The Ratings Game: The Inflation Of Review Scores

Written by J.Monkey. Posted in Gumbo, Spotlight, The Rap Up

Published on September 30, 2011 with 9 Comments


Respected fellow scribe William Ketchum III caught some flack for having the audacity to not hail J. Cole’s Cole World: The Sideline Story as the next Illmatic, the reincarnation of pure awesome, the purest inception of the artform since ever, the album angels listen to experience what divinity is truely like, OMFG COLE IS THE RAP MESSIAH!

Ahem. Sorry.

He actually gave the album a decent write-up but didn’t think it was a classic (which seems spot-on to me, but you know about the shared characteristic between opinions and a certain part of the human anatomy). Here’s his response:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/WEKetchum/status/118931788885274624″]

[blackbirdpie url=”!/WEKetchum/status/118934646519115776″]

Which got me thinking. He certainly has a point. There was a time when 3,5 mics in The Source was a rating any emcee could be proud of. It was given to KRS-One’s ‘I Got Next,’ an album that spawned the ubiquitous Blondie-interpolating backpack evergreen ‘Step Into A World (The Rapture),’ one of the biggest hits in KRS his career. 4 Mics was a highly recommended album, months could go by without an artist receiving that rating. A 4,5 used to come across as a bitchy rating to me in those days, basically saying an album is flawless but afraid to call it a classic. An opinion which I’ve later come to view as silly. A reviewer might consider an album classic, but a classic status is as much defined by it’s impact on the culture as a whole as by it’s individual merit and that impact can’t be measured until years after. You have to either be Nostradamus or just very sure of your case to give a 5 mic rating straight off the bat like that. Nowadays the word ‘classic’ is thrown around for every above average album and some rappers even start e-beefing with reviewers who only give them a 4(!) out of 5 review (Specifically, I think it was Saigon vs HipHopDX recently but Google is failing me here, and who can forget Kanye’s annoyance with anyone giving ‘College Dropout‘ less than 5/5).

With the advent of the blogosphere everybody can open up their own site and start hashing out reviews. This democratization of the music press isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since loosing the gatekeepers of traditional media also means a loosening of the hold that labels or perhaps even may have had over them. The other side of the coin however is that we also loose the gatekeepers of quality control. Few blogs, especially when they start out, employ editors or even basic journalistic standards. I had to learn quite a few of those along the way myself and we’ve all slipped up occasionally, but there’s definitely a distinction between a fan site and a music blog/magazine. At least, there should be.

That distiction lies in the ability to distance yourself from preconceived notions and think critically on the material you’re reviewing as well as your writing on it. With no one proofreading your words you have to do that yourself and loose the rosy fan glasses while you’re at it. Of course blogs compete with each other, and herein lies another aspect of crappy reviewing; everybody wants to be first. Print magazines used to receive albums months before their release, not just to ensure that the reviews could be published around the time of its release, but also to be able give an album ample time digest and give it repeat listens. It’s simply impossible to write a decent review an hour after the album leaked, you haven’t lined up your thoughts about it properly, you’re actually doing that as you go along. As a result, early enthusiasm or dissapointment can easily cloud any serious critical anlaysis (Full disclosure: this happened to yours truly as well, resulting in a very high rating I felt was not entirely deserved less than a week later). It’s not actually a review, you’re basically just liveblogging your first response. Migth be interesting too, but it’s a whole different animal.

Make some ground rules for yourself, like listening at least a certain minimum of times and letting it digest a couple days. If you wanna aim for the stars with you writing don’t be preoccupied with shooting first.

The TRU Rating system:

1/5: Shite on a stick.

2/5: Living in Sucksville but shows some (possibly accidental) craft or creativity.

2.5/5: Has some dope but isn’t fully there yet.

3/5: Okay.

3.5/5: Dope!

4/5: Highly recommended.

4.5/5: Must. Have. Listen.




1982 was when Jaap van der Doelen aka J.Monkey shot his way out his mom dukes. A mere two years later he was already battling Big Brother and The Illuminati. Whenever he has time to spare from those efforts he writes (about music, mostly), hosts a radio show and designs graphics for a living. He lives in The Netherlands where he continues to be winning.

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There are currently 9 Comments on The Ratings Game: The Inflation Of Review Scores. Perhaps you would like to add one of your own?

  1. Thank you so much for this J. I’ve been saying cats have lost sight of the meaning of ratings, getting all out of sorts over an above average or good rating. You’re absolutely right about that word “classic” being thrown around too much these days. Here’s hoping everybody calms down and gets back to enjoying the music for what it is.

  2. Good write up, although I think the out-of-5 rating system is too low / restrictive.
    If you make ratings out of 10, it allows much more freedom and objectivity in the scores.

    1/10 – Totally garbage, avoid this album

    5/10 – Your average quality album, give it a listen if you want, you’re not missing anything special if you don’t

    10/10 – Perfect album. This rating reserved for a very limited number of albums.

  3. Right on the money, J. This is my main issue with reviews–ratings. It’s actually my least favorite part of the process. Readers tend to pay more attention to ratings than the actual review. And Ketchums has a point about inflated ratings.

  4. I was shocked when HipHopDx game Cole World 3.5 out of 5 when they hand out 4s like candy in Halloween…Big Sean got a 4 lmaoo…

    • You definitely have a right to your opinion. But to me, Big Sean’s album did its goal – a mainstream rap album with a bunch of singles, and a couple good album tracks – better than J. Cole’s album did its own goal. Sean had more exciting production, the production was varied while still being cohesively held together by No I.D.’s structure, and it just had more memorable songs.

  5. You hit the nail on the head re: writers running over each other in an attempt to be the first voice on a particular album. It really has gotten to the point where first-listen reflections are being passed off as reviews. It was ridiculous to see how many Watch the Throne reviews were published within 2 days (being generous here) of the album leaking.

  6. Oh, and you’ve been been producing some great writing on here lately, kudos.

  7. Thanks for the kind words y’all. Definitely keeps a blogga motivated!

  8. Long Overdue


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