Like most Macklemore and Ryan Lewis fans, I’d never heard of the duo until their “Thrift Shop” hit the airwaves this past year. I can’t deny that this makes me a bandwagon fan, but I can admit that I was reluctant to give them a chance at first, worrying that he’d be just another parody of authenticity to represent the few well-known white folks in the rap game. But then I listened, really listened, to the deep cuts on The Heist – as in “Neon Cathedral” and “Wing$” – and heard profound stories of the human struggle that are relevant to any person. And if you do the same and are still not moved – even in the slightest – by Mack’s message and Ryan’s rhythms in these songs, then you may need to reexamine how you appreciate music.
There is a fundamental difference between rap and hip-hop, and it mostly pertains to a particular track’s/rapper’s message. Yes, the term “rapper” confusingly applies to both genres. Yes, the Grammy committee lumps them both into one category, and that’s under the singular title of “rap,” and yet, the Associated Press recently released an article saying that even the Grammy’s rap sub-committee tried to cut the duo out of the rap category completely for this year’s awards, claiming that they were actually a pop group. Please. Think of every other “true rapper” who also gets mainstream/crossover fame, such as Nicki Minaj and Travie McCoy of Gym Class Heroes. How does their sudden widespread recognition suddenly discredit their fifteen years of cultivated rap talent? Give Mack’s “Make the Money” a listen and tell me if any other pop artist is doing anything similar lyrically, because if Macklemore is merely a full-blooded pop star, then Skrillex is just a guy who dabbles with GarageBand on the weekends.
Critics online continually repeat that the members of the Grammy-deciding committee were uninformed about this year’s rap artists, and thus, only chose Macklemore because he was a “safe choice,” citing his race as the reason for his perceived safeness. I wasn’t on said committee, so I can’t pretend to know if there is any truth behind these claims. But if I’m a Grammy voter who’s also a big exec in the music industry (and thus predominantly concerned with the profits of the artists who’ve signed with my company), then an independent artist – regardless of his race – talking about the ills of consumer culture, materialism, and corporate thievery screams “gigantic risk” to me.
And yes, Macklemore is aware of white privilege. He is not aloof. In fact, he openly and honestly raps about this in his older track aptly titled “White Privilege.” But the man cannot shed his skin to appease everyone, nor should he. His genetic history is both a blessing and a curse, as is everyone’s.
Nonetheless, it is encouraging when someone who not only thinks like to you but also looks like you gets recognition and accolades in a profession where they are the oddity. Flip the scenario and consider how powerful of a personality Barack Obama is for aspiring African-American politicians, Jeremy Lin is for Asian-American basketball players, and Mindy Kaling is for Indian-American actresses. Talent, and tenacity, transcend race.
As a poet, a spoken word artist, and a college grad with an English Lit degree, I’ve read and listened to a lot of terrible poetry/rap/hip-hop, as well as some genuinely great works from all varieties of people, famous or striving to be. In that vein, Lupe Fiasco is a great rapper because he calls everyone out on their crap. Immortal Technique incites anger at societal ills well enough to make us all want to burn down everything that offends us, while Flobots can make us long to hold the world’s hands and show them a better way. Mos Def is sometimes odd, but ever smooth; Outkast’s confidence to experiment (and get it right) is awe-inspiring; Eminem’s viciousness is his sword and his stage character’s bravado is his shield; and lesser-known, more-experimental rap artists like Shad and Flipsyde should give us hope for the evolution of the genre. As Macklemore himself said in a post-Grammy interview, “we’re trying to push the comfort zone of the listener and the art,” which is exactly what he does.
It is Macklemore’s poetic, memorable, and artistic discussion of topics that communicate with modern listeners which gives the duo their acclaim, as well as the undeniable uniqueness of Ryan Lewis’ production. Few other rappers – even from the list I gave above – are bold enough in their lyrics to broach the topics of gay rights, sexism, consumer culture/materialism, and personal struggles with drug/alcohol addiction while also explaining the value of creative freedom and ownership. (Mack even narrates exactly why he and Ryan remain as independent artists in the gigantic extended metaphor that is their track “Jimmy Iovine.”) It’s his honesty that attracts us to his lyrics and persona.
For the folks who question whether or not Macklemore was the right person to rap about these themes/issues/social inequities, I’ll paraphrase the response that poet and National Book Award winner Nikky Finney once gave at a live reading when asked a similar question: Why shouldn’t you write about things you haven’t personally experienced? You close yourself off to so much of the world that way.
So why can’t Macklemore act as a small mouthpiece for gay rights? Whoever ever said he was trying to be the next Harvey Milk? How is his promoting equality (for his gay uncles), as a straight ally, a bad thing? And if the reason is that a LGBT artist should have done it instead, please familiarize yourself with the life of Mary Lambert, the lesbian singer, songwriter, and spoken word artist from Seattle who sang the intoxicating chorus on “Same Love” and has since become a Grammy nominee for that contribution. So yes, Mack and Ryan did empathize and collaborate with someone directly related to this issue, even if they themselves do not suffer from it.
But here’s the catch-22. If Mack hadn’t leveraged his position and talents to these ends, he could have been called out as a selfish moneymaker who’s just like every other rapper unconcerned with the community. But since he did speak out, he’s instead criticized as a selfish moneymaker who’s just cashing in on the woes of the community. As long as the duo’s critics just ignore the fact that the Mack and Ryan are simultaneously promoting other fellow, independent artists (and their respective issues of importance) while collaborating to gain recognition collectively, they can force it to kind of make sense.
It’s probably most important to remember that the Grammys are a competition, that there can only be one victor in each category, and that the Grammy board members act as the referees in this artistic blood sport. But like any referee, they only seem to get it right when they make a call in favor of our favorite team. Thus, just because Kendrick Lamar (who is also an amazing rapper) didn’t take home the gold this time, that doesn’t mean he’s a lesser musician – far from it. It’s just that on this day, in this year, on this stage, the stars didn’t align in his favor. Every competitor knows that there are factors beyond his or her control, but that doesn’t mean the runners-up should quit the game, nor should the winners need to apologize for their success. Talent recognizes talent, and the pre-Grammy texts between Mack and Kendrick show that.
Finally, let us not forget that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis managed to gain all their success and renown as independent artists. To clarify, that’s without the backing of a multi-million dollar major (or even minor) label, without any well-connected record execs in their pocket to force the album along (as parodied perfectly by this Onion article), and without the hired hands of a corporate PR team ready to push out or shoot down whatever they’re paid to influence. Instead, Mack and Ryan read the market right by themselves, did what they wanted, how they wanted, and it’s their honesty, their timing, and the high caliber of their production that has made them successful. As they say in American Hustle, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis did it “from the feet up” over fifteen years, which is equal parts laudable and inspiring.
If that’s not hip-hop, then nothing is.