The Music Critic Full Employment Act
I’m not sure where they come from, but it seems that we have more music critics than you can shake your groove thang at. There was a time when we enjoyed the psychotic, yet interesting, ramblings of a Lester Bangs, and it is my understanding that the turgid and calcified Greil Marcus was a critic of some repute, although I would tend to ask for at least three letters of reference and a blood test from Greil, if he has any blood left. Which brings me to David Samuels over at Slate. In his latest, The Real King of Rap he posits that Nas is a better rapper than Eminem.
I should say here that, back in 1994, the idea that Nas was the king of rap was a matter of local pride to many New Yorkers. After all, New York City had invented rap musicâ€”a genre that took brains and humor to master. At the time, to lose the rap crown to a rapper from Detroitâ€”or, more to the point back then, Los Angelesâ€”was widely understood to be impossible. Unfortunately, the West Coast then discovered Dr. Dre, the production genius who invented the sound of NWA (Niggas With Attitude) and then followed up that group’s massive commercial success with the playful-yet-menacing bounce of Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tha Dogg Pound. Arguably the single most influential producer of popular music in the world during the ’90s, Dr. Dre has a supernatural ability to write (and steal) hooks and beats that are simple and catchy enough to power hit rap songs. Eminem may have Hollywood and Dr. Dre behind himâ€”but he’s still nowhere near as good as Nas.
Okay. Let’s stop right here. Would it be too much to ask that an “artist” be judged on the merits of his or her art without drawing into the discussion the whole East Coast vs. West Coast rap wars myth? Isn’t the whole rap “rivalry” storyline kind of…..stupid? Like everything else in the music business, it’s all about marketing which is all about the benjamins and the bling bling it can buy (as I go all urban for your reading pleasure). East Coast versus West Coast was just a way of selling a product that was cheap to produce thereby flooding the market. Why buy Tupac and not Biggie? East coast vs west coast, yo. When a critic spends their time, and ours, reinforcing the marketing people’s message, they have stopped being a critic we should take seriously (which is a whole other can of worms) and become…a marketing person themselves. Although rap has a certain entertainment value, I’m not so sure that it really warrants any additional discourse on how culturally important it is, how it reflects the world the rapper lives in, how it keeps it real, or any other stock phrase from the rap critic’s well-worn toolbox. Nowadays any discussion on rap is apt to be as important as a Gilligan’s Island symposium combined with a Steel Cage Deathmatch over who would win a battle between Mighty Mouse and Superman. We’re not talking Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan here. While “I like big butts” or “sippin on gin and juice” may appeal to the Clarence Thomas in us all, I don’t feel any rush of enlightenment firing off any additional synapses.
What it gets down to is this: the average “rap” is about as culturally important these days as “My Sharona”. It’s a beat with words suitable for head nodding, not head expanding. If critics can draw a paycheck for discussing its merits, well, good for them. But don’t expect me to take it seriously. Then again, as the Refreshments once said, â€œBaby I was never cool enough to get a job at a record storeâ€. So what do I know, yo.