Kendrick Lamar’s new album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is a landmark of its time and its genre. It has also been the jumping-off point for some of the most dangerous, careless music writing of the last few years.
Ecstatic praise is a double-edged sword: sometimes, things are deeply deserving; other times, you’re letting your personal experience with a given piece color your work. Criticism doesn’t need to be serious or even good, but it needs to have something approaching level-headedness.
That lack of level-headedness is part of the Kendrick problem. Speaking personally for a moment: I’m a 25 year old white guy. There are entire chunks of the album that, no matter how brilliantly they’re delivered or how deeply I read them, I’ll never get.
A good counterpoint to this is the protracted praise that surrounded Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Again: another album to which I can only, personally, in a tertiary and very-personal way dig into the material. The critics were a bit smarter with this one. Nobody has the guts to outright say: “I don’t have the know-how to talk about this,” but at the very least, the default wasn’t drooling praise.
It’s important to step on the brakes and think about the context. In the new world of music criticism, it’s become less important to think of your piece as a piece unto itself; often, music reviews are filled with links to same-site reviews of albums by other bands, or clever YouTube videos, or barely-disguised sponsors.
Too often, now, it’s about the clicks. It’s about getting there first. It’s about being the loudest. It’s about being the most quotable. Find me a review of Run the Jewels 2 that didn’t have something to say about ‘fuckboy’. Sure, it was important, but was it the anchor? Would D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s album have made as much of a splash — again, rightfully — as it did, if it weren’t amid the Ferguson outcry? Why do we jump to the quotable instead of letting our art stand as art? Why do we forget that criticism can be art?
I’m not saying no one has the right to talk about these things. I’m saying that — white guys in particular — have a responsibility to do it ethically. When you work for a larger music website, you’ve got no choice but to throw your voice out there and make your paycheck, but what’s the larger expense? Our grandmothers or mothers or fathers or grandfathers or some wizened old relatives probably all told us, in some form, at one point: “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, be silent.” Don’t claim to understand the black experience because you have a really good setup on Flipboard. Don’t claim to understand the experience of the marginalized because you follow a lot of the marginalized on Twitter. Don’t think that your platform entitles you to talk with authority. Don’t think you should be ashamed when you don’t know something. We can all be better. And if you screw up, do better next time.