[15 January 2014]
On an otherwise uneventful Friday in June, the most anticipated album of the year leaked onto the Internet.
I’m referring—obviously—to Kanye West’s Yeezus, and the reaction was as immediate as it was mostly admiringly positive. In the music critic corner of Twitter and on hip-hop forums, Yeezus was the only album that existed. On street corners in major cities and in teenagers’ bedrooms, it’s what you heard blaring. Fans gushed over the harsh, minimalist beats and declared that Kanye had finally made his great anti-pop statement.
The first professional reviews trickled onto the internet the following day, or—in Rolling Stone’s case—within hours. Pitchfork had its take up by Sunday night (or Monday morning); PopMatters followed suit early on Tuesday morning.
It all happened so quickly. But why? Or “how?” is the better question. We know why—timeliness and page views are the primary languages that digital journalism speaks. But Yeezus wasn’t made available to most outlets in advance, as is customary, and yet it was devoured, sized up, and judged almost instantly. Critics heralded it that week as a modern classic (okay, PopMatters’ Evan Sawdey was more reserved), which seems odd, given that a classic is typically a piece of art with proven longevity and which may take some time to digest. I’ve reviewed plenty of records that are (or at least seem to be) easily digestible in a day or two. But think Daydream Nation, for instance, or Loveless. Did they click on your first listen? For me, it was a matter of years. Elements ofYeezus are more immediate than that (“Hold My Liquor” stopped me cold at first listen), but still—it took some weeks for me to take it all in.
Given its anticipation level and lack of pre-release availability, the album offered a perfect test case for a question that had been nagging at me for some time: just how has the model of digital media changed the amount of time music critics get to spend with the records they’re assessing? When it comes to a big release—the times you know your review will actually be read and discussed, which is certainly not always the case—how long do you get? How many listens does it take? How many listens should it take? And how do critics feel about it all?
So I decided to find out.
* * *
I began by contacting Ryan Dombal, the critic who penned Pitchfork’s gushing 9.5/10 review of Yeezus. His is also the byline under Pitchfork’s much-discussed perfect score review of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy from 2010. Pitchfork reviews of high-profile releases tend to be, well, also high-profile, especially when the site assigns scores above 9.0 (or below, say, 4.0). Yeezus is obviously no exception. So you’d think its review would be a slowly labored, patiently measured piece of criticism.
Except that wasn’t possible with Yeezus, which West kept from leaking until several days before its release date. And Pitchfork, like most major online publications, invariably reviews new releases on—or before—their release date. So Dombal first listened to the album five days before filing the review. Perhaps the review would have been different had he had more time, he told me—“it’s hard to predict something like that”—but not drastically so.
“It’s more of a case-by-case thing, like the bigger an album is, the less likely a label is willing to share it beforehand,” Dombal wrote me, acknowledging another inconvenient irony, since it’s precisely those reviews that are most widely anticipated and read. But like me, Dombal only began writing about music in a professional capacity in the past decade, so he’s used to the rhythms and requirements of the Internet. “To me, reviewing albums in a short timeframe is certainly a bit more difficult, but it’s a reality that writers have to deal with—it’s simply part of writing a review now. The skill set of a music critic in 2013 must include fully digesting things faster.”
And besides Yeezus, 2013 was full of high-profile releases sprung on critics with little opportunity for mulling. My Bloody Valentine’s long-awaited m b v, for instance, arrived after a 22-year wait, but when the band put it on their website with barely any warning on a Saturday night in February (temporarily crippling their website in the process), critics didn’t get a head start. Most scrambled to have a review up by Tuesday or Wednesday. There was a similar rush surrounding the Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, though critics had months to bicker about the band’s promotional stunts or fawn over distorted YouTube clips from “secret shows” premiering new tracks.
Then there was the entirely unexpected Pixies EP that arrived quite literally overnight in early September, the group’s first release in a few decades. Plenty of sites had their takes up within three days. Pitchfork‘s was scathingly negative, awarding it 1.10/10, and so writer Jayson Greene took to social media to defend his reaction. “The unsatisfying truth is that the inflamed tone of the Pixies review came more from writing-time constraints, not suicidal disappointment,” he acknowledged on Twitter. And: “I wish I’d had another pass at my prose to modulate the tone. Quick turnaround. The score wouldn’t change though.”
His colleague Ryan Dombal was less fazed by the issue. “It seems somewhat pointless to complain about it at this point,” Dombal told me in the same email shortly after the Yeezus review ran.
I realized that much is true (my intent was always more to provoke a discussion than to file a complaint), but my thoughts turned to a select category of my favorite records—Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, for example, or Joanna Newsom’s Ys, or the Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka—that I simply could not imagine anyone adequately digesting and assessing in five harried days, while presumably balancing other assignments or even a day job. (You think music writing pays the bills for everyone?) Do I just not have the skill set for it? These albums are not, I concede, the norm (and I’m not sure Yeezus belongs among their ranks, though it does share the attributes of an intensely challenging release from a majorly acclaimed artist). But there were those critics who managed, in 1991 or 2006 or 1997. Right?
My thoughts landed on Pitchfork’s now-infamous 1997 dismissal of Zaireeka, which has since been removed from the site. (It’s archived here.) The writer, Jason Josephes, blasted the album as inconvenient and unreasonably demanding, as he wasn’t able to get ahold of four CD players and hear the album as it’s meant to be heard. Had he had the time or resources to do so, though, he may well have been struck by the remarkably unique listening experience it affords. The boomer generation might instead recall Rolling Stone’s regrettably icy 1971 assessment of Sticky Fingers, granting the album zero stars. And Laughing Stock wasn’t critically embraced until the late 1990s or so.
There are, I think, those albums that defy critical skill sets and snap judgments, albums that only really reveal themselves with time and patience and maybe some prodding. Growers, critics call them. I chose willfully experimental albums to prove a point, but I could just as easily have pointed to the Walkmen’s Heaven, for instance, which, with its uncharacteristically comfortable vibes, took me an entire summer to embrace. But who has an entire summer to review a high-profile album? No one. That’s the basic concept behind PopMatters’ “All Things Reconsidered” column—or behind the defunct Stylus Magazine’s fantastic On Second Thought feature: giving writers an opportunity to rethink or revise premature judgments.
I suppose it’s also the reason Pitchfork eventually removed its Zaireeka review, around the same time editor-in-chief Mark Richardson spent longer than a summer, I presume, writing a greatly appreciative entire book on the album. But I digress.
* * *
Next I spoke with PopMatters’ own Evan Sawdey, who wrote me an email that nearly eclipsed the length of his Yeezus review itself. Sawdey received the album late on a Friday night, he told me, and began putting words down Saturday evening. The review ran Monday morning.
Not that he found this speed particularly difficult.
“I think every critic’s mind works differently, but I will stop listening once I am ‘familiar’ with the album—as in, I look at a track title and I know what it sounds like just from that alone,” Sawdey explained. This isn’t entirely how I work. I’ll usually begin writing words and formulating an angle once I pass the familiarity benchmark, but I continue to listen and repeat tracks as I solidify my points and decide which songs to focus on. “It usually takes three or four listens before that goes through, but once that familiarity sinks in, I feel you can make more accurate assessments as to the nature of what it is you’re analyzing. So do I wish I had had more time? Not at all—I got to the quick of the album after about the third or fourth listen, and that’s when the writing began to flow.
“Musicians, producers, and all sorts of writers know full well that if you spend too much time with a particular piece of work, you begin to overthink things too much (way, way, way too much),” Sawdey went on. “I think that for music critics—a grab bag of bruised egos if there ever was one—second-guessing doesn’t really come into the playbook.” But he pointed to Jon Dolan’s 4.5/5 Rolling Stone review of Yeezus, which ran “literally hours after the album was leaked,” as rushed. “As much as Rolling Stone no doubt wanted to ‘lead the charge’ on that,” Sawdey argued, “I felt that the review was more of a gimmicky attempt for clickbait than it was a considered assessment, Dolan’s closing line, ‘The dick sure has some balls,’ proving the point.
“I always give time to publications that actually take their time to carefully assess things and publish them when they’re ready,” Sawdey concluded, which I found interesting, since he suggested that for him, at least, that process didn’t take long at all from the receipt of the album. He pointed to CokeMachineGlow as one such example:
They never rush, never buy into hype, always are brutally honest even when it’s a band you love. I think a lot of people really want to buy into the notion that the publication world is more rush-rush (especially for standard news sites), but from where I’m sitting, online music journalism has roughly the same writing/publication turnaround framework that it’s always had.
But like me and Dombal, Sawdey only began writing about music in the past decade or so. He can’t have the long view. And his thesis was swiftly complicated by the last two critics I spoke with: Carl Wilson, who reviewed Yeezus for Slate, and another music writer, who reviewed Yeezus for a well-known online publication but asked to remain anonymous, nonetheless expressing enthusiasm for the topic: “I agree it’s an issue.” (Let’s call this writer John Doe.) I asked them how much time elapsed between first listening to the album and filing their review. Curiously, they answered identically, verbatim: “About three days.” Via email, Wilson told me he suspected this was at the far end of how long most people spent.
“I was tied up and unable to listen to it the day of the leak,” he wrote, “so at that point it seemed like we were better off taking a bit more time with it.” When I asked if he wished he’d had more time, he said he was grateful he didn’t have less—“but yes, sure. If I could have had it a month in advance… but those days are gone. If it had been available that early, a review would have been redundant by release date.”
Doe concurred that things are more rushed these days and claimed that his review would have been easier to write had he had more time—but not necessarily better, a distinction I hadn’t heard before. And he brought up the same inconvenient irony that the most anticipated releases are the hardest to get ahold of in advance to review. “Things do feel more rushed than when I started reviewing albums,” he wrote. “I don’t think that’s a problem that stems from publications and the way they cover things, though,” he added. “It has more to do with leak culture and how labels have responded to it. Labels no longer send out advances of big releases (or, for that matter, almost any rap or R&B releases), so it’s always a crunch getting timely reviews of rap records now. It’s a lot harder being an editor or a writer in that record.”
Of course, that didn’t prevent Yeezus from leaking anyway. But it leaked only several days in advance. Had there been promos been floating around, it surely would have leaked earlier. Who knows if it would have affected sales.
Alas, said Doe, “I always wish I had more time with almost anything I review.” Wilson provided a long-term perspective. “This kind of rush wasn’t even possible when I started, because I was writing for an alt-weekly, much more for print than for the web,” he wrote. “Back in caveman days, there weren’t a hundred sites posting an hour later to compete with. Not that I always used the time I had available to best advantage back then.”
Wilson had more to say, but no time to elaborate—he was on deadline again. So it goes. But perhaps it’s all fitting and proper, at least in this case. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Rick Rubin revealed that Yeezus had been no stranger to rushed creative processes. At the last minute, West had pegged him to “finish tracks and help give the album a cohesive sound”. The album was then due in weeks. In one instance, Rubin recalled, West finished five vocal tracks in a hectic two-hour span:
We were working on a Sunday [the same day West attended a baby shower for girlfriend Kim Kardashian] and the album was to be turned in two days later. Kanye was planning to go to Milan that night. Five songs still needed vocals and two or three of them still needed lyrics. He said, “Don’t worry, I will score 40 points for you in the fourth quarter.” In the two hours before he had to run out to catch the plane, he did exactly that: finished all lyrics and performed them with gusto. A remarkable feat. He had total confidence in his ability to get the job done when push came to shove.
That sense of urgency is all over the album, and it’s part of what makes it click—it’s in the sudden, bracing synths that start “On Sight” and the frenzied verses that make “Black Skinhead” so breathlessly intense and the relentless rhyming pattern and guitar loops that make “Hold My Liquor” an invigorating triumph.
So: maybe it was meant to be a triumph of bottled up, furiously delivered creative expression, as rushed as the rap bloggers desperately fumbling to cobble together a coherent opinion. But when you start reviewing albums the same way they were recorded, you’re getting into a rather dangerous precedent.