Have you bought your copy yet?
A couple of years ago, before I knew her, my friend Seung Min-Lee acted in a no-budget indie movie called Mutual Appreciation. Earlier this year, the movie opened at one theatre in downtown Manhattan. Mutual Appreciation didn’t have a big PR campaign going for it; there wasn’t a lot of money for billboards or ads or anything. But the movie did get great reviews in the Voice and the Times. It was a critics’ movie and people don’t really go see critics’ movies (I still haven’t seen Mutual Appreciation). But some people did. Seung is Zach Baron’s girlfriend, and a few days after the movie started screening, he told me how they’d been drinking in the bar below her apartment and two of the six people there recognized her from the movie, people who didn’t know each other and just happened to be at the bar separately. To Zach, this was a nice little display of the importance of criticism. A good review wasn’t going to turn Mutual Appreciation into Pirates of the Caribbean or anything, but it would convince a few people to go see it, and so Seung got recognized on the street pretty often for a couple of weeks there.
I wasn’t especially surprised when I went to buy my copy of Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury at the Best Buy on the corner of Broadway and Houston and found that all the copies of the album had been sold. This is Lower Manhattan, after all. More than anywhere else in the country, maybe even the world, critics are thick on the ground here, and so are people who read criticism and take it seriously. This is the sort of place where quixotic idiots like me live or work, and some of us think it’s perfectly reasonable to buy an actual physical copy of an album we already downloaded just because we love it and we want to send a message to record labels that they should keep putting out brilliant and noncommercial records like this one. It also didn’t surprise me when last week’s Soundscan numbers came out this morning and showed that Hell Hath No Fury had done Lupe Fiasco numbers. It moved 78,000 units, good enough for #14 on a week when not many big albums came out. That’s certainly not great for a group that sold close to a million copies of its last album and had a close working relationship with one of the most successful production units working. But for an album of terse, apocalyptic drug-rap with virtually no big-name guests and no concessions to radio, those sales figures don’t look all that bad. It makes for a pretty good illustration of the power of criticism right now. The critics of America are capable of convincing 78,000 Americans to buy a rap album in its first week when we put on a total full-court press. That’s certainly not a huge number, but it’ll have to do.
Criticism works differently with some genres of music than it does with others. When Radiohead turns up on a kajillion magazines’ year-end lists, their sales go up considerably. But Radiohead fits a sort of public-image archetype of the critically acclaimed geniuses; they’re willowy white British men who spend years tinkering in studios and nurture intellectual personas, and they sing about being sad. They’re critical catnip. But when critics get behind non-granola rap or prefab pop, I think there’s an idea that we’re not being serious, that we’re practicing tokenism or being ironic or whatever. Clipse, two black men who rap about drugs and jewels, aren’t particularly well-positioned to take advantage of all that critical love. The Knife, two Swedes who wear masks and play icy synthpop about alienation, also aren’t really poised to ride their critical love to superstardom, even though their Silent Shout is probably the best-reviewed album of the year. Early last year, M.I.A.’s Arular came out the same week as some Decemberists album, and I was apoplectic spitting-mad when the Decemberists album ended up debuting something like 70 Billboard spots above M.I.A. But then, the Decemberists were a long-running American band with indie-rock connections and a fan-base they’d cultivated through hard touring. And, maybe more importantly, they fit the archetype of poetic-dramatic genius types. They’re supposed to get critical love, and so the critical love that they do get ends up translating to more sales.
Clipse probably don’t really owe all 78,000 sales of Hell Hath No Fury to critics; they did, after all, have two videos and a few great mixtapes and a couple of hit singles in the not-too-distant past. But the loudest support for the record came from the Pitchforks and XXLs and Village Voices of the world. The album didn’t do big pop numbers, so they’re officially a critics’ favorite now, and there are worse things to be than critics’ favorites. If Jive takes a look at the numbers and decides to drop Clipse, Clipse can move over to Koch or another label like that. Maybe they’d maintain their relationship with the Neptunes and maybe they wouldn’t, but it wouldn’t much matter; their cold, fatalistic aesthetic would translate just fine to less expensive beats. And they’d be free to pursue their muse, further perfecting their thing and keeping their core audience happy. Those guys take their craft very seriously, and they were fully conscious of making a noncommercial work in Hell Hath No Fury. I’d like to imagine they’d be comfortable with the prospect of cult success and nothing more. Things are a little more complicated since a lot of their style rests on the hard hauteur that comes with money, and maybe it won’t be as believable if everyone knows they’re not making that much money. Still, commercial or no, not a whole lot of music is making money these days; Clipse’s modest chart showing comes the same week that Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come, maybe the most relentlessly and extravagantly marketed event-album in recent memory, took an 81% drop from first-week sales that weren’t as high as the projected sales in the first place. In dark times like these, critical love might work as a sort of shelter from the rain. A rap group beloved of critics probably isn’t going to get absurdly rich anytime soon, but they aren’t going to starve either. Maybe that’s enough.