By Jeremy Gordon
Frequently Asked Questions is exactly what it sounds like, where we have experts guide you through the unknown about people and topics in music and pop culture. Macklemore’s big win at the GRAMMYs this year has his ferreted out more of the Seattle rapper’s detractors than ever. Why is the guy who swept all the rap categories at the GRAMMYs hated by rap fans? How can a guy who wrote a song about marriage equality be hated by those who also support gay marriage? We’ve got some answers.
First, who is Macklemore?
At least we can agree on this: Born in Seattle, Washington in 1983, Ben Haggerty started from the bottom writing raps as a teenager. That inspired him to begin recording under the nom de plume Professor Macklemore, which he later shortened to just Macklemore. After linking up with producer Ryan Lewis, the two made waves in the Seattle independent rap scene, steadily building buzz until the release of 2012’s The Heist. That album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, spawned two No. 1 singles, “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us,” another song (“Same Love”) that became an anthem for marriage equality, and subsequently went platinum. Not bad for a guy who isn’t signed to a major label.
Why did people get mad about him winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album?
Historically speaking, the GRAMMYs have never been great about recognizing rap music: Outkast and Lauryn Hill are the only two rappers to win Album of the Year, and 2014 was only the second time in the show’s history that two rap albums were nominated for the award. You’d think the Best Rap Album category would be a safe space to properly honor the genre, right? But no: Macklemore, a white rapper who’s known more for his pop crossover ability than his skill on the mic, won while going up against Drake, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, three artists who released bold, genre-defining works (he was also going up against Jay Z). Give Macklemore his radio success, sure, but try saying with a straight face that he’s the best rapper in the game.
Come on. It can’t just be that.
This isn’t the first time people have gotten mad at Macklemore. “Thrift Shop” was criticized for being a phony indictment of conspicuous consumption, as well as just kind of silly. When he won the MTV Video Music Award for Best Video with a Message for “Same Love”, he was slammed for not letting Mary Lambert, the actual gay person who sung on the song, give an acceptance speech.
That seems a little weak, like people are just looking for any excuse. They even got mad at Macklemore for texting Kendrick Lamar an apology for winning the GRAMMY. Doesn’t that show great humility on his part?
That’s the thing about Macklemore: As concerned he seems to be with making sure the right message gets out—gay people are okay! good kid, m.A.A.d. city is better than The Heist!—he’s just as concerned with drawing attention to himself. He is a pop star, after all. Publishing his text with Kendrick was the easiest way to let the public know that he gets it; that he isn’t just an interloper stepping where he doesn’t belong, but a knowing soul who understands his place in hip-hop. He could’ve said something at the podium; he forgot, which is fine. He could’ve said something private to Kendrick and let it rest as a personal interaction; he chose instead to broadcast it to the world, implicitly roping Kendrick’s endorsement without letting him get a word in. See? Kendrick texts with Macklemore. He’s totally cool with losing the GRAMMY. Which, maybe he is! But it would be nice to hear it from him, not from Macklemore’s public backpedaling. (In fact, Kendrick said something a day later: “It’s well deserved; he did what he did, man… He went out there and hustled and grinded. Everything happens for a reason; the universe comes back around, that’s how it go.”)
So what do other rappers think about all of this? They can’t possible co-sign someone so corny, can they?
Few mainstream rappers have bothered to directly criticize Macklemore. The openly gay though decidedly underground rapper Le1f fired off a string of complaints after his performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, but that was largely motivated by the similarities between “Thrift Shop” and LE1F’s “Wut”—a comparison that hardly seems imagined. Others like Kendrick, Fabolous and Schoolboy Q have taken the high road, suggesting that while Macklemore might not have won at the BET Awards, his mainstream success makes him impossible to trivialize. As one editor of a rap magazine told me last summer, “Rappers f*** with Macklemore because he had a number one single, and you can’t really deny that.” It makes sense: Commercial artists understand the difficulty of building hype, and that Macklemore was able to pull two No. 1 singles from The Heist surely begs some respect. To apply a sports metaphor, it’s similar to how Tom Brady and Peyton Manning refuse to criticize each other in public despite all of the attention the media has paid to their rivalry: because as star quarterbacks, they know the pressure of each other’s job.
How did he even get popular?
Well, “Thrift Shop” is really catchy, and Lambert’s chorus on “Same Love” raises gossebumps . But part of it is how Macklemore positions himself: he’s a handsome white guy with a cool haircut and a self-aware personality, a rapper who disdains materialism and chemical-aided turning up and espouses entry-level human rights messages about how we should all just get along. Cynical thinking suggests he’s a rapper for people who thumb their nose at rap’s stereotypical tropes—those who still think every rapper is only about money, hoes, and chains. He’s perfectly edgeless, a rapper who could appear on Sesame Street without being called soft. He’s a rapper you can take home to mother.
It sounds like you’re saying he’s popular because he’s white. Isn’t that a little unfair?
It’s complicated, as you might guess. Like I said, “Thrift Shop” is really catchy. But rap is a historically black art form, and Macklemore is most certainly a white guy. New York Times critic Jon Caramanica caused a minor fuss when, during a review of a November show at Madison Square Garden, he wrote that “There have been white rap stars before, and white artists who use rapping in a pop framework, but, in effect, Macklemore is the first contextually post-black pop-star rapper.” What he meant is that Macklemore is the first pop-star rapper who didn’t need to be legitimized by an endorsement from a more serious rapper, the way Eminem was developed by Dr. Dre or the way Vanilla Ice made his bones by opening for acts like N.W.A. and Public Enemy. Macklemore hit the top of the charts without getting a thumb’s up from anyone; the rappers who have endorsed him usually take the implicit tone of, “Look, he’s not that bad.”
So what if he’s white? Why does that mean he can’t rap or speak out about marriage equality?
He can! Go ahead and rap, white guys. But know that you’ll be held to the standards as everyone else, and there are plenty of legitimate critiques to be made of Macklemore’s didactic rapping and Lewis’s syrupy production. Similarly, being an ally for righteous causes is important, and it’s doubtful even the most ardent social justice warrior would insist no straight, white male should claim to be pro-gay marriage. But there’s an undeniable self-promoting element to Macklemore’s righteousness, because again, he is a pop star. I’ve seen him perform twice, and each time he launched into the same rehearsed speech about how “no government, no institution” can keep people from loving each other; he sounded less of an ally, and more like somebody who wants a pat on the back. Where was he delivering those speeches? Yale College and New York City, hardly settings where he needed to do much convincing. And yet there he was, proselytizing like someone who was really making a difference. After all, he’s not the first rapper to say being gay is okay—he’s just the first to make tons and tons of money off saying it.
But… isn’t he making a difference? What about the teenagers in rural America who honestly never thought gay people were equal until they heard “Same Love”?
I hear you. It’s easy for us young, East Coast liberal elites to scoff at something we figured out in high school, when we attended our first gay-straight alliance meetings. But if Macklemore is the foot in the door toward treating everyone equally, so be it. It reminds me of a Levar Burton quote about the importance of movies like 12 Years a Slave and Roots: “Look, the bottom line for me is if one soul is moved irrevocably toward the side of humanity, then it’s worth it. Human beings are the laziest creatures in the history of creation. We would rather not do anything if we could avoid it. But social justice requires rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty.” What’s important is that those people keep educating themselves, rather than stopping at “Same Love.”
This sounds like more of a political issue than a musical one. What should Macklemore lovers do? What should Macklemore haters do?
Lovers: Don’t get too defensive about what you don’t know, and read a lot. Haters: Be patient and talk to the newly educated about the deeper issues if and when it’s necessary.The structure of history suggests that progress takes time. It’s perfectly okay to hate Macklemore because you hate his music, because he’s annoyingly self-promotional, and because you’ve already moved way beyond what he’s saying. But he does make an impact for some people, and as cynical as we can be about the industry’s intent on valorizing him as some progressive warrior here to save rap from itself, it’s pretty hard to say that one less bigoted person is bad for the country. If Macklemore really bothers you, remember—again!—that he is a pop star: his career is dependent on his ability to keep churning out hits, and if he doesn’t, he’ll swiftly disappear into the void of once bankable stars. If not, such is life, which is too short to get that mad about rap music. Get mad about the larger forces teaching people that gay marriage is bad in the first place, so that we never need another Macklemore.