On Sunday night Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, a white hip-hop duo from Seattle, won the Grammy awards for Best New Artist, Best Rap Song, Best Rap Performance, and Best Rap Album. The second and third were for their hit single “Thrift Shop,” a playful critique of conspicuous consumption in hip-hop; the last was for their platinum debut LP, The Heist. Macklemore and Lewis then performed “Same Love,” an anthem for marriage equality that contains a not-so-playful critique of homophobia in hip-hop. Madonna and Queen Latifah were there. Thirty-four couples got married. After the awards Macklemore sent a tortured apology text to Kendrick Lamar, who to Macklemore’s mind should have won Best Rap Album, then posted a photo of said text to Instagram.
I found that last bit to be the most moving, because it was the first time I ever wondered if maybe Macklemore might hate Macklemore and Ryan Lewis as much as I do. But of course that would be difficult. I don’t hate them as people, obviously: I’ve never met them, and their politics seem generally aligned with mine, even if their articulation of those politics makes me want to stare at my feet and shuffle into another room. And I certainly don’t hate them because they’re white. After all, some of my best friends are white! Some of my favorite rappers are white! I’m white! I don’t even hate them for winning Best Rap Album over Kendrick, Kanye West, and Drake, all three of whom made records light years better than The Heist (good lord, that title). The Grammys are one of culture’s greatest mistake-factories, and anyone wanting to see smart decision-making Sunday night should have been watching Sherlock.
No, I hate Macklemore and Ryan Lewis because I think their music is terrible at best, and worse than terrible at worst. It’s the lowest sort of middlebrow, an art-like commodity that shallow people think is deep and dull people think is edgy. The city that blessed us with Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana has now cursed us with the rap game Upworthy: a man hawking hip-hop that switches out faked emotion for real intellect and faked intellect for real emotion and has no discernible goals other than to congratulate its makers for making it and its listeners for purchasing it.
The Heist is a lavish dumbscape of plodding quarter-note grooves, “Chopsticks”-style piano loops, pointless choirs singing about nothing. Lewis’ beats are kitchen sinks of bad ideas, tin-eared imprecision mistaking itself for eclecticism. His crate-digging seems to start at a Feist song he once heard on an Apple commercial and end at the music JetBlue plays before the TVs turn on. And it’s all a backdrop for Macklemore’s contrived flows and mirror-practiced charisma; even his punny pop-culture references—the last refuge of every eager-beaver dorm room M.C.—are amazingly dull. “Can’t Hold Us” boasts references to Bob Barker, Michael Jackson, Wu-Tang Clan, and Shark Week, touchstones so obvious their sole purpose is to assure the audience that Macklemore has heard of things they’ve heard of, to pat them on the back for knowing what they already know. The album’s opening track, “Ten Thousand Hours,” takes its title from a cliché in a Malcolm Gladwell book. Bro you gotta read it.
As Jon Caramanica noted in a Times piece far more levelheaded than this one, Macklemore apologists and detractors alike often argue that his music is more pop than hip-hop, and that to compare him to Kendrick and Kanye and any number of other artists who were up for Best Rap Album on Sunday is an unfair equivalence. This is bullshit. For starters, from a musical standpoint both Kanye West’s Yeezus and Drake’s Nothing Was the Same are easily more genre-straddling works than The Heist, a conservative record in every sense other than its politics. Secondly, and much more importantly, Macklemore claims himself as a hip-hop artist, proudly, at every opportunity.
Which brings us to the most egregious of Macklemore’s modes, that of hip-hop’s self-appointed, scolding ombudsman. As mentioned above, Macklemore’s most-discussed song is probably “Same Love,” the pro-gay-marriage anthem that, once again, exists primarily to tell its listeners things we already know. At first spin it’s just a bad song whose heart is in the right place—neither the first nor last of those. And then we get to the second verse:
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’ve become so numb to what we’re saying
A culture founded from oppression
Yet we don’t have acceptance for ’em
And this is when I wonder: Who does this dude think he is? The number of lazy elisions and smarmy misdirections buried in here are confounding. In what asinine, addled universe is “hip-hop” reducible to YouTube comments? Hip-hop is certainly a culture “founded from oppression,” but what might you know of that, Macklemore? It quickly starts to feel like the white kid in the front row of the Af-Am Studies class, droning on about his own radicalism, convinced he’s the only one in the room with Dead Prez on his iPhone.
Not that you’ll hear about it from Macklemore but there are plenty of hip-hop artists who’ve spoken out against homophobia, plenty who’ve dropped words like faggot from their repertoire or never used them in the first place. There are plenty more who haven’t, but Macklemore doesn’t name them either, because doing that would actually be taking a stand. Still, it’s enough to make his audience believe that homophobia is something the rest of hip-hop does but he doesn’t, telling them what they think they already know. This is rap for people who don’t like rap that makes them feel proud of themselves for not liking rap, and for buying Macklemore albums, and as such it moves from bad music into immoral, bleached-out hucksterism, the undying legacies of Paul Whiteman and Pat Boone. At least the Stones and Zeppelin never claimed they were healing the blues as they were stealing from it.
Strong language, but it’s not even mine. “You got robbed,” wrote Macklemore to Kendrick Lamar. “I wanted you to win. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you.” That text message is a raw and uncomfortable document, born of earnest regret and unexpectedly pained self-awareness. I believed it, and still do. But as I scrolled through the comments I found this (seeing as we’re scoring rhetorical points off comment sections):
Anyone who hates on him for winning a grammy FAIR AND SQUARE is fucking retarded, seriously there are more songs than Same Love and Thrift Shop, no he doesn’t make dumb ass … songs about ass money and pussy and he doesn’t refer to women as bitches or hoes cause he doesnt lack RESPECT like 99% of all rappers.
Ah yes, “99% of all rappers.” It gets worse from there. Even if Macklemore doesn’t make these statements he certainly abides them and profits from them, and if there’s a better example of “white privilege” in the music biz in 2014, I can’t think of one. The downside of thrift shopping is you can’t take anything back.