Saturday, November 28, 2009

How to review hip-hop

What first occurs to me about how to review hip-hop albums is that there is an entire tradition, both of the music, and of reviewing it--which gives little guidance. Hip-hop record reviews are often like Jack Kerouac's prose in On the Road: the writers try to approximate the musical style under consideration. I, on the other hand, feel that a rap album should be reviewed in exactly the same fashion as a death metal album.

Now, that is the long and the short of it. "How often will I listen to this? Is it memorable or paradigm-shifting? How many good songs are there in ratio to bad songs?" THESE are the questions. But I suspect my readers will not be satisfied without some examples.

Here is a sample of a small section of a (Clipse) review from the blog "Hip Hop Isn't Dead"

This song, recorded late in the game because those crackers that weren't playing fair at Jive didn't hear a single when an early version of Hell Hath No Fury was turned it, is now infamous because Pharrell made the mistake of selling the beat to Foxy Brown... Somewhere there's a rumored version of this song featuring Foxy Brown and Slim Thug's exact-same chorus: I would love to hear that one day for comparison's sake. Whatever happened to the Clipse's promised remix to this song that was supposed to feature Foxy, a compromise that was made to appease Shawn Carter?

Now, I have earlier and often made the claim that albums should be considered in two ways: first, sub specie aeterni, i.e. as close as possible to their "objective" importance and greatness, and secondly, in pragmatic terms: how often I listen to something. "Whatever happened to the promised remix of this song?" i.e.--- obsessive blogging-as-journalism and gossip mill, has nothing to do with either criteria. This might be interesting, but it has nothing to do with a record review, or with the quality of a song. Only the most perverse alchemy could transform hype or gossip or blogging into listening experience. It simply can't be done.

Here are a few reviews of Lil Wayne's last album:
Hip Hop Isn't Dead
Rolling Stone

Now, to evaluate these, we need to go over what should be said about this album. It didn't age well; it is too long; 2/3 of the songs are bad; the remix of "Lollipop" was better than the album version; the Carter 2 was better; the Leak EP was better; Lil Wayne is best when there are no guests and no choruses--when he is just let loose over a beat. Well.. there's your review. Look over the reviews from its contemporary moment (last year) and I think you'll see that they all miss this basic summary.

Why is that? Why do album reviews (and, e.g., death metal is just as bad about this as hip hop) miss the question of listenability? Because they focus on "scene" components--dissing producers, sorting through hype, settling feuds, taking sides in a historical continuum, worrying about who is biting whom, evaluating egos, considering and being frustrated by popularity, and of course the highly contentious world of beat-making. Other genres have analogous problems. It simply doesn't matter to whether the music is good or not, but it is unavoidable in music journalism which "belongs" to a scene.

More from "Hip Hop Isn't Dead" (dot blogspot...)

Did Icarus and Redman have a falling out that I'm not aware of? That's the only reason I can think of that justifies Ready Roc's new position as go-to weed carrier and kidney donor alongside Meth's longtime candle warmer Streetlife.

That is from a TRACK review.


As fans of music, we are capable of telling whether a song is good or not, whether we enjoyed an album or not, whether a record works or doesn't or is just background music that will never become another "Daily Operations" or "Illmatic." And because these are the ways that fans approach music, it is also what a review should address.

See also my fake review of a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah song for an example of how to review music.

My contention: gossip and name-dropping will never be a substitute for finding out whether a record is a classic, a near-classic, merely forgettable, or deserving of our contempt. That all pertains to the music; reviews (done poorly) thus date much worse than the albums themselves. This is of course as true for Bruce Springsteen (whose "9/11" album was received in a way completely detached from whether it had songs as good as his earlier work) as for Jay-Z.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Alternate Canon for Film

I saw The Red Shoes at Film Forum the other day, in a new print, and it occurred to me that possibly I was watching the greatest movie of all time. This signals to my brain: "Yes, but on what criteria?" And the answer is something like: "pure filmmaking," or "movie magic," etc. etc. But what I mean I think is better expressed in my favorite format: the list.

The Red Shoes
Gone with the Wind
Lawrence of Arabia
Napoleon (1927)
Wizard of Oz
Ben-Hur (1959)
Citizen Kane
War & Peace (1967)
The Leopard
Modern Times
Juliet of the Spirits
Birth of a Nation
The Conformist
Lola Montes
West Side Story
2001: A Space Odyssey

Now, usually, these are not my actual favorites, nor my actual "Best" or "Most Important" films. But in all of these movies is a shocking, almost superhuman visual creativity and ambition. The colors of Gone with the Wind, the chariot race in Ben-Hur, the communicative silences of 2001, the sets in the Wizard of Oz, the choreography of West Side Story... Here I am breaking from my usual plot-centered valuations. It is a truism of course that the greatest auteurs (in film and literature) are often masters of BOTH detail and grand plan. Tolstoy and Proust in literature, and at least all of the historical epics listed above, are gigantic in scope and breathtaking in particular scenes.

One problem with this list: it is much less "art house" than my tastes really are, and considerably more Hollywood. Of the great art house directors, Fellini is the most in this line. Bergman, Kurosawa, Renoir, Lang, are obviously virtuosos and there is probably room in here for some of their more extravagant work. The New Wave is usually too cramped. Truffaut's best work, but even Rashomon or The Seventh Seal, are STILL not Gone with The Wind, if you see what I mean.

One movie that probably *does* belong here is actually one I disliked a great deal: Marketa Lazarova, a Czech black and white epic that was visually stunning from start to finish. Since it was so boring, it is disqualified as being (in another way) unwatchable. That Bergman never made a movie as "beautiful" as this one is obviously more instructive about what Bergman WAS doing, what kind of magic he *was* after, than in any way a negative remark about him.