Critics Poll XXVI — Singles

I got a bone to pick.
I got a bone to pick.

I used to think of Pitchfork as the critical equivalent of the Outback Steakhouse — not a destination in itself, but a place you might wind up at for reasons beyond your control. There you’d be served up something thick and oily, overseasoned yet somehow bland, and you’d consume it joylessly. At the end of your visit, you’d wonder why you bothered. During the long Outback period, I barely mentioned Pitchfork in any context. There wasn’t much to say. It was sort of bad and sort of boring, and it wasn’t going anywhere, so I might as well let it carry on with its brand development effort.

But during the past decade, Pitchfork has gradually been deteriorating, and in 2015, it fell off a cliff. Just as the 2008 Merrill Lynch meltdown had to worry you even if you don’t own stock, Pitchfork’s abominable year ought to ring the alarm for all critics, regardless of where you direct your web browser. Somebody in power seems to have decided to turn the the most visited review website in the world into People Magazine plus bad cultural studies jargon. Pitchfork’s new interest in consumer feminism clashes with its apparent mandate to cover — and praise — every crappy, two-bit mixtape released by a coterie of misogynist rappers, and like many institutions on the wishy-washy left, it is currently groaning under the obvious contradictions of its own worldview. These people are absolutely, embarrassingly determined to show the reader that they’re down with various liberation movements and worldwide underclass struggles, which is odd, considering most people still go to the site in order to find out how the new Modest Mouse compares to the old one.

The turd pimento atop the crap sandwich that was Pitchfork ’15 was the Year in Rap piece. It’s worth checking out, because without meaning to, the author does illuminate much of what’s wrong with contemporary writing about music — particularly writing about hip-hop. The Pitchfork piece attempts to summarize the year in rap by fixating on the one and only thing in hip-hop that’s not particularly interesting: beefs. The main reason why beefs are uninteresting is because they are 99% bullshit. They tend to start as childish tiffs that would dissipate on their own were they not seized upon by managers and marketing people and gullible journalists. Mainstream writers love beefs because they’re a prime source of clickbait; also, whether or not they’re willing to admit it, they love to watch black people fight. They’ve got click quotas to meet and they can’t help themselves. Music writers should know better. All the crappy, half-assed diss tracks on mixtapes and internet-only releases ought to tell critics everything they need to know about the true importance of beefs to artists. Not quite zero, but pretty damn close.

The beefs examined in the year end summary both involve Drake — an artist not exactly known for battle rapping. To make matters worse, one of them is, I kid you not, imaginary. The front half of the article addresses Drake’s dreary, engineered exchange with Meek Mill, which dominated garbage-press headlines in July, and the back half attempts to trump up, on the scantiest of evidence, a “cold war” with Kendrick Lamar. Who knows?, Drake and Kendrick might indeed not like each other. Chances are, they’re too busy making music to give it much thought. It’s justifiable, if more than a little reductive, to cast Drake as the protagonist of hip-hop 2015: he put out an album and a half, sold more than a million records, and continued to exert influence over his peers. But after years spent fellating him in posts, reviews, features, and what have you, it’s now clear that Pitchfork doesn’t understand Drake at all.

Drake’s beef with Meek — which will continue as long as they’ve got upcoming releases to promote — was an old-school hip-hop authenticity feud the likes of which we’ve seen a hundred thousand times since De La Soul wrote “Potholes In My Lawn”. Meek Mill, rambunctious Philly emcee, accused Drake of buying his rhymes, which is technically true: Quentin Miller, an Atlanta rapper, contributed verses to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. A dis track was cut, Drake responded with a couple of dis tracks of his own, and when the digital dust settled, the blogs agreed that Meek had gotten the worst of it. (Some of them said he was “murked” or “bodied” in, I suppose, an effort to sound like idiots.) That was Round 1, mind you; round 2 is going on right now. Having seen a few Rocky movies and knowing how this goes, I suspect that Meek will now land some effective counterpunches only to be decisively rebuffed right before Drake decides to release Views From The 6.

Pitchfork pointed out that Drake’s battle verses were not particularly adept or scathing. This is true. But instead of concluding the obvious — that Drake wasn’t really motivated to damage Meek Mill’s career but was instead beefing for the headlines — the year-end piece decried the verdict and shat all over Drake in the process. According to Pitchfork, the inauthentic Drake “won” over the authentic Meek because he understood Instagram and Twitter better than his opponent. A Year in Rap summary piece in a major publication claimed that Drake had attained an unearned win by, essentially, Internet-bullying his peer.

This is a conclusion that could only have been reached by a critic so caught up in the social media spin cycle that he cannot see the world beyond his computer. There was never any possibility that Drake could lose a feud with Meek Mill. Meek is a talented emcee who has yet to figure out how to translate the energy of his live show to the studio; his records sell well, but so does Campbell’s soup. Drake, on the other hand, has been making popular musical history since the release of So Far Gone. He hatched out of his egg with a sound all his own, and that sound is one of the indelible cultural artifacts of the second decade of the 21st century. Real music listeners know this, and would never accept a version of events where Drake was humbled by a mere genre practitioner. Drake “beat” Meek Mill for the same reason that 50 Cent beat Ja Rule, or, for that matter, a diminished 50 was unable to lay a glove on Rick Ross: the battle is an illusion. It’s nothing more than a ratification of the facts in the air.

It is also preposterous for Pitchfork — still allegedly a music publication, at least for the moment — to imply that Drake simply hopped into Kanye West’s lane. Like everybody else in contemporary pop, Drake owes plenty to Kanye and his successful experiments in sound and storytelling. But Drake and his producers have a peculiar and flexible sense of melody derived from Southern soul and blues records, and which does not overlap all that much with Kanye’s own harmonic vocabulary. From the very beginning, Drake has been toeing a narrow line between the arty midwestern style of Kanye West’s records and the swampy blues-rap favored in his beloved Houstatlantavegas. Drake recognize both the pop audience’s appetite for blues melody and the growing blues strain in his songs released by his principal competition (Young Thug, Future, Boosie, et. al.) — and he’s been able to anticipate and co-opt their moves. It’s no coincidence that he went shopping for verses in Atlanta, or that he pinched the groove for “Hotline Bling” from a Virginia artist: instinctively, he realizes that an American pop audience that’s been force-fed soulless Eurodance for the better part of a decade is desperate for a little Dixie dirt. Unlike many other celebrated storytelling vocalists, he does not cut corners by lifting his musical backdrops from filmed entertainment. The emotional effect of a Drake song is generated by sonic phenomena alone: muffled kick drum, distant synthesizer and guitar, and the rapper’s own introspective vocal performances. One of the reasons I find If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late a more compelling album than To Pimp A Butterfly: while Kendrick’s producers work in a sophisticated jazz and soul idiom that’s been covered to fuck and back and therefore capitalize on the resonances produced by familiarity, Drake continues to push his own sound into uncharted territory while paring it back to its unsettling essence. He now owes very little to anybody he’s not crediting in the liner notes, and it’s not hard to argue that the paranoia and detachment that he communicates through his music is every bit as trenchant a reflection of the current American predicament as Kendrick’s poetry is.

Since they’re both late-twentysomething rappers making essential music, it’s inevitable that Drake and Kendrick will be compared. Yet to imply that they’re currently locked in a rap war is sheer bloodthirsty wishcasting. The evidence Pitchfork gathers is circumstantial and scanty at best: a few Kendrick lines from Compton: A Soundtrack that allude to Drake lyrics, and the umpteenth airing of the “Control” verse that felt to me like a simple challenge made among colleagues to shoot for excellence. The core of Pitchfork’s case is “King Kunta,” on which Kendrick famously complains about “a rapper with a ghostwriter.” But the emcee doesn’t specify the target of what is a pretty standard hip-hop putdown — he could be rhyming about anybody. For what it’s worth, Quentin Miller isn’t a ghostwriter; just as Kanye did after he bought the first verse to “Jesus Walks” from Rhymefest, Drake credited his collaborator in the liner notes to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Moreover, “King Kunta” was released months before Meek Mill accused Drake of inauthenticity, and was presumably composed long before that. Kendrick Lamar is a writer of uncommon depth and perspective; he has, as I am sure you’ve noticed, a lot to say about race, power, the police, surveillance, yams, what have you. To suggest that the first single released from his third-album megastatement was written about Drake is unbelievably insulting.

But Pitchfork is oh so eager to register that insult. They really, really want Drake and Kendrick locked in mortal combat, trading subliminal insults and sucking up the attention that would otherwise go to real reporting. They want blood on the floor and all the filthy clicks that go along with it. They’re willing to simplify and reduce Drake’s artistry to do it, and if that requires making Kendrick look like a battling idiot, too, they’re willing to accept that collateral damage. They’re even willing to map Drake vs. Kendrick on top of Jay-Z vs. Nas, and never mind that Kendrick shares little with Nas and Drake shares even less with Jay, and never mind that 2015 is not 2001, and also never mind that there isn’t even any Drake vs. Kendrick in the first place. This would be unfathomably irresponsible if it wasn’t so consistent with the voyeuristic trash heap that the Internet has become.

The irony, of course, is that Pitchfork is in the best position possible to know better: their writers deal with artists all day, and must realize on some level that this is not how musicians operate. Musicians tend to be collaborative people; they’re magpies, they like to borrow ideas and lose themselves to dance. They’re not boxers or gladiators, and they do not, in general, care about the authenticity of their peers or wipeout supremacy unless their feelings get hurt. The best way to hurt their feelings is to provoke them in a public forum, and as far as I can tell, many so-called journalists do nothing all day but attempt that provocation. Let it be known: in 2015, this is what the biggest and best-known music site on the Internet decided it’s going to use that pitchfork for.

  • 1. Drake — “Hotline Bling” (162)
  • 2. Kendrick Lamar — “Alright” (140)
  • 3. The Weeknd — “I Can’t Feel My Face” (118)
  • 3. Jamie xx feat. Young Thug and Popcaan — “(I Know There’s Gonna Be) Good Times” (118)
  • 5. Kendrick Lamar — “King Kunta” (114)
  • 6. Courtney Barnett — “Pedestrian At Best” (112)
  • 7. Belle & Sebastian — “Nobody’s Empire” (112)
  • 8. Chvrches — “Clearest Blue” (111)
  • 9. Adele — “Hello” (108)
  • 9. Natalie Prass — “Bird Of Prey” (108)
  • 9. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Run Away With Me (108)
  • 12. Fetty Wap — “Trap Queen” (103)
  • 13. Lana Del Rey — “High By The Beach” (102)
  • 14. Drake — “Energy” (100)
  • 15. Grimes — “Flesh Without Blood” (94)
  • 16. Kendrick Lamar — “The Blacker The Berry” (93)
  • 16. The Decemberists — “Make You Better” (93)
  • 18. Kanye West, Rihanna & Paul McCartney — “FourFiveSeconds” (90)
  • 19. Missy Elliott feat. Pharrell Williams — “WTF (Where They From)” (88)
  • 20. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment — “Sunday Candy” (84)
  • 21. Tame Impala — “Let It Happen” (81)
  • 22. David Bowie — “Blackstar” (80)
  • 22. Courtney Barnett — “Depreston” (80)
  • 22. Miguel — “Coffee” (88)
  • 25. Hot Chip — “Huarache Lights” (77)
  • 26. Hop Along — “Waitress” (74)
  • 27. Unknown Mortal Orchestra — “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” (71)
  • 28. Sleater-Kinney — “A New Wave” (69)
  • 28. The Front Bottoms — “HELP” (69)
  • 30. Speedy Ortiz — “Raising The Skate” (68)