Taking Us All Downtown: Macklemore’s Hip Hop History Lesson

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It’s not going well if Macklemore starts to feel like a best case scenario. That’s how it looked when 2015 started. After Macklemore swept the country as an independent rap sensation, the rising backlash against his cultural presence came to an eruption after he won the Best Rap Album Grammy over rap titans Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Jay-Z, and Kanye West (even I had something to say). Right after the Grammys he went into hiding; no more music, no more videos, no more performances. In his stead there was now a Post-Mackled world. There was Iggy Azalea, G-Eazy, and other white rappers that were pushed on us after Macklemore proved successful at being, as Kris Ex says in Macklemore’s return Complex cover, “the first rapper to dominate the commercial sphere by speaking from a purely white gaze.” At least Macklemore had something to say, seemed concerned by his white privilege and his distant relationship with rap’s core fanbase. But his comeback’s queasy attempt to pay homage to hip hop’s golden era proves he’s just as clueless as the rest of the record industry and that he hasn’t learned anything from his Grammy debacle.

At first he seemed harmless enough. His first comeback song landed with a thud. “Growing Up (Sloane’s Song)” carries all the same detritus that dragged his previous work. Sappy overwrought production courtesy of equal partner Ryan Lewis, banal cliched lyrics from Macklemore, and a feature from Ed Sheeran to symbolize the vanilla coating on Macklemore’s flavor. After a tepid response, it looked like maybe Macklemania was over. But “Growing Up” was only testing the waters; Macklemore had his big radio single waiting in the wings. “Downtown” hits all the marks of his previous massive singles: big soaring chorus, expensive goofy video, an innocuous inclusivity aimed at liberal America.

“Downtown” comes with some important distinctions that separate it from his previous massive singles “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us.” The silly concept of the video (a moped gang fight a la West Side Story) acts as a tribute to the old school park jams of Hip Hop’s birth. There’s the sparse breakbeat that’s the backbone of the song, the crew posturing in the video, the song title that recalls the downtown/uptown divide of New York in Hip Hop’s early years, but most notably there are the three features from OG legends: Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Caz, and Melle Mel. “Downtown” is a clear attempt by Macklemore to prove his Hip Hop bonafides. Even the most cynical critiques can’t take away the fact that three of the most important, most underappreciated legends in the game are on a pop song in 2015. Maybe the song really was made with good intentions, but that doesn’t change the fact that “Downtown” is exactly the type of cultural carpetbagging that those old school rappers were afraid of in the first place.

If this is Macklemore’s response to the racial critiques of his victory lap, then it’s also indicative of why he received those critiques in the first place. His absurdist moped gangland fantasy infantilizes the genre that it uses as inspiration. Instead of reveling in the complexities that made Hip Hop special or acknowledging the unjust conditions that caused black kids in New York to create this new music, he takes only the fun parts and incorporates it into his white world. His split between serious “important” songs and fun “party” songs isn’t Hip Hop; the mixture of the two is the dynamic heart of the whole genre.

Even though he’s using hip hop’s glory days for self serving purposes, the action of putting those legends on the song would speak louder than anything. But if anything Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Caz, and Melle Mel are left in the dust on “Downtown,” reduced to nameless black men that form Macklemore’s posse in the background. Their moments in the song are all rapped together in a generic old school style, with no distinction between them. Even the video, while it throws their names on a marquee, makes no attempt to identify these legends that Macklemore is using for his own street cred, and rest assured his fanbase watching the video doesn’t know either. References are embedded within hip hop, with rappers shouting out influences or paying respect to history through more subtle ways. Macklemore’s failure to do that is a damning silence.

“Downtown” specializes in the smug, self-serving condescension that Macklemore has perfected. Once again, his attempt to join in the culture actually further serves to divide it further. His response to the cultural and racial appropriation critiques that have been leveled at him is basically “I know more about hip hop more than anyone else does.” Even more sinisterly, he’s claiming that he knows more about REAL hip hop than anybody else. For all of his grandstanding about white privilege, Macklemore still doesn’t know the one rule about being a white ally: cede the mic and let other voices be heard. Now, Melle Mel and others have called out current rap stars like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar for not being true to the culture, as if their ambitious musical work pushing for civil rights and black pride is less important to Hip Hop than Macklemore’s moped. Rap music has always been about innovation and the future. It makes sense that the harbinger of the white takeover of the genre would also be the one to musically commercialize its past.

“Downtown” did not do nearly as well as his older songs. It topped out at #6 on the Hip Hop/R&B chart and failed to crack the top ten on the Hot 100 (peaking at #12). Maybe it’s a sign that Macklemore fatigue really has set in, or maybe it’s that his fanbase does not care about these 50 year old rappers he put on the track. But just because he doesn’t explain who they are doesn’t mean they have to stay in anonymity.

Kool Moe Dee, one third of the Treacherous Three before a successful solo career, is most known for inventing battle rap as we know it. In his live battle with party rapper Busy Bee Starski in 1981, he focused his rhymes not on rocking the crowd but on shaming his opponent. A whole new aspect of rapping was born.

Grandmaster Caz was a member of the Cold Crush Brothers, one of the most popular live rap acts in the early days. His greatest accomplishment isn’t even credited to him. His manager Big Bank Hank stole Caz’s rhymes for his verse on the first hip hop song to break nationally, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang.

Melle Mel probably held the crown for best rapper alive before the Def Jam era. The lead MC for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Melle Mel was the voice behind one of the greatest and most important rap songs ever made. “The Message” is a six minute tour de force rapped entirely by Melle Mel, starting political rap and pushing the genre into more conscious territory. Plus it bangs.

All of this material is more satisfying than “Downtown.” Hopefully they won’t be replaced by it.

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

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tv show gifsI know Taylor Swift, I know

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.