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.
Basically, the problem with Macklemore isn’t that he’s white. It’s that he’s white and makes bad music, and people just prefer that he would stop doing that.
Well, doesn’t his new song, the aptly titled “White Privilege II,” address this? He’s aware that he benefits from being a white man in the rap industry, and he made an entire freakin’ song about it. Why is this still rubbing you the wrong way? Is this what a true ally would do?
Well, Macklemore might be self-aware that he’s white and benefits from privilege. But he apparently is not self-aware enough to be aware that people (rap fans) want him to stop making rap music. Because, if he were, he wouldn’t have made “White Privilege II” a nine-minute-long song. This is like Hardee’s saying, “Yes, we know our food is terrible. And we’d like to acknowledge that by inviting you to our new Hardee’s all-you-can-eat buffet!”
My favorite rappers are, in some order, Kanye West, Ghostface, Jay Z, the GZA and Big L. The only way I’d listen to a nine-minute-long song featuring each of them is if the last four minutes of said song were nothing but detailed instructions for me to find a treasure chest with a million dollars in it. “White Privilege II” is basically a think piece read aloud.
Also, while Macklemore does appear to be earnest, I do harbor some suspicion about his sincerity. It feels, for lack of a better term, performative. Like a person tweeting a selfie of themselves tweeting a sad-face emoji instead of actually just being sad. Which Macklemore has a history of doing.
He’s tweeted sad-face emojis before?
No, the performative earnestness. For instance, when The Heist won best rap album at the Grammys—an award many believed should have gone to Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City—instead of just privately texting Kendrick to express that he believed Kendrick truly deserved the Grammy, he privately texted Kendrick to express that he believed Kendrick truly deserved the Grammy … and then created a post on his Instagram page showing everyone that he privately texted Kendrick.
So forgive me if I’m still somewhat cynical when this same guy basically says, “Hey, I’m a white guy rapping who benefits from being a white guy rapping, and I’ve made a song about being a white guy rapping benefiting from being a white guy rapping, and I know I’ll receive lots and lots of praise and props and play for being a white guy rapping about benefiting from being a white guy rapping.”
You are forgiven.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.