Why Macklemore’s ‘White Privilege II’ Still Misses the Mark, Explained

The problem with the rapper isn’t that he’s white. It’s that he’s white and makes bad music.

Macklemore Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Who is Macklemore?

Have you ever been to Whole Foods on a Saturday afternoon, when it’s giving out free samples? And there’s this superfit and ultra-earnest bearded man passing out surprisingly tasty and unfathomably expensive vegan-chorizo hash? Macklemore is that guy, if that guy were also a rapper.

But isn’t Macklemore very popular? A quick glance at his Wikipedia page shows he’s had numerous hit songs and has won multiple Grammys.

Oh yes, he is. All things considered, he’s probably one of the three or four most-popular rap artists working today. And yes, “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love” were megahits; The Heist—the debut studio album from him and Ryan Lewis—went platinum, and they won, like, all the awards in 2013 and 2014. They won so many awards that they ran out of music awards to give them. I think one of them might have even received an NFL MVP.

Macklemore is also, from all accounts, an extremely hardworking artist who had been grinding on the underground mixtape circuit since 2000. While he might have seemed like an overnight success, his career has been brewing for over a decade.

So why the shade?

Because despite Macklemore’s apparent earnestness, his work ethic, his success and even his apparent ally-dom, Macklemore is not very good at rapping. Is he a better rapper than you? Yes! A better rapper than me? Of course! In fact, if he actually were the vegan-chorizo hash guy at Whole Foods and he happened to also give you a mixtape, you’d think, “Oh, this vegan-chorizo hash guy at Whole Foods isn’t a terrible rapper! Who’d a thunk it?”

But when comparing him with other people who rap for a living and have reached a status where their music is considered radio and award worthy, he is not very good at it. Some would even argue that he is bad at it.

By “some,” you mean “you,” right?

Yes, I do. I wrote about this before in 2014, stating that Macklemore’s music largely fails to connect with us (black hip-hop fans) not because he’s white, but because we generally just don’t enjoy listening to it.

Deadspin’s Greg Howard also recently wrote on this dynamic: “There are white people who rap well and make good songs, and even if there’s grumbling, these rappers are all embraced, because there’s nothing wrong with talented musicians enjoying success. Macklemore isn’t embraced by rap fans because he is bad.”

Does Macklemore’s whiteness matter in this context? Yes, it does. A below-average white performer receiving critical and commercial lauds in a predominantly black space understandably rubs people the wrong way. But again, it’s less about his whiteness and more about his badness. It’s like if Matthew Dellavedova of the Cleveland Cavaliers—who is an earnest and hardworking and deserving NBA player—were named NBA MVP. People would be less mad that a white guy off the Cavs bench was named the NBA’s best player and more just confused and utterly flabbergasted that a white guy off the Cavs bench was named the NBA’s MVP.