Bells & Whistles, Vol. 1: Pitchfork Haters

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Some thoughts:

Why can’t critics be critics anymore?

One of the most thankless media jobs right now is being an honest music critic. Couple things happened at Pitchfork over the last month or so. First, Alphonse Pierre gave a thoughtful, honest take on the rap weirdo du jour Teezo Touchdown and faced the wrath of Teezo’s surprisingly intense fanbase. Second, Stephen Kearse gave Zack Fox’s novelty rap record shut the fuck up talking to me a 3.6, and wrote about how Fox is an uncharming rapper overselling his jokey schtick. The fans, including Doja Cat, ate Stephen alive. (Side note: zero thoughts on the album but the artwork deserves a 0.0). ((Srikar note: Bruh lmaoo i love the cover))

The argument a decade or two ago might’ve been, why dunk on a rising artist? You’re hurting their career. But now? Artists are going to be just fine (if not better) after a negative Pitchfork review in 2021. I have no idea why people get mad about this shit. It’s a Pitchfork review in the ashes of the blog era, not the Grammys! 

Maybe it’s a symbolic hatred. A fuck you to Pitchfork the institution for being the crummy gatekeeper, the decimal giver, the sad hater of all. It must be weird, being Alphonse or Stephen or any of the other thoughtful, humorous critics writing to the shapeless, sometimes malicious audience of Pitchfork. You’re writing with all this institutional baggage. Once the article gets quote tweeted to oblivion, your name is “Pitchfork” for a few days.

The shit that really grinds my gears is when someone is like, “Can’t believe this writer got paid to write this!!!” I mean, yeah, they did, but not very much! They got paid a couple hundred dollars to think about a piece of music for hours and then condense all those thoughts to 600 words and then deal with legions of sociopathic stans screenshotting their old tweets and roasting their pfp. Averages out to less than minimum wage I’m pretty sure. 

That’s the deeper problem for me: so long as stan armies continue dousing critics with hateful replies, it becomes harder for critics to do their work. And it’s important work. I mean, it’s Pitchfork! One of the only places left where people will actively seek out and read criticism. It’s possible to do great work there. At smaller, more scene-driven blogs, you might be a bit more positive about music to maintain relationships with artists for future interviews/features/etc. But Pitchfork lets you say what you feel, so long as you can deal with all the stans.

I think more writers there are starting to realize this. After a decade plus where the site defanged a bit, that 2000s snarkiness is coming back a bit. Maybe they’re realizing it’s getting them attention. Maybe a newer batch of writers is getting tired of enjoying everything. It could also be that Pitchfork is getting more creative with its verticals. Alphonse and Cat Zhang’s columns feel like distillations of the things that interest them most, and seem to attract consistent, specific readers independent of the whole site. Still, the baggage isn’t going away. Pitchfork is too entrenched to exist simply as a collective of writers. The site represents music criticism’s push-and-pull between an idealized desire for widespread relevance and a more realistic need for small, passionate readership.

A Utah rap festival and a bygone era of SoundCloud

The latest video from America’s gonzo journalist of the moment Andrew Callaghan finds him at Hive Music Festival in Utah this past August. Like most his videos, it’s a gnarly gathering of the whites. White people with dreads, white people on a smattering of drugs, white people hyped for Suicide Boys, white people defending Dababy and Joe Rogan, white rappers of course. It’s fucking insane. Andrew takes one guy with dreads to meet his idol Zillakami so he can cut one off for him. There are random internet rappers I haven’t heard from in years and aspiring teenage artists we might hear from in the future. It all makes me reminisce on the South Florida generation of SoundCloud through which I was indoctrinated. Lucas Foster once tweeted that SoundCloud rap is “the music of the lower middle class, the empty streets and degenerating culture of commuter subdivisions,” and that’s made clear in this video. You see scummy, appropriative shit, yeah, but you also see kids struggling, teens from broken families, the castaways of middle America gathering in fucking Utah and finding themselves in art. This isn’t the rap-as-punk pastiche that major labels are bottling up, it’s real life punk shit. Even if it feels like White Trash: The Movie, it’s a fascinating, sometimes sad look at a slice of America and its relationship to rap music. 

Some music:

YL – Soda Club

I’m gonna keep saying it, these underground, tri-state area rappers have been churning out dependably great rap music for what feels like forever now. I’m talking about Newark’s 2oo4 crew, the Dark World holdovers, producers like Tony Seltzer, Roper Williams and Subjxct 5, and NYC’s YL, who’s been on a quiet tear all year. This music is not the gilded, post-Marcberg rap of Griselda, nor is it the battering-ram drill music coming out of the city. It’s somewhere in between, and YL toes that line perfectly. He isn’t saying crazy heady shit–instead, he lets his voice function as texture as he paints a picture of his New York. On his latest tape Soda Club he keeps his foot on the gas with buttery, drill-inflected flows and lifestyle rap. The beats blend samples and drill rhythms in a way that doesn’t feel lazy, and the ones by Tony Seltzer pretty much confirm he’s top 5 or 10 producers working. While hip-hop media devours every Griselda release like clockwork, I’m much more interested in what these guys are cooking up.

DJ Lucas – Big Bleep Music, Vol. 5

A&R/former music writer David Drake once compared DJ Lucas’ run the last few years to Chris Crack’s, and I couldn’t agree more. The thing about DJ is he’s pretty much ditched the Auto-Tune and gotten really, really good at rapping, recasting himself as a mixtape-era formalist. These days, I listen for that technical mastery, how he brings together disparate images like Wayne, or keeps a really dense rhyme scheme going for a while. He found a incredible pocket around 2019 doing Midwest/Michigan flows, and vocally, he’s leaned even more into his raspiness. Most of all, like Chris Crack, he drops rap tapes at a relentless pace, and this lets him dig deep into unique subjects and engage with rap as reps, practice. DJ said the fifth installment of his Big Bleep Music series is for Mass, and if we’re talking rap that is explicitly about all this state’s weird, beloved quirks indecipherable to outsiders, this might be the Rosetta Stone. Emily Dickinson would be proud.

Realestk – “Patience”

Is this guy’s whole thing just doing 2009 Drake? His dark R&B record “WFM” has been going crazy on TikTok this fall, and “Patience” taps a similar ominous vein. It’s pretty cool–he has a beautiful, wispy voice, and the music videos are these endearing, poorly lit snapshots of him and his friends sulking around Toronto. Real Tumblr shit. Plus dude has Nav and Cash in his IG comments so you know he’s gonna soon be on every hookah bar’s playlist. Still think we should ban nostalgia in 2022.

Lupe Fiasco & Gemstones – “We On” (2007)

Yeah yeah SoundCloud is where the crazy hyperpop kids live but it’ll also sometimes send me down a glorious blog era rabbit hole. Algorithms are bad except for when they’re good. The other day, it auto-played this Lupe Fiasco/Gemstones fast rap loosie, which made me revisit all the Lupe tapes, which reminded me of how spiraling and loose that man could get when the stakes were low. By the way, the last few months he’s been posting freestyles to his YouTube rapping to like, “Exhibit C” and shit. The feeling is back, baby!

Bonus ancient treasure: shoutout Brandon for reposting this Kanye remix of Q-Tip’s “We Fight, We Love.” Remember when he could rap?

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