Das Racist put out their second mixtape about a year ago and Ian Cohen, a combination entertainment lawyer/Pitchfork reviewer, gave it an 8.7, the second-highest Pitchfork score any mixtape has gotten. Three days later I interviewed Hima (one of the rappers in Das Racist) and suggested to him that Ian Cohen’s review indicated he completely missed the idea that Das Racist is a project about race at its core, highlighting jokes and references instead of teasing those out to get to the idea that their music is concerned with being brown, and Hima agreed with me. I also noted that Cohen’s review attributed one of Hima’s lines to Victor, the other rapper, which was an unfortunate error to make in the review of a Das Racist mixtape with a song that makes fun of people who can’t tell the two rappers apart, which prompted Hima to talk about how his flow (“in your ear”) is really obviously different from Victor’s (“laid back”).
So on the afternoon my interview piece went up, five days after the review came out, I thought about how Ian Cohen gave Hima an 8.7 and then Hima turned around and publicly affirmed a suggestion that Ian Cohen didn’t understand Das Racist, but obviously it’s not an artist’s job to keep their critics pacified or politely return favors. A few hours later, Ian Cohen read my piece and sent me a one sentence email, ummm, letting me know how he felt about it.
Then he did something that I think only ex-girlfriends have ever done to me before: block me on Gmail chat (Cohen contends, via email, “I went invisible”). And then last week, the Das Racist debut album came out and Ian Cohen gave it a 6.3.
Hima said, “[The Relax review] didn’t mention me rappin like I gave a fuck. Or any of the Indian stuff.” Later Hima added, regarding Ian Cohen, “He wack.”
I can imagine Ian Cohen stakes some self-worth on his position at Pitchfork (as anyone in a position of power does), and takes pride in being a Pitchfork writer who’s given big records to review, and the best evidence I have of that is when he said to me at the Pitchfork Festival, the first time we met, “If I get bit by a bug and die at Pitchfork Festival, that’d be a pretty okay way to die.” So having his critical acumen impugned by some random kid from the internet in tandem with the artist whose career he just gave a huge boost to was probably not what he was expecting to come out of that 8.7. Artists want critics to like them (obviously) and critics want artists to like them back (maybe even more?), and they wind up at the same parties a lot, so you can imagine there’s some mutual admiration in the air. I guess here Ian Cohen felt some unexpectedly unrequited admiration — in the Relax review he says he found their mixtapes “pretty fucking intimidating to encounter as a critic.”
I remember thinking about being in sort of a Human Centipede iteration of that as I stood outside a Das Racist afterparty during the Pitchfork Festival with Ian Cohen, trying to get him to talk to me, like 9 months after I wrote that thing about him and he “went invisible.” He wasn’t very friendly but he opened up a little more the next day when he said the aforementioned “get bit by a bug and die” thing. I knew how he felt — there I was, totally nerding out because I was talking to Ian Cohen, a guy whose reviews were often pretty fucking intimidating to encounter as a reviews reviewer!
I also remember writing a really complimentary 2,000+ word email to the band Real Estate last spring asking if I could come on tour with them and write a book about it, and I kept thinking, like, “What an irresistible idea — why wouldn’t people want a book written about them? Even if it’s a bad book, that’s still a cool thing to have.” One day I went to Market Hotel to talk to one of the members of the band about it and he said that they were still thinking about it, but if they did decide to let me do it, I would have to do a share of equipment-moving and van-driving, which sounded like they were about to approve my request, but then a few days later they emailed me and said they didn’t think it would be a good idea. I was crushed and didn’t tell anyone except Charlie who said, like, “Why would dudes who have to spend all their time together for months in a stinking van and probably fight all the time want you to come write about how they fucking hate each other?” This seemed valid (the member I talked to that day is no longer in the band, for instance) but my internal monologue kept saying it was because my writing is bad and they hate me and don’t respect me. I haven’t been able to listen to Real Estate since then. People who write about music are sensitive. If I wrote for Pitchfork, I would probably stick their next record with a 6.3 too.
But I’m not writing this to suggest that what I wrote or what Hima said caused Ian Cohen to give Das Racist a retributive 6.3, because his compellingly-argued review tells you pretty much all you’d need to know about why he gave it a 6.3 (although inexplicably still no mention of race), and also, from the cumulative eight minutes I spent talking to him and looking through his eyes into his soul at the Pitchfork Festival, I really believe Ian Cohen is a decent, professional guy who would try his best to set aside personal issues he’s had with a band before reviewing their record. And I don’t owe Ian Cohen anything or have any reason to vouch for him if I didn’t think he was worth vouching for, and I’d be eager to tell you if I thought he was dense (not the same as being sometimes careless) or dishonest, and if you listened to Relax and then read his review and thought it was dead on, well, I can’t imagine you’re alone.
But reviewing records numerically isn’t science, so there is some ineffable stuff that contributes to the difference between a 7.3 and a 6.3, or an 8.3 and a 6.3. A record can’t stick a triple lutz, land in a pool in total synchronicity with its partner, conduct an aerial maneuver off a balance beam, or do any of the other stuff that really throws the utility of the ten point rating scale into relief, so the numbers come out of pretty much thin air and sometimes consensus. There’s a lot of personal stuff going on behind the scenes of record reviews and I hope that’s illustrated with an [ultimately hopefully invalid but useful] Ian Cohen-based example.
And next time you listen to a record and really like it, and then the review comes out and it’s a 6.3 and you’re second-guessing yourself, just imagine that the difference between that and an 7.5 is that the reviewer was watching one of the band’s videos with his girlfriend who is better looking than him and he’s insecure about it, and his girlfriend sees the lead singer playing guitar onscreen and she absentmindedly says, “He’s really hot.” Imagine the reviewer sees the drummer across the room at a birthday party, and they’ve spoken a few times before, so the reviewer waves at the drummer who is looking right at him, but the drummer doesn’t wave back because he doesn’t see the reviewer because he’s not wearing his glasses, and then the reviewer doesn’t try to initiate further contact because he thinks he’s been rejected. Maybe it’s not even a conscious thing, but, like, these are the kinds of things that color our impressions of people we don’t know very well. Kurt Vonnegut said, “Life is nothing but high school… You get into real life and that turns out to be high school again.”
Who would know the difference between the origins of the 6.3 and the 7.5, and all the undisclosed personal stuff going through the mind of a critic? The only valid opinion on a record is your own, you know, listen to your heart. Obviously! Or, alternately, if you’re forming an opinion on Relax and are genuinely unsure about it so you’re wondering about what other people think, here’s Hima: “I’d give it an 8.9.” :).
Sent from my BlackBerry
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