New American Songbook: When Great Music Isn't Enough
A critic of any art has two jobs. The first is to measure a work whether it's a song, a painting or whatever, and set some criteria. How does it work technically? How do the methods employed a advance the content of the piece? Is there a consistency between the narrative and the structure?
The second job is then to take stock of the piece and how it exists in the world. Does it add or subtract meaning? Does the piece move forward an understanding of the world, or does it maintain the status quo?
I've thought a lot about this as I've been listening to the much anticipated debut album from Brooklyn-based Flatbush Zombies. The trio is associated with the larger Pro Era collective whose members include ASAP Rocky and The Underachievers, a group at the forefront of a kind of lyrical renaissance in hip hop. Flatbush Zombies is billed as psychedelic hip hop which basically means they talk a lot about using acid.
Measuring the work on its own, the album is probably great. The rhymes and deliveries are sharp and rhythmically complex, and the music is at times gorgeous containing a dynamic range not often found in the constantly forte radio mixes were used to. But placing the album in the context of the larger world reveals a narrative with a dismaying lack of innovation. The violence is, at best, typical. The use of drugs is gimmicky. And the description of women is horrifying to hear in 2016.
Maybe this album speaks to somebody. After all we forgive a lot in music for the pleasure of the catchy hook. But I wonder if we, the audience, can do better for our artists letting them know that we believe in them and their skill but that there are some tropes we can no longer abide, even when packaged with beautiful music.