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Kendrick Lamar performs during the BET Experience at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on June 27, 2015. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Back Tracks: Music criticism may not be necessary, but provides useful insights

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Do we really need music criticism? It’s a strange question to pose in a music opinion column, but a fair one to present when social media have turned Average Joes into well-read music columnists.

Perhaps no one is as much an enigma in the online review community than Anthony Fantano, the self-proclaimed internet’s biggest music nerd and face of The Needle Drop YouTube channel. His quirky and impassioned style — 20-minute videos rating the latest and most popular releases on a one-to-10 scale — are in-depth looks on both blockbuster and underground projects.

Fantano’s reviews can come off hypercritical and pretentious at times, causing an outbreak of arguing in the comments section of his YouTube channel. What recently drew me to Fantano’s critiques was his hotly contended “light 6” rating of Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Even though he seemed to praise the instrumentation throughout half of the video, he decided that it was only a slightly above average album because he didn’t care enough about Kanye’s personal life.  

It is a fair argument, but not one that would make me drop a project three notches. Now that Fantano has amassed a following of nearly 1 million subscribers, the 2012 video review has elicited calls for a re-review. Fantano has stated that he will not do this, which made me wonder what he truly feels is a perfect 10. There is an answer for this, as there have been three modern albums that have garnered flawless reviews.

“The Money Store” by Death Grips (2012)

Death Grips, or the hardest band to try and get one’s friends to listen to, is even more of a paradox than Fantano. They are hardcore punk, but also hip-hop. MC Ride’s raps are vulgar, but at times they become emotional spoken-word pieces. But most of all, Death Grips is loud.

Renowned music executive L.A. Reid took notice of Death Grips after the release of its first mixtape “Exmilitary.” In a bizarre twist, Reid brought Death Grips onto Epic Records, the same record company that housed Michael Jackson and Celine Dion, for its debut studio album, “The Money Store.” With three-verse structures on most of the tracks, the production and lyrical content are what really puts the album over the top.

Fantano also thought people may dub “The Money Store” as horrorcore, but Death Grips is more accessible than that, with societal issues like police brutality addressed. With no music samples and innovative beat techniques such as combining Venus Williams’ tennis grunt with distorted and layered hi-fi production, “The Money Store” pits Death Grips as one of the most defining sonic initiatives of the 21st century.

“To Be Kind” by Swans (2014)

When I first indulged in Swans’ epic “To Be Kind,” it felt like I was watching a movie. Unlike Death Grips, Fantano’s mention of the band was the first time the group came across my peripheral. Clocking in at just over two hours, I enjoyed the slowly creeping, always-moving psychedelic gothic rock while lying in my bed.

Nothing paints a better picture of how “To Be Kind” moves than the 34-minute marathon song “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture.” With drum beats and guitar licks ad nauseum like chanting monks, one begins to wonder whether they are necessary.

But, when paying close attention, the build-ups through songs that average more than 12 minutes in length are intricately, and sneakily, layered. Even at movie-length, “To Be Kind” does not feel structured like a movie in a way that the second act packs a lot less action than the first and final turns, it is a roller coaster throughout that deserves to be experienced in one sitting. It also requires multiple listens to truly respect the magical musical rabbit hole Swans created.

“To Pimp A Butterfly” by Kendrick Lamar (2015)

In one of the most distinct-sounding and dense rap albums of the 2000s, 27-year-old Kendrick Lamar set the bar high with the jazz-infused “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Spoken with wisdom beyond his years and delivered with vigor well above his physical size, Lamar captured the energy and emotions of our country at the time.

When something can be recognized as culturally significant and have an impact in the present — much like the song “Alright” did for Black Lives Matter — it stands apart from any other music at that time. It took all precedent at the time and is the reason why I did not listen to Drake’s surprise February 2015 mixtape “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” until this year.

One of the underrated moments of “To Pimp A Butterfly” for me was the second half of the track “u,” which begins with a hotel maid having trouble reaching a very intoxicated and depressed man. Kendrick then delivers a verse with more strain in his voice than he has ever before laid on a beat. It is my favorite track, but it is not Fantano’s, which is OK because what his reviews have taught me is that no matter how much one might disagree with someone else’s opinion, refusing to hear them out shrouds one in ignorance.

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