Making top five lists has been a common pastime for hip-hop fans ever since the genre first became a cultural obsession. Top five emcees, top five albums, top five rap crews, top five producers; the number of potential permutations of this question could easily fuel barbershop debates from now until the earth is ravaged by climate change.
If you’ve ever been involved in one of these debates directly, you’re probably aware they tend to get heated. Hip-hop fandom is inherently passionate, and people are inherently competitive, and when you combine these two things, the resulting cocktail is a toxic yelling match filled with impassioned statements like “Black Thought never gets the recognition he deserves!” and “How dare you say Tupac is overrated?!”
Even as these conversations become increasingly fiery, however, they rarely stray beyond the bounds of civility. Rather than ending in mutiny, involved parties simply dap each other up, go about their days, and wind up having the same conversation a month down the road. There is an implicit understanding among them, that even the most obnoxious participant—the person who just spent the last hour condescendingly yelling about Eminem’s greatness as if this were self-evident—was simply stating the opinion they’re entitled to have. The patience to tolerate the differing opinions of others, provided they're not rooted in some form of injustice, is one of the first lessons we’re taught as children.
Unfortunately, all bets are off when these debates migrate to the internet. The way we communicate online is simply not conducive to allowing contentious debates—even low-stakes ones about hip-hop—to unfold peacefully. Not only has the internet eroded much of the tolerance people possess for differing opinions offline, but a growing number of people seem to be losing their ability to distinguish between purported objectivity and opinions altogether.
Anecdotally speaking, whenever we at DJBooth publish an op-ed, dozens of people flood our mentions on Twitter to angrily inform us that the subjective stance we’ve argued is somehow unambiguously, quantifiably, objectively wrong.
When we recently published a ranking of the “20 Best Hip-Hop and R&B Albums of 2019 (So Far),” for example, we immediately had several people notify us that we “forgot” an album they felt was deserving. In the minds of these readers, the possibility we may have diligently evaluated said album and simply disagreed with their assessment was so unfathomable that its omission from our list was far more likely to have been a flagrant oversight.
Granted, the headline of the piece didn’t explicitly read “20 Best Hip-Hop and R&B Albums of 2019 (As Subjectively Determined By Us, The Writers Who Compiled This List),” but it shouldn’t have had to. Just as this caveat is implied in the aforementioned barbershop debates, it should be implied here, too. The piece is even marked as an opinion on the website.
As briefly alluded to earlier, much of this problem can be attributed to the ways in which the internet has distorted our communication patterns. These well-documented paradigm shifts all play a profound role in producing the types of hip-hop fans who pejoratively label any opinions they disagree with as “clickbait.”
Studying the rising tide of sensationalist artist fan clubs, for example, it’s hard to deny that the people who comprise these communities embolden one another in their niche online circles. People get carried away leaning into their fandom on Twitter, grow fond of the sense of oneness this produces with a particular community, and before they know it, they’re operating six burner accounts, accusing every outlet that gently criticizes the artist they worship of “clout chasing.”
Take "The Barbz,” for example, Nicki Minaj’s powerful faction of online supporters. In their eyes, Nicki is a perfect person who can do no wrong, so opinionated criticism simply doesn’t factor into their worldview. A journalist may levy a relatively innocuous thought, like “it would be [dope] if Nicki put out mature content,” and The Barbz will mobilize to defend their queen in the harshest terms, forgetting that this is merely an opinion the journalist is entitled to express.
Simply ask Wanna Thompson, who received thousands of angry messages from Nicki's fans after expressing this exact sentiment last year. She may as well have denied the validity of the Pythagorean theorem because how The Barbz revolted, you’d think the statement she’d made left just as little room for debate. As these militant fan communities continue to spring up around artists going forward, this problem will only be compounded, furthering peoples’ growing inability to interact appropriately with opinions about their favorite artists online.
Just as foundational a part of this problem, however, is the way consumers interact with the media in today’s perpetually connected world. Articles by the publications we follow are tweeted immediately after “hot-takes” engineered specifically to generate controversy and conversation, creating a Pavlovian response wherein we find it hard to disentangle the two. Popular series like Complex’s Everyday Struggle function as news delivery systems, but exist in the format of debate shows, effectively blurring the lines between objective news sources and editorialized content.
Considering the subtle impacts this changing media landscape must be having on our subconscious minds, it's not hard to appreciate why a consumer might find themselves confused by the intent of a critical op-ed here or there. Yet, as this pertains to hip-hop content, it's a good idea to ask yourself whether you could conceivably imagine having this debate civilly in a barbershop.
If the answer to this question is “Yes,” perhaps it’s not worth angrily trying to discredit decades-old publications or veteran journalists simply because they published an album review you didn’t agree with.