By now you've probably heard the story: NOW reviewer Jason Richards writes a three-N review of hiphop act k-os's new album, Atlantis: Hymns For Disco. K-os responds by unleashing a racially charged tirade. The story might end there, but the question remains whether there's something inherent to hiphop culture that makes this kind of dust-up explicable, or even inevitable.
Could there be an assumption floating around hiphop nation that critics ought to use affirmative action in their reviewing?
Certainly it's easier to get under hiphop artists' skin than indie rock shoegazer types', admits Pound magazine editor-in-chief Rodrigo Bascuñán, because hiphop is intrinsically personal.
"You can criticize rock music from some distance because there is rock music and then there are [people's] lives. When you criticize hiphop, it's like criticizing a culture. It takes on a more intense meaning. You're going against their livelihood - not against their music, but against their one opportunity in life."
Often rappers are making an attempt to escape dire circumstances in Jane-Finch or Lawrence Park, and a good review can mean the difference between peddling drugs and peddling gold records.
Not that this directly applies to k-os, who was raised in Whitby, but it does describe the milieu in which he operates. While hiphop has gained in financial success, says Murray Forman, communications studies prof at Boston's Northeastern University and author of The 'Hood Comes First, artists continue to have a very defensive stance to make sure "critical encroachment doesn't damage the enterprise."
The "valorization of thug life,"as Forman says, doesn't help matters. "The thug comes out because you have to defend a reputation."
Urban music promoter Tony "Master T" Young recalls a certain level of artist hostility back when he was pushing black music at MuchMusic from 1990 to 2001. "In the 90s, when I was doing my show, hiphop artists were really jaded by the media whether it was reporters or reviewers," explains Young.
"At the time in Toronto there were little cliques. People would say, 'Why are you playing this person's video when you should be playing this?'" says Young. He adds that he was smart enough to avoid reviews and just stuck to exposing the public to as much black culture as possible.
Celine Wong, who built her career writing for the Source, XXL and Vibe, all U.S. mags, admits you get called out as a hater in hiphop more than in other genres. But she thinks artists are beginning to understand the danger of having too many yes-people around them.
"You'd be doing a disservice to the community if you glowed about an album that was bad," says Wong. "People would go out and buy that album and those not into hiphop would say, 'Hiphop sucks because this is supposed to be one of the good albums. '"
Wong says newer artists try to cozy up to reviewers, which only makes objectivity more difficult.
In extreme cases, inflamed relationships between publications and artists can get entirely out of hand. The Source is a good example. This year, the magazine's board finally tossed co-owner Ray Scott, aka Benzino, a mediocre Boston rapper who had an ongoing feud with Eminem and attempted boycotts of the artist he called the "2003 Vanilla Ice" and "Rap Hitler."
Meanwhile, "[Benzino] was pushing his own interests and the interests of the people he was aligned with," explains Forman, adding that the mag lost journalistic cred.
Through all this, says Forman, there's a challenge to the genre to accept more varied opinion. "There's an onus on [artists] to be willing and able to put their own creative enterprise under the microscope and be more self-critical and self-aware," he says.
Forman's advice to hiphoppers, rappers and MCs wishing to rise above the rest? "Develop a thicker skin."