Friday, January 25, 2008

Quinapalus On Hip-Hop Criticism

I thought Q's essay was worth preserving here:

In the 1960s there was a well publicized dispute between the African-American author Ralph Ellison, and a white liberal critic named Irving Howe. Howe, speaking in defense of the (also African-American) author Richard Wright, critiqued Ellison's and (James Baldwin's) work, comparing it unfavorably to Wright's in an essay called "Black Boys and Native Sons". Wright's work had fallen out of fashion as being too polemical, and Ellison offered a very different, more nuanced view of black life. Howe believed Wright's talent to probably be superior to Ellison's, however, and defended the polemical nature of Wright's novels by saying, among other things:

"What, then, was the experience of a man with a black skin, what could it be in this country? How could a Negro put pen to paper, how could he so much as think or breathe, without some impulsion to protest, be it harsh or mild, political or private, released or buried?"

Ellison took the attacks on him in this essay to mean that Howe was telling him what, as a black man, he was allowed to feel, think, or write about, and defended himself in a famous essay called "The World and the Jug." I won't go into greater detail about this dispute for the sake of making my own essay less lengthy than it already is--but I mention it because I think it is part of a pattern that the coverage of hip hop in Pitchfork falls into. It's a pattern of white, well meaning, liberal critics, attempting to dictate to black artists what they should or should not be writing about, ostensibly in defense of the the angrier, more "authentic" voices from the bottom.

Pitchfork reliably gives fawning coverage to albums catering to the worst stereotypes of black life: gangsters, pimps, drug dealers, misogynists, etc. I'm not going to argue with that particular aspect of their coverage here--to some degree it's a matter of taste, and arguing with it would be full of complicated questions to which there are no definitive answers. What I take strong issue with, however, is how equally reliably they either pan, or give condescending--if in some ways positive--reviews to any rap album that challenges the gangsta status quo. Like Howe, if a black artist isn't "angry" enough, or is angry in the wrong ways or at the wrong things, the Pitchfork reviewers tell that artist that they need to sound more like the stereotype they imagine to be the one "authentic" way for an African-American to express themselves. I have two specific examples from reviews in the past couple of years.

This is the opening paragraph of the Pitchfork review of the Little Brother album Getback, (which I had at number 3 this year):

"In 2005, North Carolina-based hip-hop group Little Brother released The Minstrel Show, a record brazen both in title and tenor that sought to castigate the culture of materialistic, anti-intellectual bojangling that had besieged and benumbed the black community in the form of commercial rap music and mainstream TV programming. Unsurprisingly, this played exceptionally well on indie-rap message boards, in coffee shops, and college campuses coast to coast. But outside the Ivy, where people eat, laugh, fuck, and don't spend a hell of a lot of time thinking about whether their culture is eroding, it didn't make a dent. It's easy for the (over)educated among us to get hip to the underground and then snicker at the poor deluded masses filling their heads and ears with trash, but what happens when we have to step outside our theory-addled cocoons and explain looking down our noses at our neighbors and kin?"

I'd note, first of all, that this paragraph (intended to bring the reader up to date on what Little Brother is all about before reviewing the new album) does not contain a single critical judgment about the actual quality of the music. The terms on which it judges the group are entirely philosophical or perhaps sociological, questioning the value of music that primarily resonates with educated people, who apparently don't "eat laugh" or "fuck". (You could easily question how much of a chance the "masses" got to even hear the album, since it got virtually no radio airplay, but this reviewer chooses not to ask that question.)

If you had never read Pitchfork before, and had only come across this single review, you might be forgiven for believing that Pitchfork was a populist publication whose mission was to take jabs at highfalutin indie acts in defense of unintellectual and/or popular music. But of course this isn't the case at all, in any genre except for hip hop. Pitchfork doesn't stand up for the Toby Kieths of country, or the Nickelbacks of rock, it's only when we're talking about the gangstas and pimps of rap that Pitchfork suddenly bristles and asks us not to look "down our noses at our neighbors and kin."

I want to briefly point out the number of black stereotypes that are buried just within the brief paragraph I cited. First, there is an assumption that "the culture of materialistic, anti-intellectual bojangling" somehow represents an authentic, populist expression of African-American thoughts and behavior (ie, to be against this stuff would mean that you were "behind the Ivy" and had forgotten how to eat laugh or fuck.) Secondly, there is the idea that regular people (again, outside "the Ivy") don't (and perhaps should not) worry their heads about something so abstract as "culture". Given that this was written by someone working for a music publication, it's reasonable to assume that the author believes that culture is important, and that probably someone should be concerned about it. But it's unclear whom (besides Pitchfork) he believes these guardians of culture to be, and I can't escape the thought that while he wants to stand up for the "masses" he doesn't believe they have that much ability to think for themselves (or that they're too busy eating and fucking to concern themselves with thinking.)

Finally, and most importantly for me, is the fact that he's essentially dictating to Little Brother what they, as rap artists, have a right to talk about. He doesn't care about the quality of music on The Minstrel Show, as he doesn't even mention it. He is simply concerned that this group is stepping outside the established bounds by questioning the legitimacy of a "culture of materialism and anti-intellectualism" and is therefore behaving too much like the "(over)educated". To go back to Irving Howe's question, "what could the experience of a black man in this country be?", this Pitchfork writer clearly believes that the black experience has no business crossing the gangsta divide and stepping into cultural criticism. That, one may insinuate, is Pitchfork's job.

I think this is a pattern that is repeated over and over again in their criticism, but for the sake of (relative) brevity, I'm just gong to include one more example. In this case, it's from Pitchfork's review of Lupe Fiasco's 2006 album Food and Liquor, an album to which they gave a fairly positive review overall, but still included condescending remarks such as the following:

"Reportedly Fiasco modeled Food & Liquor after Nas' adventurous if overblown follow-up to Illmatic, It Was Written. This illuminates everything. Fiasco's putting the Phantom before the horse, so to speak. He hasn't released a classic, gritty album yet. Instead he's attempted to ascend to a status he hasn't earned, and frankly, shouldn't want. This is no call for Lupe to tone down his aggressively thoughtful themes, merely to reframe them. He doesn't have to be a savior. There's no one to save."

This is an example, on the one hand, of the maddening sort of critique Pitchfork gives to all types of music, wherein they give advice to the artist on how they, (the Pitchfork staff) would have done the album differently. But in this case it also takes on a different tone mostly found in their hip hop coverage, in which the reviewer tells the artist to change something fundamental to that artist's style, to make it more palatable to the reviewer's taste.

Let's leave aside the advice that Lupe doesn't have to "be a savior" because there's "no one to save," as it would take me too long to try and parse what he might possibly mean by that statement. (Lupe does have a couple of songs in which he raps about how he's going to change rap forever, but so does every damn rapper in the business, and there is nothing to immediately make it clear why Lupe's take on this was particularly noteworthy.) What I'm more interested in pointing out is the comparison to Nas, and the call for Lupe to make a more "gritty" album. Illmatic was Nas' first record, an acknowledged gangsta rap classic which was hugely influential. After making that album, however, Nas famously decided that he needed to be a better role model and citizen, and began making albums that questioned the value of the kind of gangsta swagger that made him famous. (And the consensus--which I reluctantly agree with--is that Nas never made an album nearly as good as Illmatic again. But that's not really germane to the point here.) Lupe sees himself, stylistically and philosophically, as someone more in line with the ideals of the post-Illmatic Nas, and said that he modeled his album partially off of some of that material.

But the Pitchfork reviewer sees that approach as illegitimate. The argument seems to be that in order to create the sort of risk taking, philosophical, adventurous, (possibly overblown, though that's a matter of opinion) kind of album that Nas went on to make later, you first have to make a gritty (read: gangster-centered) album, to establish yourself as somebody to be taken seriously. Within this argument is the assumption that Lupe should want to make that kind of album, or indeed has the ability to pull that kind of album off. Why should we believe that Lupe would have done a good job of pretending to be a gangster? Or more importantly, why would such an album have helped to legitimize him? Because it would have shown that he could dance the dance demanded of him by the music press?

I want to finish this example with a quick thought experiment: would Pitchfork ever give similar advice to a white artist? Can you imagine them ever reviewing a Will Oldham album by saying something along the lines of "Will Oldham reportedly is a fan of Merle Haggard's late period work, where he set aside the conservative reactionary persona of his early albums. This explains everything, Oldham is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Before you can make a sensitive, thoughtful record, you need to establish yourself by writing an "Okie from Muskogee" style of album. This isn't a call for Oldham to tone down his intellectualism, just to reframe it by throwing in some cowboys and White Lightning."

I'd have to say that the answer is no, Pitchfork would never ask that of a white artist, and that this goes beyond mere matters of taste, it goes beyond preferring Richard Wright to Ralph Ellison, or preferring gangsters to different kinds of voices in rap: this is about setting the intellectual boundaries beyond which black people (in the name of protecting the "authentic voice" of the ghetto) are not allowed to go.

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