Don’t Believe The Hype: The Wariness Of Critical Praise and Fitting In
2016 is when black art was at its best and worst..in different areas. I take a look back.
2016 was a prime example of the best of times and the absolute worst of times. For starters, the entertainment world lost an abundance of icons that influenced countless childhoods. Between Muhammad Ali, Prince, David Bowie, Chyna, Craig Sager, Carrie Fisher, George Michael, and the other names that met untimely ends, this year had Death working overtime for our misery. The hits kept coming when America lost faith in itself, stabbing whatever was left of Constitutional Democracy in the back during November’s Presidential Election. Politics, racial disparity, and nostalgia aside, the year was chock-full of positive moments and incredible displays of art across the board.
Music saw one of its greatest years, with quality output from industry giants, indie darlings coming to the spotlight, and acts returning after decades of silence to make their presence known once more. Film and television featured a wave of new talent that produced a number of shows highlighting black life in ways that were more rooted in relatable scenarios and meme-ready material for another Twitter debate.. The sports world saw some of its most historic records broken and recreated in a matter of weeks and way too many superhuman performances to count on both hands. Through all the turmoil that we faced outside in the world, the pastimes and escapism of things that brought us enjoyment filled a well-needed void.
However as the year went on, despite the critical acclaim music albums, shows, and films received, I only felt a sense of uneasiness about how some of the reviews were geared and written. In particular the critical response to the recent releases of Beyonce, Solange, Kendrick Lamar, and A Tribe Called Quest, along with shows like Atlanta and Insecure, and how they were described as “unapologetically black”. While that description is not a blemish by any means, the use of the phrase and the author who writes it combined with a certain type of art it represents can create an annoyance.
Whenever I see ‘unapologetically black’ describing an artist of today’s generation, it almost evokes the shea butter aura of the Neo Soul era or social commentary that paints a portrait of the racial tension in this country and how it cannot be ignored. The commentary is very much needed, but black music in 2016 also brought a self-examination of love, faith, and identity in all shades. To put an insular focus on how blackness is expressed can be detrimental when the voices need to be heard. While supportive appraisal is warranted, constructive criticism should go hand-and-hand and it is something I’m seeing less of.
For example: Beyonce solidified herself as one of the sole dominant forces in pop and entertainment, with a work ethic that barely shows signs of stopping. Freshly squeezed out of black womanhood and the seven steps of grief, Lemonade proved that Bey’s 2013 self-titled magnum opus was no critical fluke. It seemed that she took cues from her sister Solange, who also transformed into a critical darling by wholly evolving her musical approach with A Seat At The Table. The two sisters debuted #1 on top of the Billboard charts with their albums, a striking symbol of how powerful the Knowles name has grown over the years. The two made excellent albums that were separate in their approach but similar in the message they conveyed.
Like clockwork though, a number of publications put their records somewhere in the Top 3 of year-end lists with little to no challenge. For a year that was met with superb works in multiple genres, it is clear that the impact from 2013’s ‘surprise’ release still making waves. It was clear that the follow-up for Beyonce’s self-titled album was going to be met with high expectations and it was likely they would be met. The problem with these expectations though, as with every Kanye, Radiohead, Bon Iver, and Chance The Rapper release, is that the narrative is written before we even press play.
Lemonade was going to succeed regardless of narrative, and musically the album was geared for critical appeal. Take a look at the writing credits: James Blake, Ezra Koenig, Jack White, and MeLo-X, all names that have been revered as dynamos of the indie scene. Solange wasn’t too far behind in how the music was going to be treated by publications, rushing to be first for a new take on pop music. Siding with Dev Hynes for her True EP, she carved a lane for herself that set her apart from her sister’s shadow and became a sensation with an entity that was just as magnetic. A Seat At The Table was a mere evolution of her sound, fleshing out the tales of her racial identity and the experiences she faced being a black woman with the help of musician Raphael Saadiq, Sampha, Kelela, and Majical Cloudz.
The two used their strong musical acumen to create essential bodies of work that will be cherished my fans and critics alike. They spilled their souls in the most human way possible to depict love, forgiveness, and black femininity. It is just unfortunate that a bunch of albums that expressed those same qualities for this year got overshadowed. We had records from Esperanza Spalding, KING, Jamila Woods, and Corinne Bailey Rae that were just as good if not better than the aforementioned two. Lemonade worked better in the context of her ‘short film’ but only listening to the album alone leaves quite a void that only her self-titled record holds up to. It actually gets harder to listen through each time from front-to-back.
Despite it being solid album that’s a step below her previous works, Bey stans will insist that she will do no wrong and even the slightest negative take on her intentions or music will get dragged. It is that kind of culture that has done more harm than good lately, as spirited dialogue gets replaced with “Boy, Bye” memes and reactionary anger in absolutism. It’s that type of fandom that leaks into the criticism world that makes intelligent debate obsolete and name-calling the real bread and butter of journalism.
Another emerald that is held near-and-dear to the heart of critics is the resurgence of Donald Glover and Atlanta. Premiering early in the fall, Glover’s series highlighted the art of hustle featuring a Ivy League dropout trying to make it through managing his rapping cousin. It’s creative, organic, and a refreshing take on the usual black sitcoms as in the situations are random and the story is not all that linear. At times the show literally feels like it is taking place in the mind of Glover as opposed to it happening in the streets. It is a beloved show though, as it benefits from playing off of the talking points of humor from Black Twitter and its own established relationships. Issa Rae’s Insecure is a multiplied version of that phenomenon, with loads of fuckery that brings out the worst of both men and women on the timeline.
Shows like these aren’t harmless, but they are needed.Notably, they respectively opened wider lanes for both Glover and Rae. The former recently won two Golden Globe Awards, and Glover’s career trajectory is a testament of resilience and sticking around long enough to change the narrative. He’s always been a good actor and great writer, but his rapping alter-ego of Childish Gambino always seemed to be one of the few blemishes in his solid career. He attempted to take a more ‘serious’ turn by dropping the rapping almost completely and going full Funkadelic for his latest album Awaken, My Love.
Admirable at best, Awaken mainly benefited from the success of Atlanta, Glover’s rise, and nerds’ nostalgia fixation. It won’t change any detractors’ minds at all and the music itself isn’t any better than what existed 40+ years ago, but Donald gets an A for effort. Still, as he becomes young Lando in the next Star Wars film, Glover is better off excelling at what he is best at.
It is quite amusing watching his 180 from a dude that was/is self-loathing and problematic becoming a champion of #BlackExcellence though. Many of his fans don’t really speak up about how he eliminated much of the social media posts featuring his erratic and dickhead behavior, but can you really surprised at that? Sometimes people need to sit down and question how a guy that has been looking for acceptance outside for so long finally got it from the people he wanted it from…and why it is not someone that looks like me.
It really was an incredible year for black art, though I feel some kind of way when non-blacks bend over backwards praising an experience they never had to seep through, as if they could really relate to it. This happens while writers of color — especially women — are often ignored when their voices are needed the most. It feels like it is their way of saying, “sorry for making your people so disenfranchised for centuries, but our 95/100 scores for Fences and Moonlight will make up for it”. I just watch what is being said, where it is being said, and how it is trying to create a conversation, good or bad.
I look at all of this and I wonder if fandom and constructive criticism is at a standstill now. As if citing out what doesn’t work about art that is liked doesn’t actively mean hating and worthy of a lynch mob of stupidity to follow. We get hype for Black Panther and what it’ll represent, though a star-studded and fan-pleasing black cast could only make it a disappointment in the long-term. But hey, it’s unapologetically black and I have to cheer for it, right?