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I have a friend who has been pouring his heart & soul into starting a rap career for the past 3 or 4 years. One day while hanging out with him at his flat, he plays me some of his new music from his SoundCloud. I was horrified to learn that over these years he hasn't improved his skills at all. It was utter trash. I wanted to tell him I didn't like it. But more importantly, I wanted to articulate why it was bad so that he might improve. I, however, didn't have the heart to say it.

How can I tell him his music sucks in the most constructive way possible while minimizing resentment/hurt feelings?

Edit: I am an avid fan of rap, particularly "SoundCloud rap" so I do feel "qualified" to give some feedback.

12

TLDR: You shouldn't

From a friendship standpoint:

If he showed you his music because he's proud of it, then your job as a friend is to support him. Tearing him down by saying his music sucks will not only damage his confidence and drive that is so vital to a musician, but also potentially damage the friendship. Sure, his music may be unpleasant to listen to, and you may really dislike it, but he felt comfortable enough to be vulnerable enough to show you his creation. I don't see any benefit that either of you get from you saying his music is bad.

From a critical standpoint:

If he showed you his music, and explicitly asked for constructive criticism, then that gives you full right to critically comment on his work. However, you should focus on providing constructive pointers along the lines of:

  • "I really like your flow in this verse, but you seem to be relying on triplet beats (something common in trap/SoundCloud rap). But you have good lyrical ideas!"
  • "Your beat has this super dark feeling to it, which really compliments the song's theme. It feels somewhat repetitive though at times, perhaps a key change or bridge section would improve the track."

From a genre perspective, you could even suggest that he experiments with new sounds and styles outside of SoundCloud rap. Currently, the trap and SoundCloud subgenres seem to be really saturated with similar-sounding artists. He may even stand out to others more if he incorporates other styles into his music.

This shows that you actually listened and internalized his music, and provided thoughtful and supportive feedback. Even if he doesn't heed your advice, he still will value that you, his friend, care enough about him to partake in his creative endeavors.

Overall, music and music taste is so incredibly subjective, and you being an avid music fan probably understand this. What you may think is trash, may not be what he thinks is trash. You purely saying to him, "Your music sucks", "Your lyrics are garbage", "Your beats are trash", etc. can be easily dismissed by him with "Well, that's your opinion", "You're just a hater", "Fine, then you write your own music", etc.

To summarize, your friend will internalize better and benefit from the constructive criticism. If you truly want your opinion to come across well, this will be the better approach.

Sidenote:

I have been playing guitar for about 15 years now, and understand how long it takes to hone a craft. Three to four years into my music career, I was playing badly. Now, I crave the advice and feedback from fellow musicians as that'll only help me improve, but the support from friends and family early on was crucial to me. Knowing my friends were in my corner supporting me helped me want to grow and improve as a musician. Who knows, maybe someday your friend will become a really skilled rapper, or even famous? However, he won't get there with you constantly putting him down, and if he does, surely that bridge will be burned along the way.

I hope this helps!

4

What do you see as the benefits of telling your friend that you don't like his music?

Personally, I wouldn't recommend giving him this feedback unless he explicitly asks for it.

If you do insist on telling him, I would recommend that you do so kindly, and establish that you are giving him this feedback with the purpose of helping him improve. Tell him specific things that you don't like, and offer concrete ways for him to improve. I wouldn't tell him that you don't think he's improved at all in the last couple years. You might include examples of other rappers/rap music that you think he should emulate. I would also recommend including compliments about the aspects of his music that you do like, to soften the blow. Emphasize that you value his friendship and want the best for him and his music career.

Also remember that music taste has a lot to do with personal preference. Your friend might like his music just fine as is.

3

Is there a reason for you to tell him? In my experience, unless you've been asked for honest feedback, there will be no positive effects from telling him his music sucks. You can encourage him to seek feedback (music teachers, online forums...), but don't offer it unsolicited unless you want to risk damaging your relationship.

If he does ask you for honest feedback, focus on specific things he can improve. Is it the lyrics that need work? The delivery? The music? Offer suggestions for how to improve the specific aspect you criticize. Don't outright tell him that he sucks. Be constructive, and don't criticize more than one or two things each time he asks for honest feedback. And, however much he sucks, find at least one good thing to comment on each time. Maybe his vocals are very clear? There's a specific line or two of lyrics that's clever? However small the good thing is, if you mention it then the rest of the feedback will be better received.

2

The way you answer boils down to your own level of "expertise" in music, particularly in this genre. Are you an aficionado who could give constructive feedback on how to improve the music, or (despite your avid fandom) are you still just an dedicated listener who knows what you like, but can't really articulate why?

In the end, unfortunately, anything you say might be hurtful. There's no way around that when criticizing someone's artistic effort. They may feel they poured their heart and soul into the work, and then you come along and shred it, or dismiss it thoughtlessly.

But let's assume you know enough to give expert advice, and your goal is to help them understand what's doesn't work, so they can go back and make it work. If that's the case, you might "pre-frame" the discussion by getting permission to be honest:

Let me ask you this: Do you just want my approval, or are you looking for serious artistic feedback?

As anyone who's been to art school knows, other artists are not shy about laying into your art, brutally criticizing anything they might see as a flaw. A good artist accepts this and learns to take it with equanimity. Not all criticism is valid, but even the most gratuitous can contain some grain of truth that helps them improve. It's a tough, but ultimately rewarding process.

If your friend is willing to get kicked around a bit, then you can soften the blow by prefacing the negative criticism with something positive. For example:

I like the way that you strung together the lyrics in this phrase -- but, I have to tell you, they don't flow with that beat at all. You need to think about mixing up your rhythms to let the music be part of your unique voice, and not just background noise.

As you might expect you should avoid saying things like, "That's utter trash!" not because they're mean-spirited but because they don't contain any actionable information. Which is to say, don't sugar-coat everything, but do ultimately give constructive advice that to encourage them to try harder.

All this assumes you're willing to put in the time to help, of course. This can take hours or even days, so be sure you are OK getting sucked in before you move forward.

On the other hand, if you don't want to take the time, or they don't seem to want your brutal honesty, or (as mentioned at the beginning) you don't feel you're expert enough to give an informed opinion, you can dissemble:

Well, I listened to your music, but I don't think I'm really the right person to judge it as your style isn't really my cup of tea. You should ask someone who is into that style.

If they counter that they know you are into "SoundCloud rap" and that doesn't make sense, you can try to draw some fine distinctions between what you like and what you don't:

Yes, I know. But I'm into music that has kind of jazzy, complex, upbeat rhythms. Yours is more dark, which already turns me off to it. But other people might get into that.

Try to stay honest by stating what you don't like about it, e.g. "it's too downbeat", "it's too slow", "you're not really rapping about things that interest me", and so on. This allows them to understand what it is that you didn't like, but suggests it's just a personal, and not a general opinion.

If nothing like that comes to mind, fall back on something innocuous and meaningless:

I'm sorry, I just couldn't get into it.

This might not work, as your friend is likely to press for details, but it is less unfriendly than stating your actual opinion.

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A friend is supposed to be supportive, so first find something positive to say about his music. You can then choose one problem area and address it by asking a question about why he chose to do that or mention that you noticed that many artists do this differently. Limit it to one thing as too many negatives can seem like an attack and make the person defensive and reject everything you say.

It's his music so it's his choice, just offer an observation and let it go if he rejects it. Your job is to be a friend, there are plenty of critics out there to let him know where he fell short.

You may want to suggest that he start/join a group either online or locally of aspiring musicians who can listen to and critique each others work as the best feedback will come from fellow music creators.

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