The internet has done many great things for music, but not necessarily for traditional music criticism. Print reviews are dead (because people don’t buy magazines anymore); even if they weren’t, most people aren’t really into reading these days (because Twitter and Snapchat and YouTube); and critics are no longer relied on to tell us which albums are worth buying (because we can just stream them for ourselves. And nobody buys albums anyway).
However, the internet has paved the way for a new breed of critic to rise from the ashes of traditional music criticism: someone who reviews an album in front of a camera, uploads the video to YouTube and gets thousands—in some cases, millions —of views. Within this curious world of YouTube music criticism, there are two distinctive camps that have emerged: those who review albums and those who react to albums.
The name—and face—at the forefront of video album reviews is, of course, Anthony Fantano. His channel, The Needle Drop, has attracted a cult-like following through a consistent output of 10-to-15 minute reviews, in which he puts the album in context, outlines the general gist of the project and explains what he does and doesn’t like about it before giving the album a score out of 10. His ratings are as hotly debated as Pitchfork’s (“you’re a bald fucking idiot 6/10 is ridiculous” reads one of the tamer comments on his infamous review of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.).
If Anthony Fantano appears to take a more cerebral approach to music, BigQuint’s is purely visceral. One of the most well-known—and downright entertaining—music reaction personalities on the internet, Quint’s videos are all about capturing the roller coaster of emotions, improvised choreography and stank faces of that first listening experience. A bad song will leave him staring down the camera like Ice Cube in Friday; a good song will make him “woo!” like Rick Flair; a great song will make him ride the holy ghost out of his room and down the hallway. Quint’s chair-breaking reaction to Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” is already a classic.
Somewhere in the middle lies Dead End Hip Hop, a channel that combines Quint’s personable honesty with Fantano’s attention to detail. Dead End’s reviews are conducted as roundtable-style discussions, with long-time hip-hop heads Feefo, Beezy, Kinge and Myke C-Town dissecting the latest rap albums, as well as the topics surrounding them. In their recent review of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., for example, the guys debated the (false) conspiracy theory surrounding another album, the hunger for harder raps from Kendrick, and André 3000’s influence on the record—esoteric things that many mainstream publications haven’t picked up on. Dead End Hip Hop is basically like watching a barbershop debate on YouTube.
With a combined subscriber base that’s nearing 1.5 million, it’s easy to see why channels like The Needle Drop, BigQuint and Dead End Hip Hop have become so popular in recent years.
For starters, the format makes music criticism easily digestible for an audience that’s increasingly consuming video content over text. All, if not most, of these “critics” are independent, so they don’t have to worry about a bad review burning bridges within the music industry (not that you’ll catch us pandering to such politics here at DJBooth). As much as it pains this writer to admit it, video reviews offer a more compelling, human experience than written ones can. You feel a stronger connection—good or bad—with someone when they’re in front of a camera rather than behind a byline. It’s why there’s an entire subreddit, rife with memes and inside jokes, dedicated to The Needle Drop.
But which matters more: reactions or reviews?
“What I try to do with my format...is to show people that it's not a death sentence to put a controversial opinion out there."
Based on popularity alone, Anthony Fantano’s 972,000 subscribers (and counting) would suggest The Needle Drop’s reviews are the most important. Fantano’s reviews are engaging, informative and sometimes hilarious in their brutality (like his review of Big Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise, in which he repeated the word “no” for three minutes and 47 seconds). They also encourage people to think critically about the music they're listening to—or at the very least, put into words how they feel about it. Just browse the comments section on any of his videos.
While his opinions can be divisive and, at times, dubious (like giving ScHoolboy Q’s excellent Blank Face LP a five-out-of-ten), there’s something admirable about the way Anthony Fantano isn’t afraid to bring, say, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo back down to Earth while the rest of music media props it up on a pedestal. “What I try to do with my format...is to show people that it's not a death sentence to put a controversial opinion out there," he said during an episode of hisNeedle Drop podcast.
However, one of the biggest criticisms of Anthony Fantano is his ability to be a fan, which is part of the charm of these YouTube critics. When you’re reviewing more than a dozen albums each month (18 in April alone) in order to pay the bills, how much time is left to simply enjoy the music rather than thinking about what score you’ll give it? Fantano has described his approach to reviewing albums as “workmanlike,” which is a sad reality given how fickle the content cycle is—if you don’t review an album within three days, did you even review it?—but how much does that hinder his job?
Which is where a channel like BigQuint comes in. Quint’s videos are an authentic fan-to-fan experience built on a mutual love—and occasional crushing disappointment, like the time he couldn’t even get through Kid Cudi’s Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven—of music. There’s something strangely satisfying about watching someone wild the fuck out to a song you were wilding the fuck out to just a few days ago (although let's be clear, Quint will never, ever be out-wilded). His reaction videos allow you to vicariously relive that first listen of an album you’ll never get back. And hey, maybe the truest album review is simply seeing how much it makes you scrunch your face and move your body.
Beyond the entertainment factor, BigQuint’s channel is also surprisingly useful when it comes to digesting new albums that you haven’t quite made your mind up about yet. Not because of what he says (as brilliant as his reactions are, his “final verdict” reviews are unsophisticated and unnecessary), but in the way he edits his reaction videos. Those 10-to-15-second snippets of songs double up as a sort of highlight reel of an album, allowing you to get a better grasp of the project in 20 minutes, as opposed to 60 (or however long the album runs).
But of course, many albums deserve—better yet, require—to be studied at length. BigQuint losing his mind to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. is fun and relatable, but stopping there is a disservice to the time, thought and energy put into that album, which has more layers to be peeled back than even the biggest K. Dot stans might think. When it comes to rap albums, specifically, who does a better job of peeling back those layers?
Hip-hop is the most popular genre amongst Anthony Fantano's audience. Seven of the 10 most popular videos on his channel are rap album reviews, with To Pimp a Butterfly sitting on over two million views. However, it’s hard to ignore Fantano’s somewhat sketchy relationship with hip-hop. Growing up, he listened to more punk than rap music and once admitted he had to “learn” how to talk about and review other genres.
“Shit like this irks hip-hop listeners and makes them be like, ‘what qualifies this guy to talk about this stuff?’”
This disconnect sometimes reveals itself in Fantano’s work, like the time he praised Travis Scott’s Rodeo for making modern trap music “album worthy” while panning Future’s DS2, Young Thug’s Barter 6 and Chief Keef’s Finally Rich. “Shit like this irks hip-hop listeners and makes them be like, ‘what qualifies this guy to talk about this stuff?’” writer Craig Jenkins said directly to Fantano while appearing on The Needle Drop podcast last year.
There’s also something inexplicably irritating about watching a guy who looks like a composite sketch of a Williamsburg hipster—the seasonal trendy mustache, the thick frame glasses that sit halfway down his nose—shitting on widely loved rap albums that, let’s be honest, weren’t made for "the internet’s busiest music nerd” to listen to by himself in his living room, even if a lot of his critiques are valid.
With that said, Fantano has never claimed to be an authority on rap music. “I never said I was a hip-hop head; I don’t want to be a ‘head’ for any genre,” he clarified in a video addressing the very subject. He reviews a wide range of music which reflects both his tastes and those of his audience, so maybe you’re the idiot for taking what he says as gospel. After all, his reviews are just personal opinion. “It’s not so much a statement of perfection as much as it is enjoyment,” he said while explaining what constitutes a 10-out-of-10.
Dead End Hip Hop is arguably the most authentic hip-hop conversation on YouTube. Feefo, Beezy, Myke C-Town and Kinge view—and, of course, review—music through the lens of rap nerds, not music nerds, and their language and perspectives reflect that. Beyond the visible hip-hop exterior, Dead End Hip Hop also digs deeper than most dare—or care—to do, particularly when it comes to the intersection of music and race.
In their review of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, the first thing Myke C-Town talked about was the idea of black people being born into a “cocoon” of outside forces that eventually becomes self-imposed, and how other entities pimp that struggle for profit; Fantano called the album’s concept “pretty beautiful,” but never really explained or explored it further (it’s worth pointing out that Dead End gave themselves nine more days to review the album than Fantano, but that’s probably irrelevant).
As insightful as Dead End Hip Hop’s reviews are, you can't help but feel the channel could benefit from an injection of youth from time to time, like their debate on Lil Yachty that didn't have a single teen in the room. As is the nature of roundtable discussions, their videos are sometimes guilty of lacking structure and cohesion. But whatever comes out of their mouths, you know it’s from a place of passion, knowledge and honesty.
Between review channels like The Needle Drop and Dead End Hip Hop, and reaction channels like BigQuint, the kind of music criticism you watch says as much about you as a music fan as it does the music you actually listen to. Which channel you gravitate to depends on what purpose music serves in your life, how deeply you think about music, and how receptive you are to tastes and personalities that may not reflect your own.
The rise of these review and reaction channels also raises bigger questions about music criticism as a whole. Will YouTubers ever truly supplant “professional” music critics who write for respected publications? Should you seek to challenge your opinion or simply reinforce your existing viewpoint? Should you care what any of these people have to say at all?
The best advice is to absorb it all: relish BigQuint’s reactions, sit with Anthony Fantano’s scores and immerse yourself in Dead End Hip Hop’s in-depth discussions—as well as reading your favorite writers. It can only lead to a more informed opinion. Because when it's just you and the music, it’s your opinion that matters the most.