In Defense of the Music Critic

The mere fact someone is getting paid money to write about an artist's music should be a cause for celebration.
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In Defense of the Music Critic, 2019, Lizzo

It seems like nearly a lifetime ago The Source’s “5 Mic” distinction was the universally recognized symbol for creative achievement in hip-hop. In a time when most discourse spurred by an album’s release barely makes a dent outside of the myopic bubble that is Twitter, it’s almost surreal to think about this bygone era, when an album review in a physical magazine held the potential to dramatically influence public opinion, drive album sales, and foster respect among one’s peers.

Considering how much of hip-hop’s rise occurred specifically because of the absence of these gatekeepers, it’s not overwhelmingly surprising rappers have pushed back vehemently against the ceding of this sort of power to an outside force. 

From the moment The Source began to gain cultural prominence, many prominent rappers—everyone from KRS-One to Ice Cube—sought to discredit it, even, on occasion, taking this beef to wax. Unkut published a great breakdown of the contentious relationship between rappers and The Source in 2013.

Incidentally, an important shift occurred while this war was being waged throughout most of the ‘90s: hip-hop took a gigantic leap forward, transitioning from a perceived fad to a complex art form in the eyes of a newfound global audience. To say this transition is directly because of the popularity of The Source would be to confuse correlation with causation, but to act like this publication didn’t play an important role in elevating the perception of the genre to millions of people would be similarly disingenuous.

Admittedly, it wasn’t the first publication to do this, nor did it do so single-handedly, but in many ways, The Source effectively created and standardized an entire vocabulary by which to talk about hip-hop in more formal terms. Critics who wrote for the magazine synthesized trends to contextualize the output of certain artists, eras, and regions; they established the entire framework by which we, as fans, separate the profound from the unremarkable and the timeless from the disposable. You can call it pretentious if you like, but without this framework, hip-hop may have never elevated past its one-time status as a gimmicky playground craft.

Fast forward to the present day, and in many ways, the relationship between rappers and critics remains as fraught as it’s ever been. On Monday, in response to a not altogether unflattering Pitchfork review of her latest album, Cuz I Love YouLizzo incited an uproar on Twitter by posting the following tweet: 

“PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DONT MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED.”

This caveat she offered, suggesting she’d have been more receptive to Pitchfork’s tepid review if Rawiya Kameir—the writer who penned the piece—were also a professional musician, was, quite frankly, bullshit. Hypothetically speaking, if she felt Pitchfork’s review was uncharitable or misrepresentative of her work in some way, it’s hard to envision she’d have been able to derive much solace from the knowledge that Kameir is a master of the grand piano, or something. 

Once you strip all of this away, the point Lizzo was trying to make, quite obviously, was that the only people she personally deems worthy to criticize her work are the people who write unambiguously positive things about it. Perhaps it’s because so many critics took exactly this tone in their reviews, then, that Lizzo’s aforementioned Tweet incited such a concerted backlash among the critical community.

It felt like the perfect time to air out a grievance we’ve been holding onto for quite some time, about how artists in 2019 have a misguided tendency to view criticism as a part of their PR machine. As an important part of the hip-hop ecosystem who continuously contribute to the genre’s status in society, this feels like a bit of a slap in the face. Unfortunately for Lizzo, she got caught in the crosshairs of this profession-wide anxiety that extends far beyond her. It didn’t help matters any that she called for our unemployment, which is a near-constant risk almost all of us are facing in 2019's publishing landscape.

Sensing that her initial tweet hadn’t quite struck the right tone, Lizzo eventually followed it up with a subsequent one that was far more measured:

“THIS IS AN INVITATION TO ALL MY MUSIC JOURNALISTS TO KICK IT IN THE STUDIO WITH ME FOR MY NEXT ALBUM! I’d like to understand your world as much as you can understand mine.”

It’s unclear how sincere Lizzo’s desire is to understand the inner workings of music journalism, but considering I’ll likely never get the chance to “kick it with her in the studio,” I thought I’d write this article to demystify the trade a little. 

If Lizzo were to read this article and take one thing away from it, the most important thing I’d want her to know is: getting into combative tiffs with critics over constructive criticism is how you end up seeming like Eminem in 2019: out-of-touch.

Going forward, a much better path for her is to embrace the criticism she receives, glean constructive suggestions from it wherever possible when negative, and—even when it seems poorly written and objectively wrong—take a moment to remember that the mere fact someone is getting paid money to write about her music should be a cause for celebration in and of itself. 

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