s fear of critique. Artists are fearful because it’s difficult to recognize if someone is offering a legitimate criticism—something that could actually help the artist make better music—or if they are simply being hated on without reason. Fans are fearful because they simply don't want to stomach the notion that others don't feel the same way about an artist that they do.
There are ways to solve this problem, despite how difficult that might seem. First, when offering legitimate criticism, it is best for a person to be specific about what he or she doesn’t like about a song, album or artist. This is more insightful than “not liking” the product at all, or offering up a simple “this sucks” or “garbage.” If an artist is told his or her hook needs to be better, that provides the artist a starting place for improvement. If this sort of specific critique were thoroughly explained without harshness, it becomes constructive criticism, not hating.
Secondly, if a person offers critique, they should always try to balance the scales and provide a positive. It is very rare that anything is entirely bad. It might be the mix or the hook that wasn’t up to par, while the actual rapping showed promise. People are more likely to accept criticism if the good parts were recognized, just as—or before—the bad parts. This process requires an investment to see beyond the obvious missteps and recognize the potential of the artist and the music they want to create. It also produces something that is more in line with the truth.
Haters have always been around, but the anonymity of the internet provides camouflage. In the past, it took a certain amount of courage to speak your opinion in a public forum since you likely had to be seen in order to do so. Nowadays, any Twitter account with an egg avi has the ability to offer negativity without anyone knowing the person involved.
Criticism can help an artist develop, and every artist ought to be interested in whatever improves his or her craft. It helps to have a second opinion or sparring partner to sharpen your edge. This benefited crews like the Wu-Tang Clan, who went through series of rough drafts and even battled just to get on RZA beats. In the 2016 documentary The Art of Organized Noise, André 3000 laments on how Rico Wade’s lukewarm responses to his verses pushed him to become a better emcee. When an artist doesn’t have a second opinion, it can serve as a precursor to a disaster, yet ironically, we fear the feedback of others and when it happens, we can be hurt by it. It’s a big risk to put music out without filtering it through a checks and balances system and have the world judge it. An even bigger risk is admitting when your feelings have been hurt since hip-hop is a genre known for its tough skin.
The worst thing hip-hop can do is run from constructive critique. When you assume that you're correct, and don't get criticism from any other person or point of view, you miss out on opportunities for growth and improvement. Critique may lead to an awkward exchange, but it can also make your product stronger as a result. The challenge in receiving criticism is to not take it personally. There’s a stark difference between “you suck as an artist” and “this song of yours sucks.”
We all have opinions, and we all criticize. It doesn’t make you a hater, it just makes you human.
By Joe Stu. Follow him on Twitter.