Perhaps this serves more as a critique of criticism itself, rather than fandom, but the end result is that being a fan – in this case of hip-hop, but really of any modern art form – can be a tiring, if not confounding experience.
Years ago, my brother once coined a term that stuck with me – “the Grateful Dead effect.” This occurs, he explained, when the irritating antics of a particular fan base obscures the enjoyment of that which they are fans. In the eponymous example, Grateful Dead fans or “Deadheads,” are so deeply invested in the culture that they have created – categorizing every bootleg live performance, comparing version of deep tracks, referring to “Jerry” and “Phil” – that it makes being a casual fan, who may not want to associate with Deadhead culture, something of a challenge.
In the past, the “Grateful Dead effect” felt limited to institutions with notoriously fervent supporters – Phish, Beyonce, or Kiss may come to mind – but it now seems to provide the standard. Recently, I have noticed this effect more and more as fandom itself has become a sort of proving ground, not unlike music, film, sports, or any other entertainment that breeds fans in the first place. While the term “fandom” once connoted support, it now connotes ownership and having the last word.
Fandom itself has become a sort of proving ground.
The word “fan” abbreviates “fanatic,” which is defined as “a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.” This is a telling definition, since it seems to exclude fans of artists. The “uncritical” aspect in the definition typically applies more to politics, sports teams, or religions, and fans of a particular artist or medium have a right to be critical. And while the “uncritical enthusiasm” may apply to the likes of Deadheads or the Beyhive, for most other artists – who never reached a comparable level of adulation from fans, music critics, or both – so-called “fans” often serve as the most critical constituency there is.
This thought started after a modest discussion regarding Lil Wayne’s Carter V. When I commented to friends that I was excited to hear the album, albeit with no expectations, it spiraled into a flurry of familiar, yet irrelevant, takes: “Lil’ Wayne hasn’t made any good music in 13 years,” “Carter III sucked and was too radio-friendly,” and so forth. (Worth noting is that the commentary around Carter III – that the artist “sold-out” and “traded their sound for more radio play”, implying that the artist went downhill after gaining popularity – felt oddly parallel to that of Metallica’s self-titled Black Album, which I also enjoy.)
Initially, this seemed to reflect the current attitude around music criticism and particularly hip-hop; it feels like every new release is either heaped with effusive praise (Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott), or is derided for failing to live up to prior works by that same artist (e.g. “’Ye’ is not as good as Graduation, and therefore unworthy of any attention). But ultimately, these feel more like phases of the same cycle, rather than distinct critical views. We bestow legend status upon performers who tap into the zeitgeist, only to dismiss them totally once they fail to take us to the same fevered heights. After all, is it so hard to imagine that in 10 years we’ll be dismissing Kendrick Lamar’s latest effort as “not as good as DAMN?”
Perhaps this serves more as a critique of criticism itself, rather than fandom, but the end result is that being a fan – in this case of hip-hop, but really of any modern art form – can be a tiring, if not confounding experience. While fandom should be about trying to understand or relate to an artist’s work, it now concerns ownership of their output and the narrative around it. Instead, one is left to defend their choices in art, as if there is some measure of objectivity to what’s “good” and what’s not. We know that we probably won’t enjoy Tha Carter V as much as Tha Carter II, but who says we should expect to? If you are a hip-hop fan, isn’t it intriguing and positive for the medium when one of the biggest names is hot again? Hasn’t Wayne given us enough, especially given his absurd output of mixtapes during his prime? Are you somehow more of a “real” fan than me if you make it known how much you hated Tha Carter III?
But so much of that criticism is wrapped up in nebulous, individual experiences. Take another example, Kid Cudi’s major-label debut Man on the Moon. Far from a classic album, this album is a classic to me because its themes – alienation, the loss of a parent, trying to substitute indifference for happiness –really resonated at the time of its release in 2009 (I was a freshman in college, and my mother had passed away 2 and a half years prior). While the general reception to the album was that it was inferior to Cudi’s mixtapes, or only “had a few good songs” (a common, flattening review of many albums), I still love it. And I’m allowed to, even if I don’t listen to it everyday.
We seek out enclaves of fandom so that we can feel a part of a community. But when the messages of the community overwhelmingly end up as the equivalent “you’re not welcome here” (by deviating from fanatic dogma and enjoying the albums you “shouldn’t”, or criticizing the ones you “should”), or “remember how much better things used to be here” (because artist X hasn’t made as good of an album as album Y in 10 years), it starts to feel like a bit of a drain. Instead of a community, we are left arguing among ourselves, like sectarians splitting hairs over an interpretation of our artistic gods. So much of modern fandom involves a strong initial take, which is typically subjected to a popular opinion revision that colors future opinions. Nobody thought Illmatic was a classic upon its release, but if you were to say today Nas has better albums, you would be widely dismissed (and wrong).
I like being the guy in the room whose favorite Michael Jackson album is Bad
On the contrary, debating the artistic merits of our favorite musicians and their work provides a fun insight into the fan psyche. I like being the guy in the room whose favorite Michael Jackson album is Bad and defending my stance. But ultimately, no one’s convincing each other; fans argue how “good” the album is, instead of what it means to the listener and where they were in life when it was released or when they first heard it; these factors necessarily inform any review. No one’s objective, no one owns the definitive review of a work of art, and furthermore no one can argue as much by comparing it to other works of art. “Personal preferences” can serve as a catch-all that encompasses any number of priorities for the reviewer – lived experiences, expectations, and tendency towards contrarianism, among others – so stop trying to prove that yours are the definitive guidepost.
Some of this is semantic – its quicker and easier to say that an album “sucked” than to say that the themes on it didn’t match those in your life (and why). Separating what we feel to be objective about quality, and what we know subjective in our criteria for quality, proves a blurry exercise at best. But acknowledging as much may just be the first step towards understanding why other “fans” may feel differently.
DJ PREMIER VS THE RZA
Music continues to make this unprecedented global quarantine an unexpected treat. On Easter Eve two of the grittiest producers of our generation treated us to a trip down memory lane. DJ Premier and The RZA served up a slew of timeless joints blow for blow. Every cut invoked memories of a time when the critics and fans were universally aligned in appreciating creativity.
Over 150 thousand people zoned in and listened to these legends drop over 40 tracks of pure excellence! The tracks featured the likes of The Wu-Tang Clan, Gang Starr , Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, Kanye West, Jeru the damaja, M.O.P, Big L, Mary J Blige, Christina Aguilera and many more. It was a Masters class in Hip Hop phonics and the genre’s students around the globe were all tuned in to hear it!
For the unfortunate ones that managed to miss this moment of history, here’s a visual representation of some of the subject matter presented!
Mass Appeal – Gang Starr (The ultimate drive through other people’s neighborhood joint)
Liquid Swords – GZA (This made a lot of MC’s re-evaluate their penmanship)
MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know – KRS-One (DJ’s go to record to make sure their speakers were up to the task)
Wu-Tang Clan – Protect Ya Neck (If getting jumped was a record)
Nas Is Like – Nas (The record that made everyone rewind the first line like wtf did he say?!)
Brooklyn Zoo – Ol Dirty Bastard (The Brooklyn invitation to let everyone know you there)
Yes you definitely played yourself if you decided to cut instagram class tonight! The aforementioned treats were only a couple of lessons shared during this session of night school.
Shout out to the Principals (Swizz Beatz & Timberland) of battles in enhancing our quarantine curriculum by inviting these Professors of Hip Hop. Not only did they raise the bar in competition and quality but they surely injured some necks after the evening’s engaging lecture!
This class originally began with a syllabus calling for one A at the end of the semester. But the students rightfully revolted by keeping it Hip Hop and changing the rules to award the whole subject matter an A+. So on behalf of everyone with an ounce of flavor in their blood, THANK YOU PREMIER & RZA! We appreciate you!
Janita in Love
ECR Music Group recording artist Janita releases her new single “I Do” today, apropos of Valentine’s Day, and you won’t be able to get it out of your head.
The follow-up to “Bliss I Once Had This,” “I Do” is the second single off her new album, Here Be Dragons, dropping May 1st. It’s an honest-to-goodness anthem of love, saying more with less, and building to a gorgeous frenzy upon that killer rhythm section of Justin Goldner on bass and the incomparable Miles East on drums. Damn, that bass, tho.
Is there anything you can say to someone that’s more affectionate than I see you, I got you? Isn’t that the kind of love we all dream of? In that way the song is as much about the subject as the singer, adding to its depth and beauty.
“I have a restless soul, an innate curiosity which pushes me to learn, and to change. Uncharted territory is terribly exciting for me. I often feel like I’m on the edge of something new, even with those I’ve loved for years and years. ’I Do’ is about the renewal of one’s love for someone––love being the most thrilling of all uncharted territories––and a renewal of one’s commitment to exploring all the corners of the map of that relationship.”
Both Janita and producer Blake Morgan are the rare breed of artist that continue to grow in leaps and bounds with each new record, when you wouldn’t expect things could get any better. Janita says more in a two word chorus than many musicians do in a whole song. And Blake’s production has only gotten smoother, smarter, and more focused with every release. “I Do” is another shining example of the continued thoughtful collaboration between the two.
Do you believe two artists can find the perfect partner in each other? I do.
Catch Janita’s album release on April 30th at New York’s legendary Rockwood Music Hall.
Eric’s Top 10 Records of 2019
As usual, this is a “best of” from records I actually purchased this year. If I didn’t buy it, it’s not on the list. Now get off my lawn.
Anak Ko – Jay Som
My favorite album of the year, easily. Jay Som (Melina Duterte) hides gifts in each track that reveal themselves with every listen. (more)
“I’m where I can feel it, I’m where I can feel.”
Big Thief – Two Hands
Big Thief are on fire and released two great records this year. “Not,” from their latest, is pure poetry – particularly this live performance. Seeing a band this connected is a beautiful thing.
“It’s not the meat of your thigh, nor your spine tattoo, nor your shimmery eye, nor the wet of the dew.”
Jaime – Brittany Howard
Brittany Howard’s first record outside of Alabama Shakes is full of magic – from the classic soul of “Stay High” to the funkadelic “History Repeats.” It may be physically impossible to stand still during the last minute and a half of this song.
“I just don’t want to be back in this place again.”
Self Titled – Better Oblivion Community Center
Skillful collab between Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers is some honest-to-goodness songwriting. “Dylan Thomas” is a pure pop nugget I listened to more than my doctor this year.
“I’m strapped into a corset, climbed into your corvette, thirsty for another drink.”
Beneath the Eyrie – Pixies
The new record is as cohesive as their early work, yet nothing like it. Bassist Paz Lenchantin plays the Nancy Sinatra role in “Ready for Love.” (more)
“I’m succeeding as a failer.”
Lux Prima – Karen O & Danger Mouse
Producer Danger Mouse teamed up with Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for a collection of sprawling space rock. Think Air’s Moon Safari for a new age.
“I’m nowhere, I’m no one, I’m nobody… there’s nobody but you.”
Old LP – That Dog
“Don’t bother to say goodbye, just walk away.”
Itekoma Hits – Otoboke Beaver
My go-to record when feeling aggressive this year was by Japanese punk rockers Otoboke Beaver. These ladies are magically unhinged.
Lets Rock – The Black Keys
The Black Keys made a quick and dirty record this year in search of the next “Louie Louie.”
“Tell me lies, la-la-la-la-la-la-lies.”
Means to Me – Long Beard
Leslie Bear’s jangly dream-pop would be a treat for any Harriet Wheeler fan.
“Only you can make me feel like I need something more to do.”
- King of the Dudes (EP) – Sunflower Bean
- Abbey Road Anniversary Deluxe – The Beatles
- South Of Reality – The Claypool Lennon Delirium
- Groove Denied – Stephen Malkmus
- My Finest Work Yet – Andrew Bird
- Then I Try Some More – Johanna Steinberg
- Nostalgia Kills – Jill Sobule
- Years To Burn – Calexico & Iron & Wine
- Fool – Joe Jackson
- Help Us Stranger – The Raconteurs
- Anima – Thom Yorke
- Minidisc [Hacks] – Radiohead
- The Center Won’t Hold – Sleater Kinney
- Sunshine Rock – Bob Mould
- Planet England (EP) – Robyn Hitchcock and Andy Partridge
- Hyperspace – Beck