Artist: Nef the Pharaoh
Album: Nef the Pharaoh EP
Critic: Winston Cook-Wilson
Publication: Pitchfork, 2015
Writing Disorders: Infectious Punctuation, Jargon Palsy, Idea Fever
Winston, this review you wrote is two months old now, and I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to write about my dim opinion of it. I try to stay current, but raising an adorable puppy has kept me sidelined for weeks. December is List Month anyway, so unless I wanted to make fun of crusty ad copy about the “best” albums of 2015, I had to revisit old stuff or wait for new reviews in January.
So here we are. Your writing is hard to understand, Winston, but I don’t think that’s entirely your own fault. There seems to be a weird unspoken rule for critics writing rap reviews to focus on gene-sequencing a rapper’s connection to at least a dozen others instead of just writing things like, “This song got me moving so hard, the checkout girl thought I had epilepsy.” Clarity doesn’t matter as much as presenting the gory details of how one guy’s album sounded like someone else’s collaboration with another guy in the vein of this and that back in the early 2000s.
Obviously you know a lot about music, Winston, but I think you’re stuck in a rigid style of writing that’s bogging down your thoughts. Like so many other critics, you got so caught up in presenting EVERY piece of information at your disposal that the flow of the writing suffered the consequences. But take heart. I think it’s still well within reach to translate your experience into engaging, readable content without writing The Bay-Area Silmarillion about a 20-minute EP.
But before you can improve your writing, you need to know what’s wrong with it. Let’s start with the needless complexity. Your Nef review has some of the most opaque sentences I’ve read in months. Example:
“Nef is contributing to what seems to be a mini-trend in post-hyphy rap toward turn-of-the-millenium Southern music these days: His tourmate, collaborator, and Heartbreak Gang sideman Kool John regularly bites Hot Boys flows (his most recent single with Joe Moses interpolates 2002 Big Tymers hit “Get Your Roll On”), L.A. affiliate Problem notably interpolated Master P and Young Bleed, and Juvenile himself hopped on the popular remix to fellow HBKer Iamsu!’s strip club anthem “100 Grand”.”
Even isolated from its surroundings, that’s still an ugly wad of text — 14 different artists, outfits and songs floating in a chunky word soup, slathered in hyperlink sauce. And despite what you may think, Winston, I’m not being a willful idiot out of spite just to make awesome writing look bad. I studied economic history in debt school, so I’m well acquainted with reams of names written by people more concerned with getting the footnote right than holding an audience. Just because it’s possible to read something doesn’t mean the content is destined to stick.
Also, it’s “millennium.”
I don’t usually care about typos like that, but there were enough unacceptable flukes in your review that I think even the small snafus deserve attention. Read these next two quotes:
“…turned the heads of local hero Cousin Fik and his mentor and labelhead E-40.”
“His verses pit in-and-out-of-phase, cartoonish rambling (à la his mentor and labelhead E-40)”
Either they just changed something in the Matrix or you need to reread your stuff before you hit the “send” button, Winston. If those bits weren’t telling enough, your review originally ran with one of the ganglier sentences repeated with slight variation right after the period. I don’t know why the editorial staff chose to fix that but not the rest of your herpetic writing, but I guess I should be grateful they did anything at all. Participation trophies all around!
Winston, I know that freelancing is hard and deadlines suck. But it seems like the easiest way to avoid embarrassing missteps in the future is to just SIMPLIFY your writing. I don’t think the world would end if you left out the third example of a “mini-trend in post-hyphy rap.” Really, you can give me two examples and I’ll believe you. I’m a pre-hyphy kind of guy, so I’m impressionable when it comes to mini-trends.
Let’s go back to the last section I quoted, because I think it’ll help to illustrate how simplifying can save your writing:
“His verses pit in-and-out-of-phase, cartoonish rambling (à la his mentor and labelhead E-40) against lilting but controlled double-time.”
Winston, the phrase “pit against” works best with one or two words separating “pit” from “against,” not 14 words with seven crammed inside parentheses. And if you were able to find a simple, unhyphenated adjective to describe Nef’s rambling…why couldn’t you find another simple, unhyphenated adjective to go along with it? Or is rap rambling so diverse that it can only be explained with four hyphens at a time? By the way, your review had 44 of those. When you’re writing about a genre featuring so many hyphenated stage names, you might consider moderation in the surrounding text.
I could keep droning on, but let’s look at one more fat chunk of words masquerading as a sentence. I think it’s worth a second look:
“Snap-jumps between simpering bad boy posturing in his high range (“Trips to Rome, shrimps and calzones/ I’m always outta range, I’ma text you when I get home”), a more intimidating low purr, and a diplomatic, Drake-ian midrange (see introspective closer “Come Pick Me Up”) give his verses a character-driven quality that’s almost Jim Carrey-esque.”
Before I touch on just how awful that reads to a layman, I want to say a bit about the last part, “almost Jim Carrey-esque.” Think about the word “esque.” Now think about the word “almost.” You’re saying that something is almost like something else. That’s a flimsy waste of space. Either be confident in your assertions or find a stronger comparison.
Now then, back to the sentence itself. To make this easier, I’m going to rewrite it without all the extraneous stuff:
“Snap-jumps between simpering bad boy posturing in his high range, a more intimidating low purr, and a diplomatic Drake-ian midrange give his verses a character-driven quality that’s almost Jim Carrey-esque.”
Even with the ugly modifiers left in there, at least it’s readable. The way you wrote it though, the VERB didn’t make an appearance until after the 45th word. I don’t know why music critics insist on cramming the entire description of a musician’s artistic range into one sentence instead of just breaking it up, but you don’t have to jump on that bandwagon, Winston. This isn’t a class where the stern teacher is going to dock you points for leaving out confusing lyrical examples to support every assertion. Probably the only person who’s going to care THAT MUCH about your writing to read to the conclusion is me, and if anything I’m pleading with you to get rid of all that eyeball clutter. Giving readers excuses to give up and click on something else isn’t the kind of reaction you want to cultivate as a writer.
Winston, around the time your review ran on Pitchfork, I chatted with Anthony Fantano on his podcast, and at one point we got to talking about why so many music critics write such dense hogwash. He suggested there’s an indie appeal to that “animalistic” style of writing, where breaking rules can mirror the rebellion against convention so admired in the music. Well, in a world where clunky writing has become the norm, I think it’s high time that some people went against that twisted grain. You’d do well to consider that, Winston, because you’re capable of much more than running with a dull pack.