On album reviews: From the eye of the critic
‘’People are writing a review in a day. First of all, you can’t listen to an album and rate it in a day. It’s just impossible… And when I see that I’m like ‘Oh, so this is all just bullshit.’’ — Jay Z.
Yesterday, I engaged in an all too familiar debate with talented singer, Lady Donli after she shared a [now deleted] tweet expressing her unease at musicians putting in as much as two years working on an album, only for a critic to review it figuratively in ‘30 minutes.’
She is also not the first artist who has expressed this concern. The likes of hip-hop heavyweights Jay Z, and J Cole have in the past added their voices to how quick reviews are being published these days, and it is quite understandable.
Anyone who has truly committed talent, time, and resources in not only the recording process but studying your fanbase, selecting the right type of songs, working with a team, and the eventual release of what they consider a timeless project will be pissed and rightly so, but having been on the other side for many years, I can easily tell that no true critic actually pens a review in 30 minutes, just like no student really knows the answers to every exam question in that two hours when the paper starts. His ability to confidently navigate through the questions within the time frame given is based on hours [day and nights of studying not just for that course but at times related courses] which is the knowledge and mastery that unravels when he picks his pen to write.
I remember when I got commissioned for my first ever paid writing job close to five years ago. I was working a 9–5 in a real estate firm, tasked with plenty of responsibilities when I got the call for my first assignment. Wande Coal had just released his long-awaited sophomore album, ‘’Wanted’’, six years after the groundbreaking debut, ‘’Mushin2Mohits’’ and they wanted a review.
‘’Of course, you will get it in two weeks’’, I responded, ‘’No’’, the editor replied, ‘’We need it before the day ends.’’
My initial response was to laugh and tell him it was impossible, but I couldn’t, this job promised at least N30K extra [Decent addition to what I was earning at the time] and this was my first task, so ‘’Yes, I will do it’’, I grumbled. I remember playing this 23-track album back to back at least four times while attending to my day job and going home with a headache after I submitted my review. It was crazy but the job had to be done.
Artists are quick to forget that the same market that now favors a singles industry where albums are deemed to matter less is exactly the same one that has created the ‘one listen or 30 minutes’ reviews.
Just as the internet age and streaming have changed how music is distributed and consumed such that artists now only chase the next big hit, so also has it changed how albums are reviewed or discussed. The critic is caught up in this rush to review an album ‘in the moment’ because the next day opens a new door for more releases and that album or EP that was a trending topic barely 24 hours ago would no longer hold a place in any worthy conversation not to talk of someone bothering to read a review.
I recollect a conversation I had with Chiagoziem Onyekwena [Chiaman], Editor at Filterfree and one with over a decade worth of experience sometime in 2017 and at that point, very few Nigerian blogs were consistent with album reviews, and he told me he was considering putting an end to writing reviews, ‘’It doesn’t make sense putting in so much work into reviews that people barely bother to read.’’ [Close to his exact words]
Consumer behavior has changed dramatically over the years, gone are the days when we were excited about how many mics Source Magazine was going to give our favorite albums or how a Pitchfork review could make or mar the career of an artist or even push the artist in the faces of major labels, or back home, when a publication like Hip Hop World Magazine [Now Headies] giving Blackface’s debut album, ‘’Ghetto Child’’ an average score would warrant a scorned response from the artist in ‘Ahead of the game.’
Gone also are the days when artists boldly send their albums months in for the critic to listen ahead of its release. Except for a few who trust the process, the majority are not confident enough to entertain feedback from ‘mere writers’ or ‘bloggers’.
This is 2019, fandom is the order of the day, once a group of young fans like or approves a song, then it’s almost already a hit, and just as the fans dictate the music, so also are they dictating the narrative of reviews. With social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, everyone now has an avenue to share their opinion about a new record five seconds into when you press play.
The current state of journalism has also ensured that to survive, many online publications have become indebted to the traffic that comes to the website.
I had recently joined Pulse when Adekunle Gold released his sophomore album, ‘’About 30'’ on May 25, 2018. Perhaps buoyed by the album’s creative rollout, by the time I stepped into the office around 6 am, google trends had as one of its top three searches ‘’About 30 review,’’ so my job for that day was clear, do a quick review now and supply those eagerly in demand of it.
The internet age has also ensured that there really are no longer gatekeepers anymore in the industry, every view expressed irrespective of how well written is subject to scrutiny and fan bias, so every publication has to devise a means to either ‘Conform or die.’
The popular blog, DJ Booth stands out for its ‘’One Listen Reviews,’’ now regarded as the purest form of modern-day album reviews, usually written by the brilliant Yoh, whose pen is a gift to upcoming writers. At-times these reviews are delivered before the majority of the readers even get to listen to the albums.
However, one way they have been able to balance things out, that is getting in the numbers while also serving those in search of quality and in-depth reviews, which artists most times knowingly turn a blind eye to especially if the first reviews are bad, is that many critics eventually go back to these albums weeks or even months after and expand further on their initial review shedding more light into what may have been missed.
Here is where I drop my pen, as an artist, would you appreciate a review more because it took a long time to be written or the actual quality of the content even if it was written in ‘30 minutes?’
This is the way the world works now, everyone is seeking some form of instant gratification, nobody owes anyone their time to sit on a review for a week anymore. If it is good enough, a true critic will always find a way to tell the story right.
You may have created the body of work but you need to understand that both you and the critic are subject to what the fans think about it, so the review may be about your music but it is actually not meant for you. Reviews are written to challenge, guide the readers and untangle the masked messages in the songs.
So instead of focusing on what the critic said, focus more on your art, focus on your listeners and make the type of music compelling enough in the first place to warrant multiple listens.
And as critics, albums reviews may have lost its influence but it is still an important piece in contributing to the documentation of the culture.
Keep doing what you know how to do best, if deadline and your readers permit, take time to unravel the layers but where quick reviews are a must, then let’s make sure as hell we do a damn good job trusting our judgment, because seriously almost everyone who has tasted food before can tell in one bite the one which has salt in it.