I. Why write about someone else’s art?
Criticism about music criticism is common.
Those who argue that it’s deserved because critics aren’t building sculptures themselves, but tearing down sculptures built by others must contend with this: just as much criticism is levied against critics who are also musicians themselves.
For instance, when was the last time an artist’s honest appraisal of another artist’s work was not seen as a dig?
Also, in some ways, at least, isn’t a critic also a sculptor?
And the critic of a critic too?
Why must music criticism exist?
I will parse through art-school explanations — they are academic — to arrive at the reason I want to believe is most true.
One. Listener-readers went to know what to listen to next.
Two.They want the appraisal of someone who has put in more effort than they have to glean meaning from a work of art.
Maybe a critic can help them articulate why they liked or disliked an album.
Or maybe the critic can predict what they might like in future based on what they have liked or disliked in the past.
Or maybe a critic can deepen their liking for a work of art by revealing depth they didn’t know it had.
Three. I suspect it’s because of our desire to relate — not only with the critic, but also with the artist.
An artist’s perspective of his/ her art is subjective.
A critic’s perspective helps the audience connect better.
As with any interface with other people — business, interaction design, conversation — a critic is engaged in a battle between two desires. One, to push his own agenda. Two, to address someone else’s need.
This is where seeing music criticism as an art similar to either music or fiction-writing is dangerous.
When it come to criticism, the balance between these two desires lies closer to the audience.
That is, a critic is more in service of his audience than a musician or fiction-writer needs to be.
When Beyonce released Lemonade, the music press was buzzing with news about Jay-Z’s alleged infidelity.
The music press is now buzzing with news about Jay-Z’s response to the buzz about his alleged infidelity.
The liberal news outlets I follow were quick to celebrate Beyonce’s courage, and just as quick to deride the world’s willingness to give Jay-Z an equal shot.
This is an opportunity afforded only to powerful men, they said.
If Jay-Z’s infidelity was the only factor in play, there would be no need for two albums addressing it.
Some might say it isn’t my place to question the ulterior financial motivations of two billionaires fanning gossip-flames with multi-platinum selling albums.
But I would argue that Lemonade and 4:44 have granted me the right.
Plus, I’m making a larger point.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Jay-Z’s 4:44 is at least partially a ploy to monetise infidelity.
It’s happened before, it will happen again. We are suckers for gossip. I know I am.
I would be kinder if Jay-Z himself didn’t keep glorifying the need to make money through whatever means necessary in 4:44.
For instance, he brings up selling dope to make money in The Story of OJ.
And in Marcy Me.
And in most other songs in his discography.
I will not comment on race. I will not comment on his alleged anti-semitism. Not because I don’t believe I’m entitled to an opinion about these issues, but because, as an Indian in a racially more-or-less homogeneous society, I do not believe I have the required context.
I will, however, comment about Jay-Z’s lyrics about relationships and money.
My crib with Jay-Z’s music has always been that he’s been about money, cash, hoes, and not much else.
The same cannot be said for Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, or other nineties hip-hop. They often had more substance.
In 4:44, however, Jay-Z lays digging deeper than ever to tell us why women and money are really that important to him.
Financial freedom is his only hope.
He can’t wait to give his money to all of his children.
He doesn’t want to lose the world’s baddest woman because he couldn’t be faithful.
But it just isn’t deep enough.
For example, his final point is undermined by his demonising Halle Berry’s ex-husband not for cheating on her, but for ‘losing’ Halle Berry.
With that attitude, it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t look at relationships as acquisitions.
Another example, the hammy LGBT+ support song, Smile, which sounds quite forced, to be honest.
Most of 4:44 can be summed up in a single regressive viewpoint —
Get rich quick. Marry well. Leave as much as you can to your kids. Everyone else be damned.
There’s some merit to that viewpoint, but not much depth. I could have got that from any of many stern lectures.
But then again, this is the same Jay-Z who bragged about calculating how poorly he should rap in Moment of Clarity —
If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be
Lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mil’, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.
So maybe he’s okay with that criticism.
Maybe it isn’t about rhyming.
Or regret about his infidelity.
Or any of that mush.
Maybe it’s just about the topline.
III. Why I write, why I make music.
There’s a voice in my head. It says:
Maybe you’re no good, and will wallow in obscurity.
Maybe you’re no good at self-promotion, and will wallow in obscurity.
Maybe you should’ve taken the first zeppo out of here to the promised land like everyone else.
While you were sitting on your desk, the party outside your window was winding down.
Nobody reads anymore. Why should anyone write?
When was the last time you heard an Indian artist’s album?
You, the music nerd.
Okay, you’re a bad example, brown-white-boy.
I need to demand more from those I know.
The question should no longer by why I write. It should be why others don’t read.
Why does anybody write?
Writing is better than drinking.
Most things are.
I’ve never been writing and stopped to think: I’d rather be drinking.
Back in my drinking days, I would’ve often rather been writing than drinking.
I’m terrified my drinking days might return.
I’m terrified I’ll never make a new friend again unless I start drinking like that again.
Who am I kidding; ‘friend’?
I’m afraid I’ll never meet another girl again unless I start drinking like that again.
There’s solace in seeing it written.
Or hope —
Maybe I’m the not the only one.
Ultimately, I’m engaged in a battle against my mind.
I win, every time I express myself — even if approximately.
IV. 4:44, or why I listen to music.
Should I keep listening to 4:44?
The beats are great.
The lyrics are okay.
Honestly, I’m addicted to the flow in OJ.
But all of this thinking has put me in a tight spot.
Should I just enjoy the music?
Would I just enjoy the music if I didn’t think so much?
Or do the negative aspects of this appraisal paint a truer picture of how I would feel.
I think it’s like what I wrote earlier about music criticism.
I’m just trying to articulate the discomfort I have felt with 4:44 right from the get-go.
And now that I know what it is, I’ll find it harder to enjoy it.
And I probably would have anyway.
But now, I also get to cherish other works of art that aren’t as cynical.
There’s no shortage of good 2017 hip-hop out there.
I’d much rather listen to Vince Staples.