If you had met me six years ago, you would have met a slightly overzealous 18-year-old with very clearly defined opinions about hip-hop. Born in 1990, mostly too late to appreciate the classics when they were initially released, I made liberal use of Ares and Limewire legal payment methods to discover '90s hip-hop treasures like BlackStar and A Tribe Called Quest years before my peers went through their coming of age “hip-hop head” phase in their first year of undergrad. Perhaps placing too much stock in the importance of these early discoveries, I began acting like I was an authority on the genre. Evidently undeterred by a fear of looking obnoxious, I was never shy to tell others why the hip-hop they listened to paled in comparison to my personal, more “refined” tastes. In 2006, for example, if you weren’t listening to Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor, or The Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, I would have probably torn into you about your lack of respect for quality hip-hop and the culture as a whole. It was all a bit ridiculous coming from a middle class, Indian kid growing up in the suburbs outside of Toronto.
Fast forward to December 2014. It’s been almost five months now and, despite massive critical acclaim, I still haven’t taken the time to listen to Common’s latest album. I keep telling myself that I’ll do so one of these days—just as I keep telling myself that I’ll finally give The Roots’ latest concept offering the appropriate level of analytical dedication that only concept albums seem to so demand – I’m just not in any rush, I guess. In 2006, I would have been geeking. In 2014, you’re more likely to catch me listening to Migos than you are to Lupe Fiasco. What the fuck happened to me?!
Don’t get me wrong, I have no interest in reverting back to a time when I was an annoying musical purist, I’m just not entirely sure I could pinpoint when or how the transition happened. Strangely, I do have a very vivid memory of a moment when I was sitting alone in my dorm room listening to Waka Flocka Flame’s "Hard in the Paint" and coming to a realization that my appreciation for the song had transcended the boundary between irony and sincerity. “This song is bringing far too much enjoyment into my life for me to continue claiming that I enjoy it ironically,” I remember thinking, unaware of the floodgates I’d just opened. From the moment I began to evaluate music (hip-hop, in particular) on this sort of scale, I feel like my ability to objectively distinguish the good from the bad began to deteriorate.
Recently, I’ve begun to feel like I’m no longer able to make this distinction at all. Sure, I can tell you which rappers I like and I could likely even explain to you the objective quality that others claim they can discern, I’m just skeptical at the confidence with which other people go around making black and white statements about whether a certain song or rapper is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
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A large part of this is just maturity. When I was young, I had a tendency to be hyper-opinionated about the music I liked because, seemingly, I was using it as a substitute for a fully formed identity. As an adult, I’m more willing to accept the premise that music quality is completely subjective – even if I’m yet to hear a convincing argument as to why Pitbull is musically talented – but I feel like this is one of those arguments that people use disingenuously, disregarding it when they want to hate on the latest top 40 atrocity, but whipping it out when trying to justify a guilty pleasure of theirs. If music is art and art is indeed meant to reflect society and challenge consumers, then there must be good and bad for it to have any meaning.
When it comes to hip-hop, however, the lines have been blurred. As someone who listens to pretty much everything and regularly reads music commentary, I can’t seem to reconcile all the various reasons cited for why someone like Rich Homie Quan should have any place a on a critic’s top ten, year-end list above Vince Staples. Don’t get me wrong, the Rich Gang mixtape is a great time, but there are no traditional metrics of music quality that would suggest that it’s better. But, who the hell am I to say so? Many people who are more qualified than myself; people who get paid to write their opinions about music, seem to think it’s better. And judging by the traditional metrics of valid opinions, their opinions far outrank mine. And what the hell does this say about the relevance of these so-called traditional metrics?
Is it simply that modern hip-hop fans place less emphasis on the importance of lyricism? I’d imagine that this is part of the equation. I feel like there must come a point in every rap fan’s evolution where they realize that if they were to go on Nahright and become a fan of every technically gifted rapper the website posted, their list of rappers to check for would quickly balloon out of control (much like the ego of a writer who makes broad generalizations about hip-hop fans that could just as easily be completely individual experiences). With so many technically gifted rappers emerging every day, a rapper really has to possess some sort of intangible character or charm to distinguish themself from the pack. The problem emerges when critics start trying to judge these intangibles. I’ll read an album review and, rather than critiquing the lyrical content or the originality of the production, the writer will talk about some fluffy bullshit like the artist’s vulnerability or sincerity. I mean, it was already a stretch when music writers (who aren’t musicians themselves) would discuss production techniques, but now we have to deal with reviewers making broad assumptions about how true certain rappers are being to their artistry. It’s just like, ‘HOW THE FUCK COULD YOU EVEN KNOW?!’
Maybe Future’s warbled singing isn’t meant to be demonstrative of his honesty or his emotional state? Maybe he’s just a bad singer and we’ve all over-validated him? I’m not saying he is (or even necessarily throwing shade at his music), I’m just saying that there’s no way for me to know. Either way, I don’t see how these intangible qualities can be graded on a scale from good to bad.
Of course, I’m certain that there’s a ton of real deal Holyfield hip-hop fans who will disagree with me vehemently. I completely anticipate that certain people will read this article and say something like “Nah man, you’re just into that commercial garbage now,” all while listening to the new Wu-Tang record and pretending that it still excites them the way it would have in the ‘90s. But, I also know a ton of former purists like myself; people who used to hate on Chingy like it was their job, who now unironically endorse French Montana with all their heart. I’m certainly not asking for anyone to stop liking French (DON’T STOP, POP THAT, POP THAT), I just think that it’s telling to imagine a scenario where French Montana wasn’t already an established artist and was simply an up and coming rapper trying to submit his music to blogs for consideration. Without the high-budget production value and the character he’s crafted, I doubt that many blogs would post his music. I mean, his rhymes aren’t altogether distinguishable from that of any other struggle rapper.
In fact, I’m sure there’s a lot of struggle rappers with better rhymes than French Montana. In 2014, I’m not sure if it matters one way or the other.
[Hershal Pandya is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He often thinks about Timbaland & Magoo's song "Indian Flute," and imagines the multitude of cultural appropriation think pieces it would spark if it was released in 2015. He writes jokes on Twitter.]