The Curse of Crooked I's Critical Ear

The veteran MC tackles the difficulty of listening to rap music for enjoyment—as a professional rapper.
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It costs a great deal to become a professional recording artist—equipment, studio time, promotion, touring—but not every expense comes with a price tag attached. Just ask veteran rapper Crooked I, who, after 23 years in the game, can no longer listen to rap music for enjoyment without first running through a mile-long checklist to satisfy his critical ear. 

“Sometimes I feel like I’m cursed because it’s so hard to turn off,” he tells me over the phone. “Even with my critical ear, I need to learn to say ‘You know what? Let me come back to this in a couple more weeks and see how I feel.’”

In addition to running through an internal monologue each time he hears a new song, Crook admits he is also donning a judge’s robe, but he can’t help it—judgment is part of his era of hip-hop. Raised in Dogg Pound studio sessions, where rappers were kicked out of the recording booth left and right, Crook had to be critical of himself and everyone around him to earn his place.

Even so, there is one space where Crooked I contends artists of all generations are able to fan out with no recourse: the live show. “You can’t deny that talent and music coming off the stage,” he says gleefully. “That’s one place an artist can fan out and really be into the music, because at the end of the day, we just love, love, love music.”

The last song Crooked I heard and immediately clicked with? Kanye’s “Real Friends.” A moving song with a fantastic beat, Crook’s reaction says it all: “that ‘Real Friends’ was like bam bam bam, boom, bam, aight, good.”

DJBooth’s full interview with Crooked I, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

Take me through your internal monologue when you hear a new rap song.

The first thing that catches my ear is originally, or lack thereof [laughs]. I’m kinda already turned off when I hear somebody copying another rapper’s formula on a song. I know there’s nothing new under the sun, but when a rapper jacks somebody’s adlibs, places them wherever he would place them on the song, or EQs the sound of the adlib to have the same effect, that rapper loses points.

The next thing is the cadence, the flow, the delivery. That’s key because that determines if the rapper can actually rap or not. Not write, but rap. I’m talking voice and breath control and rhythm, finding different pockets in the beat to flow over. When I listen to the song, I wanna know if this guy is really skillful. That doesn’t mean it has to be complex, it can be simple. To me, it’s like the rap and the beat are doing the tango, spinning and gliding and doing different moves. I can kinda hear if you got two left feet [laughs].

Then I would start listening to the writing: what is the rapper saying, how vivid is the picture? Even if it’s a party joint, does it pull me into the party? What words are being chosen? Is the rap so simple that it’s predictable? Am I being offered some perspective? Are the punchlines entertaining? Especially in this era, what’s the vibe? How do these lyrics make me feel?

Then I start listening to the mix because it’s not easy to find great mixers in this era. When Dre was more involved with releases, he set a standard that producers and engineers reached for, but it’s different now. So I don’t expect mixes to be super crispy when I listen, but when I listen I can tell when there could be a little more effort.

I think we are in a climate of DIY-ers, and I think that’s created an environment where things that take a high level are being pushed to the side. It’s good and bad because people that are inspired to do things themselves 'cause they don’t have access … But when the masses start to consume these DIY songs, we start missing out on things like superb mixing and things the engineer would play a role in instead of some guy recording into a laptop.

How do you get it all together and enjoy the music?

Once I do all that, and I try to take the judge robe off—'cause I’m clearly judging—I just put myself in a zone of “I’m not a rapper, I’m not a music creator. How does this really make me feel?” I like the beat, I’m bobbing my head, and I vibe out.

Then I start to put it in different compartments: workout music, studio music, clean up my bedroom music. Then I really start to enjoy ‘em, and that’s probably backward and crazy, but I’ve made categories for my enjoyment. So when I’m driving, I put on my driving playlist and I could fully enjoy that music for what it is instead of just analyzing every single bit. But it’s hard, sometimes I really don’t like it because I am missing out on that very first experience of enjoying something.

How long did it take you to listen to music from a fan perspective?

It took me some time because I was very critical when I started making music, of myself and of others. I felt like if I could be my own worst critic, surely I can criticize the music efforts of others. I come from this era, you know, where we would be in the studio—a lot of my grind was around Tha Dogg Pound. Being in the Dogg Pound sessions, getting the opportunity to get in the booth and spit some rhymes, we used to do compilations back then.

Snoop would come around and there would be a lot of young guys from Long Beach that he was gonna give an opportunity to. So you got all these up-and-coming artists in the studio, and it would become like a revolving door, like “Ah, get out, you’re not good enough.” And I mean, like, these guys were selling millions of records at the time and we were all young in the game and we had to respect their opinion. They were kicking people out of the booth left and right. So in order to not be kicked out the booth, I always made sure I was on point as much as I could be. That’s the era I came from where you had to have thick skin. Everybody wasn’t so super sensitive, it was either dope or it wasn’t.

Then from that era, I was really highly critical of myself first and then I would listen to other people’s music and wonder “Why did that dude just rap off beat? Why is this chord progression just out of key?” It started stinging me like an insect bite when I hear things that are off, then I start looking around the room, wondering if anybody else hears it.

I used to drink—I’m two years sober—and drinking, I thought, helped me take off the artist hat. That helped me to enjoy the music and get into the vibe. That’s what I thought, at least. Things like that, like relaxing, like letting the music take you elsewhere.

Is there a point in an artist’s career where being a music fan becomes impossible?

That’s worst-case scenario because I think it’s easier to be a fan as an artist at a live show. You can’t deny that talent and music coming off the stage. That’s one place an artist can fan out and really be into the music, because at the end of the day, we just love, love, love music. I think with that live element, it’s just easier to be a fan.

How does the experience at a live show differ from when you throw on a pair of headphones?

I think the headphones put me in that cerebral place, you know? I think my intent is to have a good time at a live show so that probably deactivates a lot of the analyzing and overthinking because I’ve already put it in my mind that I’m here to have a good time and just enjoy the music. Now, I will notice things that other people in the audience may not, you know? If he’s holding a mic a certain way, things of that nature, but that’s small. There’s too much happiness, energy, and vibes at a live show.

If you’re just by yourself and you’re focused listening to the music, that’s something different. It’s hard to take that critical ear and turn it off.

Are there any artists or styles of music that you can still just listen to without diving deep, or do you critique everything?

At this point, it’s pretty much everything. Eminem is one of the greatest writers of all times, and I listen to him like “Ah! Why didn’t he say this like this?” Sometimes I feel like I’m cursed because it’s so hard to turn off. Sometimes you gotta let stuff grow on you, you know? I think we digest music too fast in this era. Your favorite rapper puts out an album and two weeks later we’re asking when’s the new one coming out. Even with my critical ear, I need to learn to say “You know what? Let me come back to this in a couple more weeks and see how I feel.”

I think I’m just hooked on the technical side of making music, of rapping or creating beats, I’m just on that technical side so tough, and that’s another reason why I don’t like when music is entirely subjective. We know if a singer sings something off-key, if a band is playing off key, that is objectively bad.

That’s what I try to point out in reviews. If you’re offbeat, you just are. If fans love it, that’s a beautiful thing—but you’re still offbeat.

It doesn’t change that you’re not on beat! All that says is that taste in music is subjective, but the music—no, you’re offbeat, bro, that’s facts. You can’t go scribbling on papers saying “This is better than a Rembrandt because my daughter thinks it’s better.” You can’t do that! You have to have some form of basis to be able to judge what’s going on.

How do you flip this curse and use it as a positive in your music?

By being really critical of myself, you know? There are whole projects of my own I can’t listen to. In anything in life, you gotta continuously learn. You never stop learning in life, so I’m glad I feel this way because it keeps me wanting to learn. I've been in the game a long time, but I believe that the fact that I’m willing to keep evolving and learning is what adds to my longevity. It’s what gives me a 15-year-old fan.

You know I am so protective of my own, I’m so protective of lyricism and hip-hop. I don’t want someone who’s nine years old to listen to ten years of garbage rap and then when he’s 19 think that he’s gotta do it like that. You know, I listened to greats when I was coming up. I think everyone has their own feeling of wanting to protect the artform.

How do you keep from going crazy?

You’re right, you know, that’s when I step outside of myself and I go to people that I trust. If there’s enough people that I trust that are going to give me 100% truth and say “That’s pretty good,” then I can live with it. I go to my circle or just a stranger. I’m really into testing the market. I might catch an Uber and say, “Yo, play this song right here. What you think about it?”

Do you often use the Uber method?

Yeah! I do that sometimes, especially when I have new projects just to see people’s reactions and see how they receive the music. Now I don’t know how true this is, but one time someone told me that Dr. Dre rented out a club and he played some music from what he was calling Detox, just to see. He stood in a VIP area where people couldn’t see him and he just watched. I don’t know how true it is, but it gave me an idea years ago to start trying to see how people receive this music. If they don’t know who you are, they don’t have no reason to lie.

Too many yes men in the game right now, that’s the reason why a lot of the music sounds the way it does. Nobody is telling ‘em! The artist may even want that kind of a realness, but that will never get to the artist because they get rid of people who speak freely. Imagine the projects we would have as fans of rap if there was one voice like that. We got some great projects, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a lot of projects that need that voice.

Have you ever had a moment where you held your tongue and wish you didn’t?

I had a moment where I thought it wasn’t really my place because I was brand new to the scenario, and I thought it wasn’t my place to speak. Once I get comfortable with people and I see what’s going on and I see that they respect my opinions like I respect theirs, I say: “Hey, man, I don’t know if that’s the best representation of you.” I think that some people receive that well and some don’t. Some people have told me “That verse right there, I’ve heard you say verses way iller than that,” and I say “You know what? I’m gonna go back in.” I’m flexible like that, but a lot of people aren’t. There’s times where I listen to old projects from one of my friends in the artist community and I wish I was there to talk them.

What’s the last song you heard that you clicked with faster than usual?

Dang. I tell you, I been really critical of Kanye’s music on The Life of Pablo, [it's] just not the same to me. When I heard “Real Friends,” that one right there, it just was like “Okay, this beat is hot, aww man, I like the way he’s flowing on there! Oh, he’s saying some shit! This shit is dope!” That quick. I love that song and I love when that happens because I’m in fan-mode faster.

I think another thing about our selfishness as fans is we want the people that we think are good to be good every single time. That’s literally impossible. That’s when the subjectiveness comes in when it comes to our tastes. No artist is going to match your personal taste 100% at all times, but we demand that. But that “Real Friends” was like bam bam bam, boom, bam, aight, good.

As a professional, what’s some advice you’d give to fans to not be so disappointed?

Right, I think they gotta really be a little more understanding that an artist is human. They gotta try to put themselves in an artist’s shoes. I hate to keep going back to Em, but I saw a lot of that with the Revival release, and these are his die-hard stans. Me being affiliated with Marshall and Shady Records has opened the door to a lot of stans. They hit me daily because I’m probably the most visible one online from that whole label, and I engage with people more. So, yo! They were like “I hate this beat, I can’t stand this kinda flow! He’s too old for this!” All of these different critiques and listen, this man has sold the most rap albums in the history of history, his fan base is so diverse, to try and please everybody, he’s gonna fail.

So when you listen to the music, understand you’re listening to a megastar who has multiple groups of fans and live different lifestyles, and listen and consume music differently and understand that his task is to try and please all of them. That’s nearly impossible. Enjoy what you enjoy on the album, and what’s not for you, it’s not for you. The end. 

Dear fans, understand that one, we are human. Two, we’re making music for the world and there’s different types of people in the world. Three, I think that you can find beauty in almost anything, but if it’s that horrible to you, don’t listen.

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