WILL RILEY (GRADE 11)
When I was twelve years old, Thrift Shop by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft. Wanz was released. It was the illest, most out-there song my little white boy ears had heard, and I loved it. Subsequently, my lime green iPod shuffle played the track on repeat for several weeks despite my mother’s protest (due to Mack’s use of the words “cock” and “fuck”). Many listeners appeared to share my fascination with the song as it quickly soared the the top of the Billboard 100, and in 2014, Thrift Shop won the Grammy for Best Rap Song. This victory was met with anger and dismay by many rap enthusiasts as he beat out several favored black rappers such as Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar for the award. In months following the awards show, Macklemore’s music slowly vanished from the top charts. Popular opinion shifted against the Seattle rapper, and his next album, “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made,” attracted significantly smaller attention than his previous record. The reviews of the album were not much better, attacking both his talent and his character. Yet, five years later, I still am captivated by Mack’s music. This is not due to his sick beats or crazy vocals, but rather due to his lyrics. Macklemore, although sometimes problematic, addresses issues in American society like few other artists do.
Here are a few examples:
Same Love ft. Mary Lambert (2012)
If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me
“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
One of his more famous tracks (it came out before the 2014 Grammys), Same Love speaks to the homophobia that our nation is still rooted in. Only 60% of Americans support gay marriage according to Gallup and CBS. Additionally, homophobic remarks have become entrenched in our culture, particularly in rap where the word “faggot” or “fag” is not uncommon (from Chance the Rapper to Eminem, most top rappers have used these offensive slangs in their lyrics). It is this culture that Macklemore’s attacks. Unfortunately, he is one of the only major artists doing so. Up until Same Love’s release, no song celebrating being gay ever reached the top 40 songs in America.
Drug Dealer ft. Ariana Deboo (2016)
They said it wasn’t a gateway drug
My homie was takin’ subs and he ain’t wake up
Paying out congress so we take their drugs
Murderers who will never face the judge
And we dancin’ to a song about our face goin’ numb
But I seen homies turn grey, noses draining blood
I could’ve been gone, out 30s, faded in that tub
Now it’s getting attention cause Sara, Katey and Billy
But this shit’s been going on from Seattle out to South Philly
It just moved about the city
And it spread out to the ‘burbs
Now it’s everybody’s problem, got a nation
on the verge
Take Activis off the market, jack the price up on the syrup
But Purdue Pharma’s ’bout to move that work
This single is rooted in Macklemore’s own battle with drugs, but also speaks to the larger opioid epidemic that our nation is experiencing. Drugs are discussed in several of his songs (i.e. Kevin), but this track speaks to the movement as a whole and the root causes: large pharmaceutical companies and doctors who overprescribe drugs. Other modern singers such as The Weekend may skim the surface of drug addiction, but none go into the poetic and heartfelt depth that Mack does.
White Privilege II ft. Jamila Woods (2016)
Okay, I’m saying that they’re chanting out, “Black lives matter”, but I don’t say it back
Is it okay for me to say? I don’t know, so I watch and stand
In front of a line of police that look the same as me
Only separated by a badge, a baton, a can of Mace, a mask
A shield, a gun with gloves and hands that gives an alibi
In case somebody dies behind a bullet that flies out of the 9
Takes another child’s life on sight
It seems like we’re more concerned with being called racist
Than we actually are with racism
I’ve heard that silences are action and God knows that I’ve been passive
What if I actually read a article, actually had a dialogue
Actually looked at myself, actually got involved?
If I’m aware of my privilege and do nothing at all, I don’t know
Hip-hop has always been political, yes
It’s the reason why this music connects
So what the fuck has happened to my voice if I stay silent when black people are dying
Then I’m trying to be politically correct?
White privilege and white guilt in correlation to the Black Lives Matter movement is a topic Macklemore discusses frequently (i.e. in A Wake), and is a reason why his music is often criticized. Some opinion journalist such as Jeremy Gordon for Pitchfork feel that these tracks are hypocritical. They are sung by a white man who relentlessly apologizes for his whiteness and speaks about black oppression, yet he also gained fame from his music and beat a more talented black rapper for a Grammy. I agree that is this problematic, but I would imagine any song by a white man about oppression would be. Despite this, these tracks are worth thinking about. Many white people do not know how to talk about race in our nation, and Mack addresses this. He explains his own troubles surrounding the topic but ultimately conveys a message that everyone must take action. He may not be your favorite rapper, but if you ever get tired of pumped up, hypersexualized pop music, feel free to give Macklemore a try.
Note: Macklemore is in a duo with Ryan Lewis, but since Lewis is only a DJ and record producer, I did not feel the need to include him in this article.