Ice Cube, Guns N' Roses, Notorious B.I.G., XXXTentacion and Tupac

What's the Place of Morality in Music Criticism?

“In popular culture's market system, it is up to listeners to repudiate messages they dislike, passively or actively.”

Jon Pareles wrote this in the New York Times in September 1989 -- the year Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture, and when, in the wake of the Reagan administration, American culture was experiencing “a resurgence of more old-fashioned nativism and racism.'' Pareles, the music critic for the Times, observed in art made by Guns N’ Roses and stand-up comic Andrew Dice Clay “not only deep resentment but an attempt to reassert white male heterosexual power over others.”

Applying a moral lens to art criticism is not a new phenomenon, nor a fringe perspective gone mainstream. Reading a piece of art for its politics and judging it for prejudice is not a product of the Trump presidency. It’s not a view adopted by the “woke” generation who came of age while Obama was in office. And yet there doesn’t seem to be a well-worn path for these readings; as a culture we experience acute discomfort and confusion about how to best process and still use art that has retrograde components, is made by someone who espouses abhorrent views and/or commits acts that indicate failed humanity, or any combination of the above -- and that’s assuming there’s agreement around what constitutes retrograde or abhorrent. We argue. We bemoan. We don’t know what to do with these feelings. Or that artist. That director. That writer. That song.

The lens that is mainstream values has evolved -- what’s wrong in 2019 includes different offenses compared to what earned ink in 1989 -- and who is more often applying that lens has changed, too. Music criticism, for so long the guarded domain of white men, has gradually grown more inclusive -- somewhat. We work with new tolerances.

Lately, de-platforming has been the preferred method for dealing with Bad Actors and Bad Art. Last year, Spotify tried to set parameters that would remove controversial artists' music from its playlists, only to have the initiative backfire, with the recording industry and many artists crying foul. The implementation of the hate content and hateful conduct policy in May 2018 was spurred by the #MuteRKelly movement, which applied pressure to any venues booking Kelly and Kelly’s label, Sony, calling for an end tour his career as a touring musician and for Sony to drop him. At the time, Spotify gave a statement to Billboard explaining that “we don’t censor content because of an artist’s or creator’s behavior, but we want our editorial decisions -- what we choose to program -- to reflect our values. When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful, it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator."

On the same day Kelly’s music was removed from playlists, the music of the late XXXTentacion, who faced allegations of battery, false imprisonment and witness tampering, also disappeared from RapCaviar, the streaming service’s premier rap playlist. In June, Spotify amended the policy, specifically the “hateful conduct” aspect. The company promised to continue to remove content that “expressly and principally promotes, advocates, or incites hatred or violence against a group or individual based on characteristics, including, race, religion, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, veteran status, or disability.” But Spotify said it would not “aim to play judge and jury.” It was the mess of contemporary consumption in microcosm, with the lines between music content and “hateful” conduct blurring for a bit, followed by a retreat that left decisions in the hands of listeners. If you wanted to de-platform, the choice was yours; and eventually Spotify gave users a “mute” function for specific artists to do it.

But even de-platforming isn’t a novel approach. Conservative politicians from both parties worked in vain to force Time Warner to stop distribution of artists like Snoop Dogg and 2Pac in the mid-’90s. Guns N’ Roses were supposed to perform at an AIDS benefit hosted by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in June 1989. In response to the bigoted, homophobic lyrics of “One in a Million,” released in late 1988, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis dumped the band.

Thirty years after Pareles took Guns N’ Roses to task for the prejudice in Axl Rose’s lyrics on “One in a Million,” we’re still wandering a pop culture landscape unsure of how to apply that moral lens, how to convince others that what they’re clinging to isn’t worth the mental and ethical strain. Then, of course, there’s the historical record, which feels more fungible than ever in the streaming era. At the time of the song’s release, the four-star Rolling Stone review of the EP it came from heard “something that sounds oddly like compassion” amidst the bigotry in the “beautiful ballad that attacks nearly every minority group in existence.” Pareles called on listeners “to disabuse bigots of any claim to the mainstream” -- a stance exemplified by a positive review in the music magazine of record. Seven months after the review ran, Axl Rose appeared on Rolling Stone’s cover, and in his interview he defended his lyrics:

I used words like police and n-----s because you’re not allowed to use the word n----r. Why can black people go up to each other and say, “N----r,” but when a white guy does it all of a sudden it’s a big putdown? I don’t like boundaries of any kind. I don’t like being told what I can and what I can’t say. I used the word n----r because it’s a word to describe somebody that is basically a pain in your life, a problem.

Earlier this year, Axl Rose (who has of late been an outspoken critic of Trump and other Republicans) and his bandmates decided to not include “One in a Million” on a sprawling reissue of Appetite for Destruction. You can still stream it, though.

In the last 30 years of music criticism, Pareles’s 1989 story stands out for focusing on a rock band rather than a rap act, which became, in many ways, the perceived cultural threat to American morality. His story acknowledges anti-Semitic remarks made during an interview by Public Enemy’s Professor Griff, but he’s quick to point out that Guns N' Roses is “10 times as commercially successful as Public Enemy” and that, compared to the more widely heard outcry against the rap group, the lyrics of “One in a Million” “have generated hardly a peep. According to Ms. Bridenthal [Bryn Bridenthal, Geffen Records' director of media and artist relations], Mr. Rose's comments to Rolling Stone brought not protests but requests for more interviews, which he has refused.”

If white artists were one transgression away from a major interview, black artists were more often poised for boycotts and censorship. In the 1990s, politicians from both sides of the aisle, black and white; activists; and yes, writers and editors sometimes donned the guise of morality to try and police young black men. Even Body Count’s iconically controversial “Cop Killer” became a referendum on rap music rather than rock because OG L.A. gangster rapper Ice-T fronted the thrash-metal group. When the anti-police brutality anthem became nightly news in 1992, pushing labels to self-censor, black artists making hip-hop suffered. (Metal acts like Cannibal Corpse were name-checked by various politicians during the ’90s as “obscene,” too, but their inclusion had the flavor of the perfunctory. You have to look no further than the names to rile people up.)

For its part, Billboard ran multiple editorials decrying gangsta rap throughout the ’90s, and used the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace as opportunities to dismiss the music and finger wag. The Billboard review of the Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death, published in the April 5, 1997 issue, hardly mentions the music. The byline-free paragraph worries about how “suburban” pre-adolescents -- hard to read that as anything other than “white kids” -- will receive this record; that the music could have utility or pleasure for adults is beyond the review’s imagination. This is the text in full:

Fundamentally, gangsters are the oppressors of the poor and the down-trodden, making money off their fears, flaws, and addictions. They bully into submission and pseudo-respect the desperate communities they claim to represent. They promote a myth of power when in reality all they have are temporary scams (like a fly lifestyle financed with an unrecouped record deal) that they scramble to sustain. “Let the gunshots blow,” bellows B.I.G. in this self-hating circus of death, objectification, and defeat. Life After Death is a hypocritical counterpoint to the Stop the Gunfight album on which he also appears, and its prime audience includes suburban pre-adolescents who buy into its cynical demonization of ghetto youths. The pre-release murder of B.I.G. seemed a pre-meditated slaying, i.e., a deed ordained by organized crime rather than mere poisonous role-playing. A sad waste of time, this record confirms a woeful waste of life and talent.

In September 1996, Billboard ran a nearly page-long editorial entitled “Thug Life: Where Do The Children Play?” Like the Life After Death review, it has no byline. It opens by asking the reader to “think for a moment of a little child you love,” and in the third paragraph, this rhetorical device takes a baroque turn for the cruel: “Now picture this trusting youngster -- particularly the look in the eyes -- in the instant after a stray bullet to the forehead ends the child’s life.”

This is in reference to the August 1992 death of 6-year-old Qa’id Walker-Teal, who was killed while playing in a schoolyard in Marin City, California when a gun registered to Tupac Shakur discharged during a nearby altercation. Three years later, a wrongful death suit brought against Shakur by the parents of victim Walker-Teal was quickly settled. The Billboard editorial that makes use of the incident concludes just short of calling for a boycott: “The next time Billboard readers move to stock or purchase or broadcast or promote any gangsta rap product, they should think first of Qa’id Walker-Teal and the grimace on his mother’s face when she could not talk through her overpowering grief.” As a trade publication, Billboard served this message directly to retailers, radio program directors, booking agents, managers and label executives.

As Pareles wrote in February 1992, “Hating rap, a purportedly esthetic judgment, can be a synonym for hating and fearing young black men…. Hip-hop, many commentators have inveighed, is intended solely to spur violence, race hatred and general lawlessness. Not so coincidentally, that's what those commentators fear from an urban black population whose prospects deteriorated steadily through the 1980's.”

Black writers covering rap at Billboard took more generous, nuanced views than what’s been quoted -- and they did so in stories that rarely made it to the front page. For instance, Havelock Nelson, who wrote “The Rap Column” for the mag in the ‘90s, attempted to enliven the caricature of Shakur put forth by the mainstream media. “He harbored a lot of pain, and when he put his mind to it, he was capable of writing vivid, introspective lyrics that made those private tensions public spectacle,” he wrote in October 1996, less than a month after Shakur was killed. But he too resorted to conservative talking points; from the conclusion of the previously quoted essay: “Shakur sold -- and other artists sell their fans -- the lie that they can overcome their poor surroundings and become somebody by doing whatever to acquire luxury items and designer duds. The fact is that going that route only wastes one’s life while eroding the surrounding community.”

While Billboard ran op-eds targeted largely at the music industry, critics had consumers in mind as they wrestled with morality and the music. Robert Christgau, writing most often for the Village Voice, was an old-guard white male rock critic who embraced hip-hop. Still, every critic will draw some line when pressed -- Christgau’s review of Ice Cube’s second solo album, Death Certificate, released in October 1991, demarcates his limits. In an echo of Chuck D’s withering assessment of Elvis from “Fight the Power,” he labels Cube a “a straight-up racist simple and plain” for lyrics about Korean-Americans and Korean-owned businesses, for using language like “Jap” and “Jew” as epithets, for rampant use of the word “f----t,” for misogyny that treats “the female body as pestilence and plague.”

He concludes by likening the explanation offered by Cube’s publicist at the time -- that Death Certificate is “an honest expression of black rage” -- to Axl Rose’s defense of “One in a Million”: “Hey, didn't Axl already use that line? Oh, right -- ripping off the white man is reparations, not theft. And it's certainly not playing into the enemy's hands. No way."

Crucially, Christgau engages with the music as an adult, treating it as music other adults will consume; his objections aren’t of the “think of the children” variety. Still, his reparations argument is specious; “racism” as the unifying quality shared by Cube and Rose elides white supremacy and fails to apprehend the real power dynamic at play on even a hateful song like “Black Korea.”

Christgau doesn’t mention the March 1991 death of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl who was shot to death in Los Angeles by Soon Ja Du, a Korean shopkeeper, less than three weeks after the Los Angeles Police Department attacked Rodney King during a traffic stop. Though Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, the presiding judge, Joyce Karlin, sentenced her to no prison time -- instead, Karlin fined Du, gave her five years probation and 400 hours of community service. It’s disturbing context that one imagines a different writer might have engaged with fruitfully. (Pareles, in his story about the album and its reception, including calls from the Jewish human-rights group the Simon Wiesenthal Center to record stores to ban its sale, does not mention Harlins or Du either.)

As noxious as Death Certificate can be, it is a crucial document of suffering created during an exasperating and brutal time in American history. Los Angeles was on the verge of the Rodney King Riots, and the album contains the roiling anger born of white supremacy, a corrupt police department, and a judicial system that would not enact justice, resulting in over 60 deaths and 1 billion dollars in property damage meted out over the course of six days. Of course, Christgau doesn’t know that when reviewing the album months beforehand. It’s impossible to account for the legacy of a work in the moment; it doesn’t exist.

Contrast the Death Certificate review with Christgau’s assessment of Life After Death, a record he awarded an “A” grade. Finding Biggie “sardonic, self-deprecating, and tough-minded,” he’s taken in by the humor on the project, for its “moments of warmth for family and comrades…. In short, way more fun and somewhat more moral than the look-ma-no-hands unaccountability promoted by showbiz outlaws from Mobb Deep to Westside Connection.”

Read enough of any thoughtful critic and their values should become clear. Agree with him or not, Christgau has a perspective, he’s listening widely, and he’s drawing distinctions between artists for myriad reasons, among them ability and something you might call morality. In Biggie he hears more depth and productive contradiction -- Biggie as kingpin in conversation with Biggie as self-ridiculing neighborhood storyteller. Listening to the record now, a line referencing child rape seems especially beyond the pale, but it also fits into the oftentimes grotesque and exaggerated world of the album. The reality of Christopher Wallace as an alleged abuser, though, is an entirely different matter.

During the same time period, the journalist and activist dream hampton wrote about womanism and misogyny in the context of hip-hop; it was a fundamental part of the fabric of her life and work as a black woman. In her must-read profiles, she went toe-to-toe with Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, and Pac. Her writing -- more reporting, less record reviewing -- remains some of the most vital from this era for its fearlessness in the face of profound contradiction. Including her own:

I’m riding in a jeep, windows rolled down, a monster bass kicker in the back….We slide into a red light; two culture queens wearing African amber earrings roll their eyes at the sonic attack Paul’s system launches. They see three Black men and kind of sigh. They spot me, in all of my Black, bald, Womanist glory rockin’ to Niggaz4Life, N.W.A.’s latest colossal drive-by album. They suck their teeth and shake their heads…I’m caught.

The luxury of overlooking social context wasn’t really hampton’s to indulge in, just as it wouldn’t have been a viable option to brusquely dismiss these black men as one-dimensional villains the way some did. She knew them too well.

In the last few years, some of the biggest controversies in music have been fueled by alleged violent behavior from stars like XXXTentacion and Kodak Black. Publications struggled to cover the music from the former, who before his death was charged with false imprisonment, witness tampering and aggravated battery of his then-pregnant girlfriend -- did artists like them even deserve the attention that criticism grants? I worked at two different publications during the rise of XXXTentacion, and within each, the editorial team wrestled with how to cover him adequately and justifiably. In the case of Kodak and XXXTentacion, the acts were especially troubling because they were accused of sexual violence and partner abuse, respectively. Violence born of misogyny.  

Meaghan Garvey reviewed XXXTentacion’s first album, 17, for Pitchfork; the review is thoughtful and attentive to the context of the allegations against the artist, but both the writer and publication suffered social media backlash for it. Those unhappy consumers preferred that the project, which moved 87,000 album-equivalent units in its first week, receive no attention whatsoever. The site did not review his sophomore album, though it did review his third project, released posthumously.

In 1995 Tupac Shakur was found guilty of sexual abuse, but the op-eds attacking him and negative criticism of his music most often came from his cavalier attitude toward gun violence and beef; for his music that embraced violence as it criticized law enforcement; for the death of Qa’id Walker-Teal and for shooting at two off-duty police officers in 1993, rather than his sexual abuse conviction. I don’t think that case would become a footnote were it to unfold in the historical context of 2019.

Music criticism was synonymous with Pitchfork for much of the 2000s and into the 2010s. The site, started by Ryan Schreiber in 1996, privileged indie rock made predominantly by white men, and many of its critics shared the demographics of the artists they covered. As was common to music writing at the beginning of the blog era, social context often took a backseat to erudite illumination of musical points of reference and connectivity; insular is one word to describe it. When covering genres outside of its core, like hip-hop, mistakes were made: No one should forget the time in 2012 when the publication took Chief Keef, a minor on parole, to a gun range for a video shoot.

Longtime readers of the site, though, have noted that the site no longer functions this way, in part because the Internet isn’t currently a space conducive to blinders and circumscription. Now that anyone's music or criticism can go viral, both artists and critics are forced to consider perspectives and cultural factors they would’ve never bothered to consider before -- possibly because they were totally unfamiliar with them. And during the time of the Trump presidency and the #MeToo movement, the stakes do feel impossibly high. There is a real sense that writing about an alleged abuser like XXXTentacion can do nothing but contribute to a culture that refuses to listen to -- let alone be spurred into action by -- stories of sexual violence. The idea that a review of an album could just be, you know, one dude’s personal take, created in a vacuum and broadcasting its many blindspots for all to see, feels especially useless. From the fiction of that vacuum come new voices and perspectives. And yet what will music criticism have done for those of us who in ten years will want to understand why a rising generation of artists is making music in the mold of XXXTentacion, when Pitchfork doesn’t have an entry for his biggest album, the one that yielded a No. 1 single?

Recent horror has given us a different sort of inflection point that parallels the coverage of the deaths of Big and Pac. On March 31, Crenshaw rapper Nipsey Hussle was shot and killed. Already a legend in his hometown, Nipsey’s national valorization is unfolding now. His funeral was held at the Staples Center and President Obama wrote an admiring letter that was read aloud to the attendees. Billboard dedicated a page to his legacy, featuring testimonials from his friends and collaborators and a news item about artists pushing back albums and singles out of respect for his passing. Shakur and Wallace did not receive this sort of coverage in our pages. Though Nipsey was a member of the Rollin’ 60s Crips and died violently, no major music publication used his death as a referendum against the music he made; such a reaction is unthinkable today.

What seems most indicative of today’s approach to morality in music criticism is visible in Briana Younger’s moving New Yorker obituary. “He was as tenacious in his artistic endeavors as he was in his vision of communal prosperity,” she writes, “and, though his liberation politics sometimes fell short -- particularly when it came to the LGBTQ community -- his kind of integrity was rare.”

Her piece understands what Nipsey represented to his community and to hip-hop, but she doesn’t erase from the historical record Nipsey’s homophobic comments. Both realities exist side by side. That’s the complicated truth boycotts, censorship and omission don’t allow for. Listeners will always make up their own minds about what they want to hear -- what they can tolerate. Record labels will, perhaps begrudgingly, do the same, though they aren’t impervious to public outcry, as we eventually saw with R. Kelly. But a valuable critic must also be a historian -- because no one else will.