Madison, Not London
I have more love and respect for Tom Breihan than I do for almost any other critic working, so I was totally bummed out to read his dismissal of the new Dr. Octagon in the pole position at Pitchfork this morning. His complaints, in order, are as follows:
1. Kool Keith's white fans like Dr. Octagon for the wrong reasons.
Generally speaking I can't understand this sort of complaint; micromanaging audience response is unbecoming from anybody, but especially so from a third party. What's worse, criticizing somebody's work because one doesn't like the way a posited audience might respond is unsporting, to put it mildly. Breihan ascribes motives to Kool Keith for which there is simply no evidence ( Keith has loved weird, "unhinged" shit pretty much as long as he's been working: Black Elvis, anybody?) then blames his own response on this imagined process. This is what's known as "bringing your own issues to the table," and while it's perfectly legit to say (for example) "I can't dig Daniel Johnston because the whole scene makes me uncomfortable," it's considerably less cool to blame Daniel Johnston's work for that creeped-out feeling. Of the race-baiting that informs online rap criticism, the less said the better, but I'd hoped that things had at least moved past using colors as dismissives. This is perhaps a naive hope. At any rate, Breihan seems to think that Keith's use of bizarre imagery and stream-of-consciousness storylines are pandering rather than honest exploration of his muse. This is the sort of mind-reading which we in our critical guises are best off avoiding, I'd think. Better to engage the work in good faith than to second-guess a writer's motivations.
2. As a rap album, The Return of Dr. Octagon fails to meet genre expecations.
I don't mean to get all old-guy about this, but what the hell: I remember a time when this would have sounded more like praise than condemnation. Did the Ultramagnetic MCs toe some it-sounds-like-this party line? No; they certainly didn't; that was part of what made them great. Keith, himself no spring chicken, comes from an era in which carving out your own sonic niche, and constantly rethinking it, was a point of pride. Giving a dude the smackdown for trying & failing to stretch the parameters of his chosen field is one thing, but finger-wagging for making the effort in the first place is a little reactionary.
3. These beats are more electro than rap.
Here I should state my bias outright: I'd rather listen to electro than most of the rap that people get excited about lately. I like the sounds better. The beats too. So the dirty, squelching electro groove of The Return of Dr. Octagon hits me in all the right places. Anybody else's mileage will vary, obviously, but isn't marking this as a de-facto point against the album a little like complaining that "Miss You" is more disco than rock?
Anyhow, I hope neither Tom nor Pitchfork will take these comments amiss; I'm trying here not to indulge in rote bitching about PItchfork, which is to the web what hacky-sack is to an open quad. But I do think that The Return of Dr. Octagon is totally fuckin' rad, so I wanted to say a few more words in its defense, and now I have, and I'm going to eat a raspberry Danish. Salut!
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