Written by I.S Jones @isjonespoetry
You are probably thinking to yourself "hey I.S., how do you decide on final ratings when you do album reviews?" Well look not further, she has spoken.
Granted no one asked me this; I felt as though the question would come up and I wanted to make a point that my rubric, the point value system I have set up is placed not at random. My sister and I had a conversation about Pitchfork and the way they critique in their album reviews. "I don't get it" she told me. "The rating just seems so arbitrary." I kept this with me and I still do because my sister, much like me, enjoys hip-hop from a consumer perspective, but she also analyzes hip-hop’s societal impact and its influence on music as a whole—collectively, she and I could write a dissertation paper. When I did my first album review, (http://upcominghiphop.net/2015/04/08/album-review-since-the-94-kc-the-illest/) I almost opted out of putting the production on a numerical scale because it felt like I was trying to grade his work. When I sat down and really thought about it, I decided that the use of numbers was a means of contextualizing how well I think the collection did overall. Be mindful of that phrase: I think. This is my opinion.
One album reviewer I follow on YouTube called theneedledrop, constantly in my opinion, underrates albums. Chance the Rapper, Donnie Trumpet, Joey Bada$$ to name a few; the only reason I did not write him off completely was he rightfully gave To Pimp a Butterfly a 10 / 10. While I do not agree with every one of his final ratings, he gives a critical perspective to each body of work that I find invaluable. Regardless of whether you think he’s wrong or “hates hip-hop” as many fans have accused him of, you can’t accuse him of allowing anything to fly. He, like many of us, should always be critical of the things we love. To this end, I choose to use decimal numbers because many variables come into play with understanding what makes a successful album or mixtape. From a smooth production, sampling choices or making the beats from scratch, voice quality, lyrical quality and so on, did the artist kill this project? If there were features, did they allow their features the space to shine and compliment their work, or were the features their as hype-men? All of these things, and so much more makes the difference between a stunning production and something not worth listening to again.
In summation, we know what is good by what is not. In order to know what is good or successful we must break it down to the sum of its parts—this is why I believe album reviews are necessary. Artists and producers alike benefit from knowing why is it that their work is so well- received. Consumers benefit by engaging the albums they love, or even the albums they weren’t feeling, in necessary dialogue. So without much more explaining, let’s get into my point system, and as always, thanks so much for reading.
1 / 1.25 / 1.50 / 1.75: the EP / LP was so bad, I literally got an ear infection. It's just not possible that any album or mixtape could be horrendous on this magnitude. If this clown Young Thug is out here getting record deals, then you're gonna be alright. There's hope for everybody, apparently.
2 / 2.25 / 2.50 / 2.75: You didn't try really. You recorded your mixtape on your iPhone and dropped it on SoundCloud. You were drunk, high, had a cold and so your voice is groaning, dragging itself from song to song. Your lyrics were basic and predictable. Your subject matter wasn't noteworthy. If you had features, they were equally forgettable. You played it too safe. As an artist, you have a responsibility to take risks because that is what we an audience hunger for. If I really was incapable of giving you beyond a 2.75, then I probably struggled to finish listening for one reason or another. It’s not impossible to land in this category, but it is possible if the artist in question didn’t put everything they are in their work.
3 / 3.25 / 3.50 / 3.75: This is about the average, I would say. You did pretty well but could have done better. Your lyrics hit but there were instances in which you could may have fell flat. Sampling was on point but your voice hid behind the beat. The mixtape had a consistent solid message, but maybe failed to further deliver or expand in some areas. You had features, and they did their thing, but didn’t fully compliment the track as they should have. As stated before, most people will fall into this rating, especially for a first production. The artist is still experimenting with their sound, having fun finding themselves in the studio; they are figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. Whenever I rate first productions, I'm always mindful that if this is the artist’s first project assuming there is more room for growth. This is not to say that I give them leeway, but the first project sets the tone of what we as the audience should expect for later projects. This is a case by chance basis, and an example in that is the shift between Good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly; many listeners wanted a Good Kid part 2, but Kendrick wasn’t interested in stagnation but transformation. If I give you a 3 something, then upon second production, more important than what I think, you should expect to do better for than your first body of work.
4 / 4.25 / 4.50 / 4.75: This is the space for those above average. Your lyric game is strong, your instrumentals complimented your rapping and beyond, you allowed your features to shine and your combined forces shamed Captain Planet. You took risks and they were successful. Even if you did typical subjects, your approach was so refreshing, I learned something about myself. I crave your music. You sought to re-imagine the way an audience consumes hip-hop. People start tripping over themselves to get to you! You pulled a Beyoncé and are on your way to changing the game.
5: The only thing I can really say about getting a 5 is over time, while as an artist you will outgrow the voice you bring to a first or second mixtape, we can look back at your work and still remember how it made us feel the first time we pressed play. An MC, a brilliant one, is part soothsayer and part sorcerer. You took a page out of Midnight Marauders and made it your own. That’s the most important thing with a five: you learned from the past and are making a path towards the future. You’re not trying to regurgitate what was done, but you are a student of a past making new things in your image. You did everything right, everything you were supposed to, but you did something else that cannot be fully explained. An example of this is Nas’ Illmatic. Getting a five on your first or even a second mixtape, means you’ve probably stumbled into treasure, and I’m all for discovering brilliant gems.