“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” ~ Martin Luther King
(Ok, ok. That quote is a bit heavy to start with, but it makes sense. I think. This is the first of a few posts about Macklemore. My brother writes about the song “Same Love” almost exclusively; our friend the one and only Moe writes about why he thinks The Heist is a great album.)
More than a few months ago now, my good friend and once roommate Another J asked me if I would consider reviewing the album The Heist by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. I immediately agreed (because I love to please and the childhood schoolboy in me still likes specific assignments), but then I procrastinated after listening to the album. I told myself that I didn’t have time; that I wanted to listen to the album more; and that I had other deadlines that came first. But most of that is bunk.
The fact is that I have been trying for months to figure out a way to talk about Macklemore without talking about race, without mentioning his whiteness in a world of mostly non-white hip-hop artists and without comparing him to that other successful white rapper (you know, Eminem). In one sentence I have now acknowledged all of those things because it is impossible to evaluate the accomplishment of this album without appreciating its (1) context and (2) the obstacles that faced it.
No one who is even half-way intelligent believes we live in a post-racial society. And no one should. The lie that we are somehow past prejudice, profiling, and systematic discrimination is the very thing that makes it possible for the heinous attack on civil rights through the recent evisceration of the Voters’ Rights Act and which perpetuates an economic and criminal system that continues to obliterate Black families and the futures of young minority men. Yet, at the same time, our hyper-consciousness of race and its possible effects also makes it nearly impossible for people of different experiences to discuss something like the death of Trayvon Martin.
So, fairly or not, it is practically impossible (and, unfortunately, dishonest) to talk about Macklemore without talking about his identity in toto. Look, identity is always important with artistic creation and the assumed identity of a performer (especially in a world that is so visual) is especially impactful for how the audience receives the art form. From the beginning, then, Macklemore stands out for the way he looks because hip-hop is still largely expected (by people of all colors and races) to be a the realm of performers of a certain skin tone. This, of course, is in part a function of a feedback loop: we tend to emulate people who look like us.
But our cultural discussions of race and identity often use skin tone to disguise and distract from the real differences among us, those dictated by money, education and social standing. Color or ethnic based classism is especially odious in this way because it makes too many of us assume we know someone’s place in the world based on the most superficial aspects of how he or she looks.
No one else could make Macklemore’s album not just because Macklemore as a white man is limited by people’s expectations for white men but because non-white hip-hop artists are also directly and indirectly encouraged to adopt public identities that adhere to cultural and generic expectations based on the way they look. Again, this is one of the more insipid and insidious things about race-based hierarchies that is too often not acknowledged in public: because we look a certain way, others treat us a certain way and over time we adopt the trappings of the identities others assume for us.
All of this is a preface for me to assert again that our cultural system would make it nearly impossible for another artist to sing the songs Macklemore sings. And yet, he also sings them because of where he comes from. His rap-world is one radically different from those we encounter in the music of others. And, if you boil it down to its essential elements, the difference is about class and experience not about race. Macklemore—born Ben Haggerty—grew up with two parents, finished high school, earned a college degree in marketing, and was largely free of the poverty , familial dysfunction, and marginalization that characterizes the experience of someone like Eminem or, which is equally important, is more typical of non-white artists who grow up marginalized by race, class or somewhat similar alienation.
That Macklemore’s themes and ideas are influenced by his experience might be obvious or not—it is my task to support my assertion, and I will. That he has been shaped indelibly by the way he looks and his difference is also equally obvious, yet his talent is clear. He has a good sense for music, an easy rapping flow that can burst with speed or slow down to a spoken word. His voice isn’t the most memorable instrument—it isn’t nasally and cloying like Eminem’s or deep enough to be powerful. No, what makes Macklemore memorable is his other voice, the vehicle of his ideas.
The heart of the album—at once a display of musical talent and of the artist’s difference—is the single “Thrift Shop”. When I first heard the song, I thought it was a joke, something like satire. Yet, the music is a bit too polished for a mere flight of fancy. The song is a bit of a throwback as far as its structure goes. The music builds with a repeated saxophone riff over spare percussion. When the chorus comes, the bass vocals are a welcome contrast to the higher voice and treble sound. (The contrast reminds me of the basso vocals from Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode”).
Yet, what makes the song memorable is its self-conscious separation from the dominant materialism of most popular hip-hop. When Macklemore celebrates the lost virtue of thriftiness, he does so with humor—he buys random crap in his narrative and jokes about wearing your grandfather’s clothes—but this humor is really quite serious. The central thrust of his cultural critique comes in the final full verse:
I hit the party and they stop in that motherfucker
They be like, “Oh, that Gucci – that’s hella tight.”
I’m like, “Yo – that’s fifty dollars for a T-shirt.”
Limited edition, let’s do some simple addition
Fifty dollars for a T-shirt – that’s just some ignorant bitch (shit)
I call that getting swindled and pimped (shit)
I call that getting tricked by a business
That shirt’s hella dough
And having the same one as six other people in this club is a hella don’t
Peep game, come take a look through my telescope
Tryna get girls from a brand and you hella won’t
Man you hella won’t
Even a non hip-hop fan can appreciate the alternation between internal and line-final rhyme, the anaphoric repetitions that bind begining and ending phrases, and the mature rhyme scheme that depends more on vowel assonance and ‘slant-rhyme’ than on trite one-to-one sound correspondence. The way he trills on some of the polysyllabic words builds triplets that resolve into drawn-out and open vowels.
But the sound is only part of what makes this sense important. Here, Macklemore presents a very clear upper-middle class, progressive critique of corporatism which is already a rejection of the brand-name dropping so endemic in hip-hop. His point, clearly made with the image of the t-shirts, is that his thriftiness achieves the type of difference that attracts attention that conspicuous consumption used to. Yet, just as this progressive critique of consumerism is often rejected by those who can’t afford what others are claiming they are too good to want, Macklemore’s argument might fizzle out. The fantasy of hip-hop consumerism resounds most with those who don’t get to make real consumerist choices.
But I think that Macklemore’s spirit is in the right place—the materialism rampant in popular music is evidence of a lack of reflection and values that speak directly to the consumerist disposability of much of new music produced and which also undermines the uplifting and edifying potential of the form. He follows this theme in the shorter number “Make the Money” where he cleverly sings “Make the money / don’t make the money make you”, a chorus that gets straight to the heart of the corrupting relationship between art and its rewards.
Macklemore’s most cutting comments on materialism, however, come late in the album when he sings about Air Jordans and the violence inspired by desire and envy (“Wing$”). He starts, as is his pattern, with a personal narrative about how much he wanted his sneakers and breaks the childhood reverie with another memory of someone gunned down for his shoes. In the second verse, he moves from the emotional memory back to a rational argument:
We want what we can’t have, commodity makes us want it
So expensive, damn, I just got to flaunt it
Got to show ’em, so exclusive, this that new shit
A hundred dollars for a pair of shoes I would never hoop in
Look at me, look at me, I’m a cool kid
I’m an individual, yea, but I’m part of a movement
My movement told me be a consumer and I consumed it
His anti-consumerist creed is more hard-core (e.g. Fugazi) than mainstream hip-hop and here he explains clearly what he mostly jokes about in “Thrift Shop”. At the same time, he also indicates, even if indirectly, the paradox of trying to be anything separate. When he laments “I’m an individual, yea, but I’m part of a movement” couldn’t we as easily take this for a reflection on his place in music as for his purchase of footwear? In contrast, his more amusing take on the same theme and his used Cadillac in “White Walls” is less effective.
The album starts with a declaration not dissimilar to other rappers’ announcements of their own struggles in the lead track “Ten Thousand Hours” . Such narrative insistence that this artist had to strive to make it is a common trope in hip-hop, but the evocation of it in this case is a bit different. First, the title is from Malcolm Gladwell’s insistence (and the author is mentioned specifically in the song) that greatness and expertise is developed over time through intense work—a minimum of ten thousand hours.
This middlebrow pop-culture reference immediately affiliates Macklemore with a different subset of American life. His middle-class whiteness is worn with as much ease when he declares “a life lived for art is never a life wasted”. He returns to the theme of his own struggle to break into hip-hop with the later track “Jimmy Iovine”, a well-balanced yet forgettable narrative of his anxieties and internal dialogue before he made it big (and his let down after realizing how ‘small’ big could be).
Whether or not the intention of this song is to communicate the singer’s very different identity from other hip-hop artists (even if it is as much a pose as the ‘rougher’ personae of well-educated performers like 2 Chainz), the contrast between the content and the form is offered for contemplation. The second song (“Can’t Hold Us” (featuring Ray Dalton)), a fast dance number following the rap/R&B vocal/driving dance hall alternation prescribed by the genre, features the very thing that has nothing to do with Macklemore’s body and skin and everything to do with his talent: his ability to flow with light and speed and vary that against more throaty and measured breakdowns. Macklemore can turn a clever rhyme. If he does this using his own argot and the vernacular of (mostly white) suburban life, can we do anything but think of him as authentic?
If there is a soul to this album beyond the push against consumerism—and there certainly is—it is to be found in the powerful and brave song “Same Love” where Macklemore sings in support of homosexuality and marriage equality. Although the narrative starts with a somewhathollow memory of suspecting that he might be gay, it resolves into such simplicity and logic, that I can’t help but choking up every time I listen to it:
I remember doing the math like, “Yeah, I’m good at little league”
A preconceived idea of what it all meant
For those that liked the same sex
Had the characteristics
The right wing conservatives think it’s a decision
And you can be cured with some treatment and religion
Man-made rewiring of a predisposition
Playing God, aw nah here we go
America the brave still fears what we don’t know
And God loves all his children, is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago
In this passage, he takes on our absurd cultural narrative that homosexuality is a choice and along with it the problematic paradox of a country based on freedom that so viciously and unkindly deprives some of rights while preserving them for others. Macklemore makes the rather obvious comparison to civil rights, but then takes on his own genre for its hatefulness:
If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me
Have you read the YouTube comments lately?
“Man, that’s gay” gets dropped on the daily
We become so numb to what we’re saying
A culture founded from oppression
Yet we don’t have acceptance for ’em
Call each other faggots behind the keys of a message board
A word rooted in hate, yet our genre still ignores it
Gay is synonymous with the lesser
It’s the same hate that’s caused wars from religion
In more cynical moments, I fear that Macklemore is a product of middle-class intelligentsia, one trying to scrub hip-hop of its obvious warts–materialism, gender and orientation-based bigotry, and paradigm-stunting uses of language–without losing too much of its power. Yet, this particular product is marvelously successful. As much as I want to be skeptical of Macklemore, this song makes it pretty impossible. He recognizes the power of words, even the smallest ones, as he tries to use them for a different type of impact. It is this message especially that made me think about how Macklemore’s identity has shaped his reception. He is heralded for his amusing clowning in “Thrift Shop”, but largely ignored for his comments on homosexuality and marriage, because of who he is. Can you imagine the coverage if Jay-Z or Kanye West released “Same Love”?
Despite its political and cultural power, the song is effective because of its clear and well-composed rhymes set against a fine female vocal that is emotional and indirect where the verses are logical and forceful. Again, as with the albums other strongest moments, Macklemore’s ideas and attitudes are transmitted through finely composed songs and well-produced recordings.
This is not to say that the album is perfect. Some tracks are less memorable than others—the fourth number “Thin Line” sweetly and directly reflects on the dissolution of a relationship strained by the life of traveling performance he has selected. The austerity of the music (simple percussion and synthesizer that reminds me of early 90s R&B) is undermined at times by some Seattle-Emo-ism (“you are the love of my live”; “let’s leave before we eat each other alive”). Yet even here, some of the harmonies and the sparseness of the composition recalls some of the finer tracks on Wy Clef’s Carnival. Like Wy Clef, Macklemore doesn’t have the best singing voice, but he has a fine sense of harmony and balance. The compositions are almost always good.
Of less power than his earlier tracks, are those like “Neon Cathedral” where Macklemore talks about alcoholism. The darker side of drug abuse and a refusal to celebrate this type of excess goes hand-in-hand with Macklemore’s other genre-based criticisms. Somehow, this theme is less effective in his work because it doesn’t seem to have the same fierce vulnerability as the confessional work of an artist like Eminem. Equally dismissible is the quasi-instrumental track “BomBom” which doesn’t seem to belong at all.
When it comes down to it, I have to say that I really like this album. It is a bit too slickly produced for my taste—at times I would like a little more rawness in the instrumentals and a little more gravel in the voices. I feel uncomfortable rating the album too high, because I fear that I am attracted to it because I agree with so much of it and because my experience is probably closer to Macklemore’s than to any other hip-hop artist performing today. I am always suspicious of affinities based on similarity.
Nevertheless, Macklemore has a talent that cannot and should not be ignored. I could criticize the album for going on 2-3 tracks too long (or more in the deluxe version). I could complain that the humorous tone of his big hit will make it hard for anyone who doesn’t buy the album to take him seriously. And yet, I cannot dismiss this artist. For his musicality alone, he’s worth following. His attempt to influence and change a musically genre that does prove too often to be misogynistic, homophobic, and dangerously materialistic, is brave—but in a world dominated by consumerism and immediate gratification whatever color you are—destined to fall on deaf ears.