We Are Not Friends: On the Relationship Between (Hip-Hop) Artists and Critics

Let me be clear: this is not another thinkpiece about Lizzo or her comments on who should be allowed to write critically about music.
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You may not know the name A.O. Scott, but you should. Since 2004, he’s served as a chief film critic for the New York Times, passing judgment over everything on the cinematic spectrum from Marvel superhero sagas and family-friendly blockbusters to low budget thrillers and arthouse fare. As indicated by the title of 2016’s Better Living Through Criticism, a book-length defense and exploration of the general form, he takes his job seriously even if you don’t.

By operating primarily in the realm of film, an art form with obvious populist parallels to those of music, Scott subjects himself not merely to the wrath of the moviegoing reader, altogether capable of accessing the same work for the price of a ticket or an iTunes download, but to that of the creators. He’s faced calls for dismissal from no less a Hollywood icon than Samuel L. Jackson, who took to Twitter back in 2012 after reading the unimpressed critic’s take on the first Avengers movie.

In a 2017 interview with Canadian literary magazine Hazlitt, Scott summed the situation up in a succinct ethos: 

Echoes of this sentiment came to mind last week when Minneapolis’ multitalented Lizzo reacted online to a less-than-gushing Pitchfork review of her latest album Cuz I Love You written by the gifted Rawiya Kameir. Her now-deleted tweet prompted a lot of commentary both on the platform and off, even as she appeared to back away from its strident sentiments mere hours later.

Let me be clear: this is not another thinkpiece about Lizzo or her comments on who should be allowed to write critically about music.

This is so much bigger than any one viral outburst and the subsequent response. We’re past all that. Instead, I’ve come to dispense with some of the bullshit in the music industry ecosystem that, like it or not, we’re all a part of. This is by no means the first essay to discuss or debate the dynamic between artists and those who review their art, nor will it be the last. But given how muddled and ill-informed the public perception of the critic has become in the prevailing social media and streaming music age, it seems worthwhile to offer some level of enlightenment.

The headline of this piece should have made my position, one nurtured and defended over a roughly 20-year writing career, very clear. Artists and their critics are not meant to be friends or, for that matter, really even all that friendly with one another. The tension between creators and critics which Scott cited as crucial is indeed just that—an essential dynamic that preserves integrity on all sides, including that of the listener, reader, and in this pivot-to-video age, the viewer.

Respect and civility are desirable and, in most instances, quite easily attainable. Still, those who enter into the field of music journalism in the hopes of cozying up to celebs or becoming besties with their favorite rappers have committed one of the stupidest sins of this often stupid business.

By definition, the twin roles of the music press—as objective reporter of news or subjective evaluator of the art—leaves no good place for the social climbing suck-up or the starstruck rube. While enjoying and declaring one’s enjoyment of a particular performer or songwriter is not in itself antithetical to the music critic’s job description, crossing the line into unadulterated fandom is a downward slide which leads invariably to sloppy, pandering work.

Admittedly, it can prove a kind of minefield operating on either side of that professional relationship. Third party gatekeepers like editors, publicists, and record label representatives have their respective goals and motivations, and simple email etiquette can quickly digress into chumminess and expectation. If we can accept that as truth, then it’s not much of a logical leap to suggest that same thing applies to artists and critics. Beyond what’s necessary to get a good story and get it right, we critics ought to keep our distance for the sake of the work.

"Access journalism," a catch-all term that describes contemporary music journalism disturbingly well, often strips away the critical voice in exchange for favors and favoritism. That VIP guest list spot at the big concert, the private jet flight to Wyoming for the exclusive album listening event, a guaranteed first crack at an interview—these perks fuel an editorial strategy prevalent at a lot of publications, especially those that pay their staff and freelancers less than they ought.

Like the aforementioned fawning fandom, this too is toxic to the aims of criticism as both service and art form. It erodes the buffers between these worlds, preventing writers from seeing the forest for the trees or from noticing when said trees are on fire. As a result, you end up with softball Q&As, gentle album “reviews,” and coverage that generally seems cut-and-paste off of press releases.

That superficial level of engagement with art consequently hinders our ability to speak freely and fully about it, leading to a diminished and eroded cultural conversation rather than one full of lively, robust disagreement and discourse. It also leaves a poor record of this work to look back on, threatening the legacy of a diverse and vibrant time in hip-hop and music generally.

Relationships based on access and friendship instead of professional courtesy and even semi-mutual respect don’t do the artists any real favors either. Without an open field for criticism, bubbles form around artists, insulating them from ideas that might actually benefit their work or augment their process. It would be better for creatives to grumpily dismiss us critics outright than be left to think we’re all deeply in awe of them.

Sensitivities around one’s art are to be expected, especially given how conceivably hard it is to create a mixtape or EP or album or live concert experience. But when you have Chance The Rapper’s team compelling MTV to recant a gentle dig or else lose his support indefinitely, something has gone horribly wrong.

Artists have the absolute right to respond to their critics. The nature of those responses ought to be considered and weighed, given a cross tone or sweeping declaration often only increases the exposure of the so-called bad press and prompts further media and social coverage as others weigh in. This is the trade-off of our respective positions: artists with fandoms and bully pulpits; journalists and critics with Google-optimized platforms and the ability to publish in real time.

Online stan culture adds a third dimension to threatening the ideally tense dialogue, providing social media amplification and ease to the long tradition of Letters To The Editor. But even more pernicious and sinister is when writers bend to the will of vocal fandoms or otherwise ingratiate ourselves so as not to upset these proverbial hives. Kanye West may never read a review of his Coachella Sunday Service, but you can bet that any number of his fans will. If pleasing or displeasing that fan base factors much into how the piece is pitched, written and edited, that’s a red flag.

Hip-hop heads know there’s an ugly side. There are stories turned legends of rappers storming The Source’s offices seeking blood in the 2000s. Before Joe Budden became a podcasting hero, he physically cornered a Complex staffer who hadn’t been kind to him in a particular piece. Well before that, Dr. Dre’s inexcusable assault on Dee Barnes in 1991 over an interview she did with his former N.W.A. cohort Ice Cube stands as one of the darkest examples of how ugly things can get. Her descent into apparent poverty coinciding with his rise to Forbes Hip-Hop Cash Kings status seems especially cruel and unjust.

Despite Samuel Jackson’s wishes, A.O. Scott has continued to cover the Marvel Cinematic Universe up through the just-released Avengers: Endgame. That film review, plus all the others he’s filed over the years, comprise a living critical narrative of these works, one that will no doubt continue with assessments of Spider-Man: Far From Home, Black Panther 2, and whatever else the comics crossover powerhouse has in store.

Music criticism can be an art form, and like all such forms, it can be done poorly or inelegantly. Even still, if musicians, rappers, singers, and producers dislike how our art depicts or engages with theirs, that's fine. Writers are not tools of the promotion machine unless they let themselves be. We're not all here for the same reasons and the sooner both sides realize this, the sooner we can all get on with our damn work.

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