What’s good, y’all?
Today I got a topic near and dear to my heart that I wanna write about. It’s everything that’s wrong with music reviews, and it’s a big problem. One of the reasons I started Spit Talking was because I didn’t like most of the music reviews that were floating around, and the hip hop reviews were especially bad sometimes. I decided to enter the field as someone who loves hip hop and isn’t trynna tear down rappers and their life’s work just to get some clicks and some laughs. Let’s see some of the reasons I felt like the world needed (and still needs) different music reviewers.
Reviewing vs Criticism
So music reviews and music criticism are pretty much considered the same thing, but I think the words show there are subtle differences between the two. To me, reviewing music sounds like what I try to do: giving folks an idea of what the music sounds like, making connections to other shit in the genre/in the world, and just generally breaking down what a track/album/video has got going. Criticism, on the other hand, just sounds like the point of the work is to criticize.
Another problem with criticism is what you call someone doing it — a critic. This label definitely goes to people’s heads (see below) and makes people think they’re not doing a good job unless they’re looking for shit to pick apart and they’re trying to tear down every album someone makes. The problem with this is that critics/reviewers don’t make art, no matter what they think. They comment on art. No matter how much a critic tears apart an album, that doesn’t change the fact that the musician put a work of art out into the world, and all the reviewer/critic did was coment on it. People who don’t realize this think that it’s all about them, when it should always be about the music.
Now, these issues are rampant so you can probably take a handful of random reviews (especially hip hop reviews by non-hip hop websites) and find a lot of the shit I’m talking about no problem. Some folks do it more than others though, and just for illustrative purposes I’m gonna point out some good examples that come from folks who almost certainly consider themselves “critics”. Two terribly-done reviews are Pitchfork’s review of Childish Gambino’s Camp, and The Needledrop’s review of Big Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise. The Camp review is basically an attack on Gambino’s blackness/identity in general that only tangentially touches on the actual music. The Dark Sky Paradise review is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life though.
Dude (Anthony Fantano, my new least favorite music critic) literally just says no over and over, with some graphics to aid him. Each time he says no you just get more and more pissed because he just looks more and more like a fucking annoying-ass hipster who is saying absolutely nothing about the album. It’s like he hated Big Sean and decided that it was a bad album before he even listened to it. The review does nothing to tell you about the album, besides the fact that some fucker on youtube really doesn’t like it. This is a prime example of the critic thinking that people care about them more than the music, and this is exactly the type of mindset I try to avoid when reviewing albums.
So how do you write a good music review?
I think the most important thing someone can do is to start with a mindset of trying to explain the album to a reader, rather than trying to make themselves sound smart/cool/whatever. Personally, I write my reviews as I listen to the album for the first time. This way, I’m just trying to give the reader a feel for the album rather than giving myself time to think of some pretentious shit that sounds smart but doesn’t actually say anything about the music.
There also need to be more reviewers focused on hip hop (like Spit Talking!) rather than all music. There’s nothing more annoying than reading a review of a hip hop album by someone who clearly barely listens to hip hop. Music reviewers need to understand the context that music comes from, so they need to know rap history if they’re gonna try to review rap albums. I don’t want to see many more hip hop reviews written from the white hipster (emphasis on hipster, not white) perspectives you might find on Pitchfork (specifically Ian Cohen, cause Pitchfork has some solid hip hop reviews nowadays) or The Needledrop.
Music Reviewer Dos and Don’ts
- DO try to give the reader a feel for the music
- DON’T try to show the reader how smart you are
- DO make connections to the rapper’s and the genre’s history
- DON’T ignore context just because you don’t know it
- DO focus on the music
- DON’T focus on the rapper instead of the music, unless it’s helpful to the review in some way
I’ve gotten some thoughts out and I feel a little better now. Obviously, no one is perfect and I’m sure that some of my reviews are guilty of some of the things I’ve called out. That’s fine though, because again, my goal is to review music and let readers know whether or not they might like the album. My goal is not for people to think I’m the best reviewer out there or anything, because the point of music reviews are never the reviewer. The point of music reviews will always be the music.