A few years ago, on its front cover The Source promised to tackle an interesting topic, which, along with the fact that it was the magazine’s 200th issue, caused me to buy a copy after a long period of getting my reading fix elsewhere:Why Your Favorite Album Ain’t a Five Mic’er. In his article Anatomy of a Classic, Pt. II, Gotti presented six albums that didn’t receive the magazine’s 5 mics rating and explained why even after ample time of reflection “The Black Album,” “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below,” “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” “The Documentary,” “College Dropout,” and “Be” weren’t deserving of the mag’s (once, we might add) coveted Hip-Hop Classic status. It was an approach completely opposite to what they had done on the occasion of #150, when several albums were awarded 5 mics in retrospect.
Here at RapReviews.com, we, the staff, and you, the readership, face the same dilemma, with the notable difference that we have yet to coin a label of excellence as widely accepted as the 5 mics. With the establishment of the Nines, the possibility exists, but so far the staff has been fairly liberal in handing out high scores and doesn’t seem to be intent on creating an exclusive circle of must-have and must-like albums. You may take that both as a sign that there are no politics at work in this publication and of the enthusiasm we are still susceptible to, some of us listening to this music for so long that nobody would be surprised by a growing indifference.
A bigger problem is that, judging from the feedback, many readers (and sometimes the artists as well) are completely hung up on ratings, often making them the sole issue of their discontent. Obviously, the rating sums up a review in numbers, and as they say, numbers don’t lie. But especially a RapReviews write-up has more to offer. Unrestricted by page counts and printing expenses, we are quite a talkative bunch. Which can get tiring sometimes. You wanna know about the TOTAL, right? But after scrolling down, make sure you come back to the top again and read carefully, we may say some very positive things about the album, even if the rating turns out not so favorable. That’s why this reviewer, although fully aware that finally deciding on the grades is some sort of moment of truth, knows that the rating in a RapReview ain’t even half the story, and that like in sports, often times the history of the game is more important than the final score. Yes, the rating should somehow reflect the discussed pros and cons, but the written and the nummerical assessments can vary. I can be excited about a release but still rate it not too highly simply because it lacks from a technical, conceptual, creative, or even moral point of view. By the same token, I sometimes have to yield to perfection and award that high rating but at the same time find other, more flawed releases to be much more interesting.
In their accountant-like fixation on numbers, some people find it hard to accept when Rapper A, a decorated rap veteran revered for his command of the iron mic, receives a lower rating than Rapper B, a notorious crowd-pleaser with a permanent stay in the pop charts. The thing is, expectations can either be missed, met, or exceeded, and that mechanism should somehow show in the ratings. The usual suspects on Hip-Hop’s Most Wanted are not automatically entitled to top ranking status. It’s their latest album that is being judged, not their apparently everlasting rep achieved through their career highlight. That at least is how I understand our service to the hip-hop public. Since our staffers judge all material individually and independently, I can only speak for myself when describing the rating process. Ideally, I focus intensely on the specific release while keeping the bigger picture in view at the same time. Artists and their albums first and foremost have to live up to their very own aspirations. Only once I’ve taken that into account I can get down to the nitty gritty and consider all the other factors. Before I take one last look to visualize the album’s place amongst all the rap records I have ever heard in my life. Then I come back to what I wrote and finish with the rating.
I understand the judging of an album to be absolute and relative at the same time. If it was purely absolute, it would mean every rapper would have to be measured against who I perceive to be the greatest of all time. But by bringing in a relative perspective I can apply all types of reference points: his genre, his era, his age, his budget, his discography, the demands of his fanbase, his own promises, etc. The rating needs to be absolute to a certain point. But if an artist is really good at what he or she does and the writer is able to argue the case sufficiently, I see nothing wrong with high ratings. If both Nas and Nelly receive 9’s, that doesn’t mean their beats and rhymes are on the same musical and intellectual level. They each have their specific strengths and flaws, their history, their approach, and when they display some effort, put some passion into it, or simply surprise us, that should go into account. After all is said and done, we can’t help but be subjective, but we try our best to make that subjective perspective a little bit more objective. The combination of both makes a critic.
That still doesn’t answer the initial question, though. Why can’t your favorite album be a certified classic? Why can’t it be a Five Mic’er, a Nine, or even a dime? Because we say so. Because The Source says so. Simple as that. Like it or not, by maintaining this platform, we make our personal opinion official. It’s an unfair situation, balanced in the realm of written publications by the fact that The Source at some point had to face competition, and on the internet by the fact that it’s relatively easy for anyone to make his or her opinion known. In the interest of hip-hop, I can only hope that a healthy number of people disagrees with this here website on any given review. We gotta agree to disagree, or else rap is tempted to pander to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes the industry refers to people like us as taste makers or opinion leaders. To that I say – RR readers, make up your own damn minds. But please accord us the same fairness you demand from us critics. I work too damn hard to say something of substance about individual releases and about rap in general for someone to take offense to a couple of ratings and then dismiss RapReviews’ entire efforts for eternity.
Ultimately you have to understand that, like all reviews, ours are mere snapshots of how one particular person felt about a particular work of art at a particular point in time. It is part of the deal that while all of our reviews are accessible in the archive at any time, that doesn’t mean that they are waiting to be re-written or re-scored at the whim of the next person who disagrees. While we might be able to please one reader with a revised review, others would likely step up to contest the change and the ensuing debate would be endless. Assuming we do have some amount of credibility, the willingness to revise reviews would jeopardize it much more than however many times we’ve perhaps made fools of ourselves. If it is the sheer amount of – hopefully largely fair, educated and intelligently argued – reviews that builds our believability, a few in your eyes completely absurd pieces shouldn’t undermine that credibility fundamentally.
To conclude, remember that all opinions you hear and read are secondary to what the music is able to give you. And speaking of, if music gives you something, you should be willing to give something back – to its authors. That would be money in most cases. That’s how you earn the right to criticize. Or by trying to be a better DJ, MC, producer than this sorry excuse for an artist. Or you can build a critic’s rep by continuously substantiating your opinion. That’s what we try to do here at RapReviews.com, knowing that that opinion is neither set in stone nor summed up in simple numbers. Still, we hope you see that revisions, although tempting, are not a feasible idea and that ratings, while not very meaningful by themselves, complete the picture by placing the album into a broader context.