Macklemore’s Burden: A Few Thoughts On His Heist At The Grammys

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The Grammys have never gotten it right.  Since the beginning, it’s missed the boat on every exciting musical trend.  Frank Sinatra won Album Of The Year during the summer of love, the soundtracks of Grease and Star Wars were nominated over signature punk albums in the late 70’s, and the golden age of hip hop was completely ignored.  The Grammy’s aren’t about rewarding the year’s best music, but about opening the doors of the industry and accepting the new flock into the fold.  So when talking about the history of terrible winners for Hip Hop album of the year, the forest is being missed for the trees.  The nominations are never even close to being correct.  Hell, this year most of the hip hop awards weren’t even televised!  Think about the lack of respect there.  The hip hop album of the year category was the only one where all the nominees had gone platinum, including best album; Macklemore, Kendrick, Jay-Z, Kanye, and Drake.  Yet they didn’t even televise it.  The biggest night in music is certainly not the most important, or at all significant.  It stings this year because hip hop has clearly become the most progressive and critically appreciated genre and found no love.  But the Grammy’s have always been off base and always will be.

Macklemore’s rise to success is problematic for a number of reasons that have been elaborated in several think pieces following his big wins at the Grammy’s.  There are great pieces in the New York Times and Spin Magazine worth reading.  It’s pretty gross seeing a white rapper instantly become a superstar because he’s a conscious voice in the genre, as if there aren’t decades of political, conscious, independent rap that have gone completely unnoticed by the masses.  It’s more nauseating knowing that he jump started his fame thanks to a novelty hit that racked up millions of views on youtube, which thanks to Billboard now counts in tallying up the Pop charts. Seeing “Thrift Shop” turn into a major hit was like watching Rebecca Black’s “Friday” or any other goofy youtube phenomenon turn into a hit song. The Heist is a very boring album. Ryan Lewis deserves most of the credit for it’s success, padding it with stadium filling, electro tinged beats that aim for self importance but land perfectly on the radio.  Macklemore is a decent enough rapper, but his double time flow he steps into constantly and his pauses in the middle of his bars put him in the same category as club rappers like Pitbull, Flo Rida, and (maybe) Ace Hood, not the conscious heroes he looks up to.    He’s managed to inherit all the lousy qualities from guys like Talib Kweli (who is opening on tour for him) like awkward stuffed sentences and eye rolling superiority, without any of the hyper lyricality.

I think there a couple things that most of the critics are missing about the Macklemania and why he’s so popular.  First is his voice.  It sounds absurdly white, much more so than other white rappers like Action Bronson, Yelawolf, Evidence, Alchemist, or anyone else.  Most of these rappers take some kind of vocal tone or presentation to avoid sounding so white, but here Macklemore is sounding like a cold ass honky.  For suburbanites, the white voice is easier to understand.  There’s a familiar nasal quality, and it’s one of the reasons Eminem became so popular.  People think he can rap better because they can easily understand all the things he is saying, even in the double time flow.  Combine that with Macklemore’s penchant for using very deep singers (Ray Dalton on “Can’t Hold Us,” Wanz on “Thrift Shop,” the fantastic Allen Stone on “Neon Cathedral”) for his choruses to create the faux-soul vibe tinging the whole project and it’s an instant hit.  But that’s an aesthetic choice that isn’t necessarily problematic.  The real issue (that I see) isn’t his conscious platitudes, but what problems he chooses to confront.  And they’re all very middle class social issues: materialism, artistic integrity, same sex marriage.  It’s horrifying to see America hold him up as a champion of social justice because “finally someone in Hip Hop is acknowledging these things” when no one cares about the problems rap regularly talks about, like inner city violence, drug abuse, poverty etc etc.  The Heist throws hip hop under a bus. He mocks it on “Wing$,” where he confesses that he loves Nike’s too but man they’re just shoes and why are young kids killing themselves over them.  He burns it on “Same Love” where he actually says “if I was gay, Hip Hop would hate me.” Oversimplifying issues in rap music in order to make your case is stuff that unaware 1% congressman do, not Grammy winners within the whole genre.  The song that sums up everything that’s wrong with The Heist and Macklemore in general is “A Wake.”  The song laments all the tragedy in the world, and then something interesting happens in the second verse.  He worries about his position to speak on all these problems.  “Don’t wanna be that white dude million man marching, fighting for a freedom that my people stole.”  In a noble attempt to grapple with being a white rapper, he ends up sounding sanctimonious and turning his own white privilege into a victimized position.  Maybe he really doesn’t understand how condescending it sounds when he says “I’m not more or less conscious than rappers rappin’ ’bout them strippers up on the pole, popping. These interviews are obnoxious, saying that ‘it’s poetry, you’re so well spoken’, stop it,” just like he doesn’t understand how texting Kendrick he should have won for best Rap album (but not artist or album of the year) is pandering as well.  His impressive humble brag does a great job of reinforcing the distinction between the two styles while looking like he’s being supportive.  And it’s cultural carpetbagging at its finest when he jacks the chopped and screwed style on the very next song “Gold”, which of course is intrinsically paired with the type of rap music that he subtly dismissed.

Guys this is literally the rap version of the White Man’s Burden, where Macklemore can’t stand idly by at all the injustice in the world that he just has to do something despite his own awkward social position, and I’m a little shocked that none of the crazy liberal people at the colleges he’s appealing too haven’t picked up on this yet. Yes, misogyny and homophobia in hip hop is an issue, but it’s not nearly as simple as Macklemore would have you believe and in 2014 there are an incredible amount of ways that hip hop has for dealing with it. Great rappers take problems within the genre and use them to illuminate the systemic issues within the country at large, not pin the larger issues on the genre.  And as far as we still need to go when it comes to gay rights, it’s not ok for Macklemore to say “hip hop hates gays” when fellow nominees Jay-Z and Kendrick have come out in support for same sex marriage, Drake has challenged the entire hip hop definition of masculinity, and Kanye wears a dress.  Not to mention the incredibly vibrant scene of queer and female rappers creating interesting progressive music. I don’t want to take away from everyone who’s had a meaningful experience with “Same Love,” and it is awesome to see a pro gay rights anthem make the rounds, but it’s painful to see it come at the expense of the genre he’s using to make the statement. And when there are so many great rappers out there, challenging the norms of the genre, this kind of undercooked fodder winning awards is unacceptable. 

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3 thoughts on “Macklemore’s Burden: A Few Thoughts On His Heist At The Grammys

  1. Although the genres I love are jazz, Latin, blues & several other genres not including hip hop, I enjoyed this post for multiple reasons. It’s well written, & I share the points of view expressed throughout.

    I really like the attack on the sterile, puerile & biased Grammy selections, both of winners & of what to televise, & the fact that the blogger puts this in a historical context going back several decades.

    I’m still furious that the Grammys totally dumped about 30 categories a couple of years ago, including Latin jazz & blues. The categories they cut are primarily performed by & listened to by members of minority groups. These genres are extremely important parts of the rich, colorful, continuously creative panoply of American music. They didn’t deserve to be shitcanned, but in doing so, the Grammys told you what they’re really all about: money.

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