The central claim in Part 1 was that mainstream rap critics fail to take seriously the gripes that disenchanted golden era fans have with the current rap landscape. Instead, these fans are reduced to bitter old grouch stereotypes, while their legitimate concerns about the overall quality of today’s rap, especially in comparison to 80s and 90s rap, are dismissed or ignored.
I’m working from the premise that today’s rap landscape is better in some ways (inclusiveness, access), but worse in more ways (everything else). And in my view, the ways in which the landscape is better don’t lead to better music. As I wrote in Part 1, there is no shortage of critics who scoff at the idea that the music is in decline; I haven’t found any credible critic, though, who can say with a straight face that the quality of albums hasn’t dropped off (at least at the top).
Disenchanted golden age fans who try to pinpoint why the music has fallen off often cite commercial pressures, the broadening of the fanbase, the decline of sampling, the consolidation of corporate media, and the internet-fueled democratization of the means of music production and consumption. Yet there’s no inherent reason why these things, even when taken together, had to diminish the quality of the music.
When we set aside the changing cast of characters, the expansion of audiences and styles, and the (d)evolution of the sound, what distinguishes today’s rap landscape from that of the golden era are the norms by which fans police the quality of the music. I will argue that these norms have been weakened substantially since the mid ‘90s. The resulting social anomie that characterizes the current rap landscape has fueled the personal anomie of the average disenchanted golden era fan.
What defined these golden era norms?
Golden era norms of rap criticism were shaped by four main principles:
Principle 1: Reward originality and creativity; punish biting.
Principle 2: Treat technical skill as necessary, but not sufficient.
Principle 3: Shun crossover acts that bypassed the normal channels (i.e. did not receive widespread sanctioning/vetting from rap heads)
Principle 4: Regard it as a duty to criticize substandard music, even when it comes from favored artists.
These principles are hardly unique to rap, but the ways in which they played out in practice and the ways they played off of black critical traditions gave rap’s critical norms a character all their own. Though image and symbolism certainly played a role (Principle 3 is a prime example), these norms were mostly about aesthetics.
Because these four principles are often misunderstood, I’d like to say a little more about each one.
Let’s get this out of the way: there is original rap being produced now, and there was an endless parade of biters during the golden era. What Principle 1 meant in practice was that blatantly jacking styles was generally frowned upon and was seen as beneath any rapper who wanted respect. The anti-biting principle represented a recurring thread in black music criticism only more intense.
The golden era emphasis on technique has been caricatured as some sort of preference for clinical, Joe Satriani-style masturbatory excess (either in a vocal sense, or a “conceptual" sense). In reality, the point of Principle 2 was to establish that all things being equal, skilled vocalism and lyricism matter and should be encouraged and that greatness is impossible without a baseline level of technical ability.
Principle 3 concerned how rap fans wanted the genre to be represented in the mainstream. If a wack or manufactured-for-pop rapper blew up, there was a collective effort among rap fans to actively spurn this rapper. This effort was dependent on the fact that black youth tastes determine what rap is considered cool—not only to rap fans, but to sympathetic outsiders as well. Rap fans, then, had the temerity to say, “Enough. Let's shun this wack shit" and the sway to actually do it.
Principle 4 was the defining principle of the golden era. It fostered a willingness to call out wackness, wherever it surfaced. Even respected artists LL, Kane, Tribe, Dre, Jay Z and Nas felt the sting of Principle 4 in action. At its best, Principle 4 cultivated neither blanket negativity nor an inclination to hate anything “different.” Most golden era fans understood that the habit of crying wolf about how rap sucks now and the fixation on “sucka MCs,” “wack DJs,” and “biters” were tropes that reflected rap’s competitive spirit and inclination toward improvement.
Why were these norms so effective?
These four principles combined to foster a ruthlessly competitive creative environment that simultaneously promoted quality and actively sought to expose and shun wackness. If your records sucked, they weren’t going to be played for that long. If you couldn’t rap live, you got booed (and in rare instances, you got your monkey ass whooped). To varying degrees, vaudeville, metal, punk, and country audiences were known for their rowdy audiences and rigid norms. In rap, though, the critical norms typical of male-dominated, aggressive youth music and the critical norms of black music coalesced. The pervasive air of critical (and sometimes physical) menace surrounding the reception of the music distinguished rap’s critical norms from those of jazz, blues, and rock, or any previous form of black music. Part of the appeal of golden era rap was the edge that this critical menace gave the music.
I feel obligated to state that these norms were problematic in a number of ways. Chauncey teaches classes on hip hop and pop culture. His students are often dumbfounded and even angry that hip hop’s critical norms were so harsh. Although I grew up in this critical environment, I can appreciate these students’ perspective. While effective in certain contexts, fear is not exactly an ideal motivation for creating art. Golden era critical norms were not very welcoming to many groups and certain forms of expression (though this point has been overstated).
Worse, however, was that the merciless nature of golden era rap norms cultivated an uncritical element among some fans. These fans, emboldened by the norms’ harshness and spoiled by the abundance of quality mainstream rap, dismissed good music for superficial, nitpicky reasons (e.g. the artists’ image/production changed from rugged and grimy to glossy; the lead singles were blatant crossover attempts, the music appeals to women).
What happened to these norms?
In hindsight, it should have been obvious that golden era norms were unsustainable—they were based on historically contingent factors and a whole lot of luck. These norms were ultimately gutted by a series of overlapping trends in rap fandom, black culture, and the broader culture.
Golden era rap norms operated alongside (and occasionally within) the contentious debates black folks have always had about the roles and implications of their art and culture. These debates have always revolved around a series of tensions (e.g. masses vs. elites, folk culture vs. high culture, black folks vs. outsiders, authenticity/artistic freedom vs. political art). Though always heated, these debates have ultimately been a healthy example of the black public sphere’s depth and vitality. However, these debates and all four of the golden era critical principles have been crippled by the overwhelming influence of two (quasi)arguments: the hustler ethic and the hater defense.
The hustler ethic, summarized brilliantly by Rafi Kam, leads its proponents to counter any criticism with the inane response “I’m tryin to get my paper.” An earlier version of the hustler ethic used to be offered reluctantly against the backdrop of widespread racial discrimination in the entertainment industry (“There isn’t much space for complex black expression, but I’m an entertainer and I want to work;” “I’m employing black people; doesn’t that count for something?”). In the hustler ethic’s current expression, the fact that craft is an afterthought compared to the naked profit motive is no longer shameful; amazingly, it’s become a source of pride.
Unlike the hustler ethic, the hater defense doesn’t even require those who use it to offer up any justification. When artists use the hater defense, they don’t need to defend their creative output or acknowledge potential areas for improvement; the hater defense serves as a blanket condemnation of any and all criticism.
The increasing shamelessness of the hustler ethic and the triumph of the hater defense are both general cultural trends, of course, but they have hit black culture especially hard.The ultimate goal of both the hustler ethic and the hater defense is to silence substantive criticism and marginalize aesthetic judgment. That’s precisely what they’ve done to black cultural criticism in general, and rap criticism specifically.
The splintering of the rap audience has also weakened golden era critical norms by intensifying the polarization and politicization of taste. Fans now ride for their preferred faction over everything else, severely hampering Principles 1, 2, and especially 4 in the process. Because of perceived threats from “the other side” (think again of the NYstalgist-revanchist feud), factions of fans heap ridiculous superlatives on their favorite artists until the praise becomes something like consensus.
For a perfect example of how this polarization has diminished aesthetic standards, consider the increasingly political and unwarranted late-era 5 Mic album ratings of the now defunct(?) Source Magazine. The external political pressures on this one limited yet influential publication typifies the deterioration of the overall critical landscape of the last decade or so.
Five of the last six albums to which The Source issued its perfect 5-Mic album rating are listed below:
Life After Death (1997)—This album contained some incredible songs by a rapper who died at the top of his game, but there’s never been a classic hip hop double album. Life After Death is no exception. Because BIG had just died, there was significant pressure. The 5 Mic rating was questionable, but The Source should get a pass for this one given the circumstances.
Blueprint (2001)—More cohesive than several of Jay Z’s previous albums, but not classic. Jay started getting a bit lazy with his lyrics here, and he coasted largely on personality. This one was problematic because The Source seemed to be swayed more by the album’s event-like hype, by Jay’s s feud with Nas, and by the album’s manufactured gravitas and self-conscious classic status-seeking than by the music itself.
Stillmatic (2001)—This review, not the reviews for The Minstrel Show and The Naked Truth, put the final nail in the coffin of The Source's critical relevance. The Source had long been criticized (justly) for its heavy NY bias, but once the magazine lost the ability to credibly assess NY rap (pretty much the only music it knew how to assess), it served no purpose at all. The classic status bestowed upon this Nas album was indefensible from an aesthetic standpoint—the album contained a handful of stellar tracks surrounded by overrated garbage. The only way to explain it was that there was immense pressure to 1) avoid the appearance of siding with Nas’ then-nemesis Jay Z and 2) herald Nas’ return to form, especially given all of the hype surrounding the album. It’s no coincidence that albums by Biggie, Jay Z, and Nas, NY’s biggest and most respected solo acts, received classic ratings because The Source was, in essence, an exercise in NY rap mythmaking. But the pressure to bend the rules of criticism for reasons outside of the music extended beyond the borders of New York.
The Fix (2002)—This was a nice album, to be sure, but it didn’t even come close to Face’s best albums. What happened here was likely The Source realizing that, after heaping classic status on the albums of three New York rap giants, the magazine had to bestow the same honor on an album of a Southern rap giant.
The Naked Truth (2005)— The less said about this Lil Kim “classic” the better, but aside from the conflict of interest shadiness, I think there was a gender quota thing going on.
The Source wasn’t alone in lowering critical standards. This general relaxing of aesthetic standards has benefited older favorites and younger favorites alike.
What does this mean for mainstream rap criticism?
The point of all of this isn’t to blame the mainstream rap critics I referenced in Part 1 for the decline of golden era critical norms—they aren’t responsible for this decline; these critics are merely responding to the new climate in a way that makes sense to them and their audiences. This is also not about challenging critics to “take rap [norms] back” to ‘88 or ‘94 or any other year. It’s neither possible nor desirable to try to recreate the critical environment of the golden era. What critics can and should do, however, is learn from past critical environments to improve upon the current one. Critics are actually doing this in some respects. For example, they have looked back to rap’s pre-album era to help flesh out what a rap landscape divorced from the album as the primary artistic vehicle could look like given today’s technology (how critics have responded to the deluge of mixtape releases and the lack of quality control is an entirely different matter).
Moreover, critics have a duty provide context and history, not only for the music they critique but also for the history of music criticism on the ground and in print. This is especially important given that history-challenged rap outsiders are and will continue to be the primary consumers of rap criticism.
Critics can render the landscape in nuanced ways—ways that don’t reflect tired frames (NYstalgist vs. revanchist, NY vs. everywhere else). Specifically, they can address the legitimate concerns that many disenchanted golden era fans have with current musical and critical environment; they can consider the negative effects cultural and ideological pressures have had on aesthetic norms.
It’s not only in critics’ interests to do these things; it’s in the interest of the music.
Ironically, my attachment to the album form can be critiqued as informed by a rockist bias.
 This is, I think, supposed to refer to the growing influence of women, white folks, non-Americans, and non-rap heads.
 I’m talking about a combination of norms on the ground, as experienced by the average rap head, and those held by tastemakers and rap critics.
Which is why it’s so strange to hear academic types, hip hop feminists, and other hip hop “activists” talk in conspiratorial terms about white audiences driving the direction of the music.
 My dad fronted a few bands in the South and in L.A.in the 60s and 70s. According to him and his former bandmates, the climate of some of the surviving chitlin circuit venues (even with the South’s renowned cordiality) made the Apollo Theatre seem like a tea party.
 Those interested in black music and black politics should check out studies on the racial uplift ideology literature of the late 19th Century through 1950s, which reveals, among other things, “New Negro” discomfort with black folk culture (demonstrative church music, blues, jazz, narratives depicting uneducated black folk.). This literature features recurring questions such as “How does popular black art affect the moral training of black children?” and “How will this art make us look to white people?” If you replace all of the “negro”s with “black”s or “African American”s,” you’d swear that these things were written today.
 There was also a palpable pressure on the magazine to award Illmatic (1994), and Aquemeni (1998) high scores. The former album because Nas was hailed as the 2nd coming of Rakim, the latter album because The Source’s credibility had been pushed to the limit by its extreme bias toward NY artists when it came to granting albums classic status. But because these two albums actually deserved their 5 Mic ratings, the pressure was overshadowed by the music.