In August 2003, at the age of seventeen, I made a decision on a whim that permanently altered the trajectory of my life. I wrote an album review and sent it to Pitchfork. Founded by Ryan Schreiber in 1995, the music site was known for its abstract and acerbic assessments of contemporary albums with a focus on left-of-centre rock music. While I enjoyed reading its detailed, creative reviews of obscure records, I noticed that it had a blind spot when it came to hip hop. In 2001, a banner year for great rap releases, Pitchfork’s year-end album list featured only one rap record, The Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox.
The album I reviewed was Shadows on the Sun by Brother Ali, a fierce Minnesota rapper signed to Rhymesayers. I didn’t understand why the site hadn’t already covered this album, which was a highly anticipated underground rap release produced by Ant from Atmosphere. It had been out for three months with no review! So I decided to take a crack at it:
A Molotov cocktail of Nas’s chipped-toothed storyteller, Slug’s introspective emo-thug, and Common Sense’s wordplay aficionado, Brother Ali has clearly studied the album structures of mid-’90s masters. From the urine-soaked authenticity of his portrayal of inner city Minneapolis life (“Room with a View”) to the staggering detail of a conflict with his wife-beating neighbor (“Dorian”) to a bass monster spiritual alloy of The Legion’s “Jingle Jangle” and Atmosphere’s “Flesh,” where he claims to be “a cross between John Gotti and Mahatma Gandhi” (“Bitchslap”), Ali focuses his powerful delivery equally on reality-based depth charges and classic rap braggadocio.
Pitchfork published my review (an overly laudatory 8.7) and highlighted it as one of the year’s best in its year-end retrospective book, Thesaurus Musicarum: The Pitchfork Year in Music, 2003. (Yes, it once published and sold a book made out of articles from its website.) A quote from the review was featured on a sticker on every copy of Champion, Brother Ali’s next release. Still in high school, I quickly became Pitchfork’s authority on hip hop. Back in 2003, the site wasn’t yet a household name. But plugged-in music nerds around the world were familiar with it. This was before anyone talked about “the Pitchfork effect,” the term used by journalists to describe the stratospheric sales boost that a positive Pitchfork review could have for previously unknown bands like Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene.
I was a young Black rapper with a solid grasp of classic and underground hip hop, which imbued my writing about rap with a level of credibility no other reviewer there had. If you look at the write-ups for Pitchfork’s top fifty singles of 2003, when some of the other writers wrote about rap, it seemed as if they were doing it begrudgingly, like they had been forced to acknowledge the greatness of a track but wished they hadn’t. It felt disrespectful. Some writers wrote about rap music like they were detailing the movements of a newly discovered tribe in National Geographic. Back then, white critics treated mainstream rap and R&B singles solely as guilty pleasures. This was before the poptimism movement took root in critical circles in 2004, when writers eschewed rockist perspectives and attributed more artistic relevance to mainstream pop, rap, and R&B.
I enjoyed deep listening, living with a new album and taking the time to break down what was special about it. When I was covering a record that was firmly in my lane, like Ghostface’s The Pretty Toney Album or Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth, I was proud to have the opportunity to review it. All those years of accumulating music knowledge that had seemed, to nearly everyone else, like a complete waste of time finally had a useful application. Writing for Pitchfork connected me to an international network of fellow music nerds that went far beyond my pals in Edmonton. I felt like I was doing a public service by spreading the gospel of underground rap to a wider audience.
Getting published by a professional website quickly gave me an overinflated sense of critical superiority. I’d tell anyone who would listen that I wrote for Pitchfork, regardless of whether they knew what that was. My conversations at Listen Records changed in tenor as I approached every musical debate with more swagger and an unearned confidence in the veracity of my opinions. I was competitive with the other writers. I had already been a bit of a smart aleck, but getting this gig pushed me into arrogant asshole territory.
I soon gained a reputation for being a tough, vengeful reviewer. Promo CDs started filling my mom’s mailbox (getting discs for free was a dream come true), and I wrote reviews like I was on a mission. Great albums inspired me, but mediocre ones filled me with anger. And to make something that truly sucked? That was unforgivable. I would crush bands with harsh reviews and punitive scores, never stopping to consider what impact a negative review from Pitchfork might have on their careers. I reviewed albums with the fervour of a crusader converting pagans to Catholicism.
I usually stuck to the conscious side of the hip hop divide when I chose what to review, and when I covered something more commercial, I didn’t pull any punches. My most publicly maligned piece by far was the 3.2 review I wrote for Juelz Santana’s From Me to U. It occasionally resurfaces on Twitter. People believe that what I wrote was sacrilege. At the time, I was actually a card-carrying fan of The Diplomats (a.k.a. Dipset), Juelz’s group. I even used to rock an XXXL Dipset promo shirt that I picked up for free in Harlem on a trip to visit my dad. But I perceived the Juelz album as a typically undercooked solo effort from a member of a strong group. I still agree with my opinion from back then, but my approach leaves a lot to be desired:
“Dipset (Santana’s Town)” is—and this is no exaggeration— the worst song of the year. A stuttering abomination, the beat by Self sounds like what might happen if “Flight of the Bumblebee” got mixed with the theme from Psycho and random female utterances. The lyrics don’t help, with Santana screaming, “The whole bird gang’s in here / Like Kurt Cobain was here, yeah yeah yeah yeah!!!,” subsequently setting off the nonsensical rhyme of “They the paparazzi, they the livest posse / Kamikaze, Nazi, Nazi, copy, papi?” and ending it with “I’m a baller baller / You’re not at all a baller / That’s why I squashed your daughter / Left her home, call her, call her.” The song ends and you just sit. You think. You wonder. The song has a place in your heart now. Your arteries close. Your heart explodes. The song has taken another life. Fin.
What I didn’t understand back then was that rap that was meant to be hype or for the club shouldn’t be assessed with the same criteria as rap that was meant to be lyrical. I found Juelz’s lyrics to be repetitive, misogynistic, and generic. But, if lyrics aren’t the point in his music, did he succeed in generating the vibe that he set out to create with the song? Clearly he did, because people are still passionately angry with me about the review decades later, and folks likely still go crazy when the song comes on in the club or on the radio in New York, whether I like it or not.
There are many things that I’m proud of from my time writing for Pitchfork, though. I was happy that I could bring more American attention to Canadian rappers like Buck 65 and Pip Skid by covering their albums. My review of Viktor Vaughn’s Vaudeville Villain and the collaborative review with Nick Sylvester of Madvillainy helped to solidify MF DOOM’s rightful place in the pantheon of great emcees. I reviewed The Grey Album by Danger Mouse, assisting in the definition of that album’s cultural significance. Most importantly, my writing pushed the editorial compass of Pitchfork toward hip hop, a direction the site has progressively shifted toward more and more ever since.
The nadir of my time at Pitchfork involved an email interaction I had with El-P. I had recently reviewed 2004’s Definitive Jux Presents III, a compilation album from the preeminent underground rap label. My 4.0 review was by far the most self-indulgent thing I’ve ever written: a concept review (these are never good) in which I wrote a script that satirized the label’s rappers as a bunch of sex-crazed, drug-addled losers who were purposefully trying to make bad music, riding high on the success of their earlier work. It was sophomoric and petty, but it accurately represented the feeling of disappointment I had about the direction the label seemed to be going in.
I received an email from El-P telling me that the review hurt a bit but that it was also funny. I took this as an invitation to unload a torrent of constructive criticism on the state of Def Jux to him. I said that he should sign Breezly Brewin from Juggaknots to the label and that he needed to get Vast Aire to smoke less weed so his music would improve. El-P was not happy about receiving unsolicited career advice from some random eighteen-year-old from Canada. He found a link to my early demos and battle raps where I had listed him as an influence. He made fun of them on a Def Jux message board. When I confronted him about it, he told me I needed to grow up, to contact him only through his publicist and never email him directly again. The whole situation was ridiculously unprofessional and I’m still mortified by how I conducted myself. But I’m at least thankful that I made these mistakes when I was young and had a chance to grow and learn from them.
By the summer of 2004, things at Pitchfork were becoming less rewarding. I had a quota of reviews I needed to deliver within a given time frame and I was getting saddled with more and more generic, uninspiring promo albums to fill it. I became disillusioned with the expectation that I should pass lasting judgments primarily based on first impressions. I was studying at Hampton University, in Virginia, by then, and I had to contend with my job at a professional publication at the same time. I started missing deadlines, burnt out from reviewing an unending stream of dull releases.
There was also the issue of my payment, which seemed to be getting slower and slower. Obviously, this was pre-Condé Nast. I regularly had to beg Schreiber for what I was owed after long stretches of waiting. There was no Pitchfork union at the time. I had no contract. So my only recourse was to do petty things like name the email attachments with my reviews “pay_me.doc.”
I also started to bristle at Schreiber’s editing style, which was more and more intrusive. He occasionally added in his own passages, including his own references without consulting me. He added a bunch of stuff about Kiss and Hall & Oates to my year-end write-up about OutKast’s Speakerboxxx / The Love Below. He started changing the scores I assigned to my reviews. I would’ve appreciated a more collaborative editing process and more communication about the quality of my writing. After I spent only eleven months writing for Pitchfork, he claimed that my writing “lacked clarity” and was “too unclear to edit,” and I was fired.
I proceeded to have an internet meltdown. I posted about getting fired on both the Hipinion and I Love Music / ILX message boards, including some of the personal email correspondence I had had with Schreiber. The Hipinion board was initially the official Pitchfork message board (originally called Pitchfork Media Smackdown), but it eventually branched off and became its own independent web community that still frequently criticized the site’s reviews. “Pitchfork fired me so you guys can stop hating me if you want,” I glumly posted. I could dish criticism out, but I couldn’t take it.
Schreiber is a true music lover, and I was honoured to be part of what he built. But I felt a bit like I was a problem that he needed to get rid of, Pitchfork’s only Black contributor dropped unceremoniously in the middle of a pay dispute. I recorded my song “Sharks” not long afterward, where I make a reference to my firing:
Used to write for a site but I didn’t spark smart
Or write right, who could think it? My first pink slip.
I got the money Pitchfork owed me a few months later. In October 2004, I started writing for a similar website, Stylus Magazine, which was created by Todd Burns. It had a smaller readership, but I had a great rapport with Todd. We later worked together at Red Bull Music Academy. Around the same time, I tried my hand at writing for a local publication. Armed with a suddenly renewed well of irrational confidence, I reached out to See Magazine’s music editor, Zoltan Varadi, an effortlessly cool guy who resembled a slightly more vampiric Ric Ocasek.
I dove headfirst into contributing at See after dropping out of university at the beginning of 2005. It was the place where I truly learned how to write. It was the first time I got to work with an editor in person. I got the chance to write my own columns and features. I felt like I had more creative control than ever before. I really enjoyed the ecosystem of the paper as well, this motley crew of strange hipsters writing articles about sex and rock and art and civil disobedience. It was a side of Edmonton that I hadn’t known existed.
See Magazine was where I first encountered Juliann Wilding. Originally from British Columbia, she was the coolest person I’d ever seen. A little older than me, she was a brilliant, self-assured fashionista who seemed to be skilled in every artistic discipline she tried. She stuck out like a sore thumb in Edmonton.
See didn’t have the same level of prestige as Pitchfork, but I loved it nonetheless. I’d come by the office to hang out with Wilding and see what promo CDs were lying around. I would bang out hundred-word CD reviews for fifteen dollars a pop. It gave me an opportunity to develop my voice and make mistakes without any danger of upsetting a multinational corporation.
See was one of two fiercely competitive alternative weekly newspapers in Edmonton at the time. After Varadi left See, I moved over to its competitor, Vue Weekly, in 2007. I wrote several columns there, including one on TV called He Watch Channel Zero and a music column called Backlash Blues. I loved working with the editor, Eden Munro.
It was hard to tell whether anyone in town actually read anything I wrote, but it still felt tangible. I saw my role as a local journalist as being an archivist of our city’s music history, which had felt fleeting and ephemeral up to that point. I wrote about iconic local moments that might have otherwise been forgotten, like the time that Jeremy Nischuk threw squids at his former band The Wet Secrets during one of their shows. I also wrote tour diaries and reviewed shows I’d seen abroad. It allowed me to get my reps up as a writer while I tried to make it as a rapper. I wanted to help turn Vue into Edmonton’s Village Voice.
See Magazine and Vue Weekly were bought by BC businessman Bob Doull and merged into one paper in 2011. Vue Weekly was shuttered in 2018 after being sold to Great West Newspapers. Edmonton went from having two alt weeklies to none in just a few short years.
I probably wouldn’t have written a book if it weren’t for my local alt weekly newspapers giving me the opportunity to write. And, when it comes to my music career, nearly all of the cover stories that raised my public profile were published by alternative papers: Vue, See, Montreal Mirror, Eye Weekly, and Exclaim!. Other than Exclaim!, those papers have all folded. To get that level of media attention is a pipe dream for emerging artists today, even if they have an expensive PR firm behind them. When I had an album coming out in the ’00s, an interview with me might be featured on the front page of the Globe and Mail. Now, most major Canadian newspapers don’t have a dedicated music writer and barely have a culture section. In 2017, Statistics Canada estimated that culture (music, art, film, TV, writing, live performance, libraries) contributed $58.9 billion to Canada’s GDP. That’s more than utilities ($46 billion); accommodation and food services ($46 billion); agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting ($39 billion); and sports ($7.3 billion). But culture is the first thing to go when a publication needs to make cuts. What does this say about how we value art in our society?
And what opportunities are left for young BIPOC journalists in Canada who want to write about music? Music journalism is a profession that doesn’t pay well at its highest levels and typically requires you to be a hobbyist for quite some time before you ever see remuneration. I was able to do it because I was a teenager who lived at home with his mom, and even then, I had to work other jobs at the same time. It’s an occupation with a dwindling number of available jobs and a high barrier to entry. Coming from a privileged background can be the difference between making it or not. This fact tends to disproportionately affect BIPOC writers.
Without alt weeklies, there are even fewer entry-level opportunities in the industry. Cities with active alt weeklies, strong culture sections, and local arts reporting—like New York, Los Angeles, and London, UK—are often the places that maintain vibrant arts communities over long periods of time. But Toronto, despite having the largest number of artists in the country (27,000, or 17 percent of all Canadian artists) and briefly having been home to the hottest rap scene in the world, currently has only one local alt weekly (Now Magazine, which was bought by Media Central Corporation in 2019), and arts coverage in local papers and on TV is shrinking more and more every day, with stories on real estate often taking its place.
Picking up the local alternative paper was always the first thing I did when I got to a town on tour. They gave you a clear idea of the vibe and flavour of a city. Alt weeklies were the lifeblood of local scenes. The internet certainly accelerated their demise. Message boards like Indecline and Stillepost took their place as digital representations of local Canadian scenes for a short few years before MySpace and Facebook, in turn, rendered message boards obsolete. But local exposure in the form of a physical publication distributed all over town can’t be replaced. These are the places where bands get their first press and their first reviews, where fans get in on the ground level, where writers find their voices. The scene gets to build something together, and the local press helps legitimize what’s happening. Posting on a blog or on Reddit isn’t quite the same experience.
I returned to music journalism after moving to Toronto in 2015, freelancing for several publications. But I never had the urge to get back into reviewing albums. After years of going through the ringer as a musician, I had no interest in attributing negative value to someone’s art. And the whole enterprise felt more and more pointless with the advent of streaming. People didn’t need to read what I thought about an album; they could easily hear the music at home and decide for themselves.
When today’s music press tries to push an album, it often feels forced and artificial, like an extension of PR spin. Today, consensus is manufactured through publicity teams using fake accounts to post tweets and comments about a new TV show or labels paying to have their singles play in the background of an influencer’s Instagram story. It rarely seems to happen organically anymore. Streaming playlist editors and TikTok stars are today’s biggest gatekeepers and arbiters of taste. They dictate what gets heard more than any written review or profile. A weird album spontaneously taking the world by storm has never felt more unlikely.
Back in the early 2000s, Pitchfork was a daily destination for music nerds and a career obsession for the musicians I knew. Now, you don’t really hear anyone talk about the site unless it has given an album a 10.0 or the year-end lists are out. In 2015, Pitchfork was sold to Condé Nast for an undisclosed amount. However much money it was, it wasn’t for the value of the website, the reviews, or any of the content. It was for the value of the readership (tone-deafly referred to as “millennial males” by Condé Nast’s chief digital officer) to advertisers.
Is there still value in written music criticism? The most influential music critic today isn’t a writer; it’s YouTuber Anthony Fantano from The Needle Drop. Fans on Twitter debate their top five rappers, dead or alive, and their picks feel more stratified and personal than ever. There are human beings who consider J. Cole to be the greatest living rapper. Others would rather die than listen to him. Some people think Playboi Carti is horrible while many others think he’s the second coming. Does it matter if we can’t all agree?
In early 2019, I was tagged on Instagram by someone I didn’t recognize called DJ Design. The image was a screenshot of an old review I had written with the following caption:
Foreign Legion gets a 2.1 out of ten on Pitchfork in 2004. I wonder what the point one was for? This reviewer guy ended up becoming a rapper himself.
I felt a tinge of sickness when I read it. I didn’t remember writing the review at all. I didn’t remember the group or the album. It was just another review to me. It made me think back to all the times when I felt I’d been unfairly judged for my own music. I went back, read what I had written, and listened to the record, Foreign Legion’s Playtight, again. It was average, not particularly compelling or groundbreaking but not the absolute worst thing ever. The score I’d given was way too low, and the review was brutally mean spirited.
DJ Design turned out to have been the album’s producer. I responded in the comments with a mea culpa:
I wish I hadn’t gone so hard in my reviews back then. I was eighteen with a chip on my shoulder and an extremely myopic view of what I considered good rap. Anything I wasn’t personally into felt like a direct affront to me. I got way too personal in how I critiqued your music and I’m sorry for that. Today I believe music writing should be about amplifying the music you love, not taking down the things you’re not into. I’d like to apologize to you for being so unnecessarily cruel.
DJ Design accepted my apology and said it helped give him closure after all these years. But our interaction made me reflect on why I ever wanted to be a critic to begin with. Why did I even think I had good taste in the first place? I grew up with a hip hop DJ for a father. I learned the canon, worked at a record store, taught myself how to rap, knew more about the culture than anyone in my city or anyone that I talked to online. People often told me that I had good taste. It became part of my personality and I defined myself by it.
Reading Why You Like It: The Science and Culture of Musical Taste by Nolan Gasser made me think about how my taste in music has been shaped by my background. My taste profile was based on being a young, urban-dwelling, working-class Black man who gravitated toward gritty, off-kilter sounds as a reaction to growing up in a city where rock, pop, and country were the dominant genres. All of this dictated my perspective as a critic. Being hired by Pitchfork was a validation and reinforcement of all the assumptions I had about my own taste. I’ve also come to believe that becoming a critic was partly rooted in a subconscious desire for the social mobility that such a role could potentially provide me. And it wasn’t often that someone with my particular cultural background got the opportunity to become a critic, especially in Canada.
When I first started writing about music, it was an extension of my long-time desire to share my unbridled enthusiasm about the songs I loved. I wanted to add another dimension to what people listened to, just like my journalist heroes had done for me when I was growing up. But, somewhere along the line, hubris got in my way. Becoming an authority about a subject as a teenager who had never held any form of power in society had a corrupting effect.
In philosopher David Hume’s 1757 essay “Of the Standard of Taste,” he describes the “true standard” for being a good critic as a combination of “strong sense” and “delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison and cleared of all prejudice.” I ticked off most of those boxes, but I let my personal bias and prejudice get in the way of fairly assessing some albums. I was punishing artists for making imperfect art, yet my own approach was inconsistent: in some cases, I’d take an assignment deathly seriously; for other reviews, I would be carelessly flippant.
For a long time, I felt shame and embarrassment when people discovered my past as a music reviewer. I would talk about my time at Pitchfork as if it had been just another bad job I’d had as a teenager, like when I worked at a Canadian Tire garden centre. But I realize now that this feeling was related to how my tenure there ended. I was also concerned that my past as a critic would somehow make my music seem as if it came from a less authentic place. Only now have I grown comfortable imagining another foray into the world of music criticism, one where I can explore the constantly shifting galaxy of hip hop with curiosity, with compassion, and without malice.
Excerpted from Bedroom Rapper: Cadence Weapon on Hip-Hop, Resistance, and Surviving the Music Industry by Rollie Pemberton. Copyright © 2022 by Rollie Pemberton. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.