Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ first proper album has dominated the charts despite being released on an independent label. Our resident hip-hop head gives it a look to see if it deserves its acclaim.
For all of my complaints of the state of music these days, I have to admit that it is remarkably easy to find anything that suits your tastes. Look on Spotify, or Bandcamp, or Twitter, or somewhere, and you’ll find a new favorite artist or band to last you for a while. It is easier to find music than it has ever been, and it is just as easy to find quality curmudgeons espousing on what music managed to crack through many layers of cynicism and touched them. We can access anything at any time, make damn well anything a hit with enough effort, and spread the love of a new favorite act within seconds, so it’s a damn pity that the most I’ve learned from all of these new channels and access to information is that most people have shitty, narrow tastes in music.
In planning which albums I wanted to cover that Earbuddy had not given any press, I figured that Aesop Rock’s Skelethon was going to be a relevant topic. In a year in which three white rappers put out quality albums (the other two being Brother Ali, whose time in OIODI will come, and El-P), Aesop Rock’s work was arguably the strangest, and I came close to nominating it for our year-end list (as for why I didn’t: I don’t know). I was giving it a listen, in fact, when I checked Facebook and saw that a few of my friends had shared Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop”, with at least one of them declaring Macklemore to be the first good white rapper since Eminem. In forming a counter-argument that would have amounted to “Sure, and Brave is the first good Pixar film since Toy Story”, I made the mistake of looking up the view count on Macklemore’s shitty song. I forget how high the tally was when I checked, but at present, it is well North of 115 million views.
Let’s get this whole “good white rapper” thing out of the way, since it is hanging over all of this shit. I’m not the one making these claims, and I don’t particularly care about the skin color of a rapper, but as long as folks are claiming that this guy is good, let’s try to qualify it. In looking up Macklemore interviews on the matter—give me credit, folks: I was trying to find a quote in which Macklemore played down his skin color and pointed out that he’s not the first good white rapper in a while—I found this shit. Pertinent quote: “…I think that there’s a certain stigma that comes with white rappers. Particularly in 2013. For the most part I don’t really like white rappers myself. And I think that a lot of people feel that way.” He doesn’t give names for what he doesn’t care for, so either he can’t think of any white rappers, he can only think of shitty white rappers, or (and I really hope this isn’t true) he thinks that The Heist is too good to be compared to Cancer 4 Cure, Mourning In America and Dreaming in Color, and Skelethon. That tally, to be sure, jumps to four if you count R.A.P. Music, which was produced by El-P. Actually, if that counts, so does G Is for Deep, Mumps, Etc., and CIA TV. That adds up to seven quality hip-hop projects that white people had a hand in that all came out last year…and Macklemore is being called the first white artist worth a damn since Eminem?
“But John,” says someone trying to rationalize their ignorance, “Macklemore isn’t like those people you just mentioned! Macklemore’s songs have messages! Isn’t that something that has been missing from hip-hop?” This is the built-in defense that shit like this leans on, and frankly, I thought that folks would have wizened up to it by now. First of all, if having a good message automatically elevated any piece of art to something that should be celebrated, then after-school specials would be considered the artistic peak of broadcast television. Second of all, no, hip-hop songs with messages haven’t gone away—if anything, Macklemore is covering old territory.
The worst offender is “Same Love”, Macklemore’s take on same-sex marriage and homophobia in hip-hop. Put down your pitchforks—I agree with Macklemore’s basic sentiments, and I would have to be a fool to claim that homophobia wasn’t prevalent in visible circles of hip-hop. The problem is that the song is structured as a very special, poorly-written episode of Sesame Street that beats its message into the viewers’s head early and yet keeps going, repeating the same message ad nauseum. When he says, “But we paraphrase a book written 3,500 years ago”, it is all too easy to imagine some disillusioned youth, who believes that being an atheist means hating Christians, nodding his head in approval. The song lasts five minutes despite making its point by the end of the first verse, and as it openly advertises itself as a tune arguing in favor of gay rights, I can’t imagine how or why any homophobic individuals would give it the time of day, rendering it an overblown piece of fluff that preaches to a choir. In the end, Sage Francis’s “I attended candlelight vigils for Matthew Shepard while you put out another “fuck you faggot” record” from “That Ain’t Right” (from Non-Prophets’s Hope, which is ten years old) is far more effective than the entirety of “Same Love”, though, in Macklemore’s defense, it is likely that he doesn’t like Sage Francis. After all, Francis is white, and Macklemore doesn’t like white rappers who are not named Macklemore.
“Thrift Shop” is even worse, and that it is one of the biggest hits of the year so far is endlessly disheartening. The concept is fun—a hip-hop song about second-hand goods is ripe for quality material. Unfortunately, Macklemore makes his point, then continues going until no one with any good sense finds it amusing. The line about wearing grandpa’s clothes is funny the first time, but it feels cheap when Macklemore returns to that imagery in the second verse and it becomes downright aggravating when Wanz starts singing about it. As for the beat, well, my brother summed it up pretty well when he said that it sounded like “fifteen Peanuts characters dying at the same time on repeat. Forever.” The song could have been better if it had borrowed the two most important elements of the songs that it reminds me of the most—the more-outlandish elements of Atmosphere’s “Domestic Dog” and the underlying self-loathing of Spose’s “I’m Awesome”. Both are unique takes on being caught in life’s underbelly, but both contain a sort of humor, to say nothing of self-awareness, that is lacking from “Thrift Shop”.
As for the rest…um, really? This is the indie hip-hop album that caught the ears of millions? Macklemore spends most of the rest of the album rapping in a detached manner that makes it difficult to take him seriously, and that he boldly telegraphs the subject matters of his songs makes the album read like a checklist of clichés rather than “dealing with issues”. Relationships (“Thin Line”)! Being yourself (“Make the Money”)! Alcoholism (“Neon Cathedral”)! Nostalgia (“White Walls”)! Not selling out (“Jimmy Iovine”)! Growing up (“A Wake”)! I’ll grant that these aren’t the sort of clichés that you’d find on a mainstream hip-hop album, but relying on a whole other well of clichés isn’t any better. As for the production on this thing, well, it could have passed for an album on a mainstream label, and I don’t mean that in a good way. I heard “Can’t Hold Us” in a shitty commercial the other day, “Make the Money” sounds like the weakest beat Ant never made, “BomBom” is no “Eric B Is On the Cut” (hell, it is no “Chinese Arithmetic” for that matter), and if I’m going to listen to a song named “Gold”, I’ll pick the GZA track that is about twenty years old. I honestly can’t imagine why an album featuring so many weak beats has its producer credited so visibly. I’ll give that the beats aren’t as bad as, say, Childish Gambino’s, but I shouldn’t have to struggle to find underhanded praise.
Occasionally—and by occasionally, I mean “twice”—Macklemore will come up with a good idea for a song and execute it well. “Wing$” is the biggest achievement on this album, managing to tackle materialism in a digestible fashion, and that it is affecting is very surprising given the bar set by the rest of the album. Closer “Cowboy Boots” is almost as good, and while the topic of rappers suffering a relapse isn’t anything new, Macklemore trying to reconcile his relapse with his sober image is a turn that I didn’t expect and shows that the dude is at his best when he admits that he isn’t as cool as he makes himself out to be.
Still, though, the story of this album is that it was made by the first good white rapper since Eminem and that it is the first good indie hip-hop album in practically forever. Both, of course, are untrue statements, and for anyone to claim that they like indie hip-hop because they like The Heist rings of a person saying they loved a McDonald’s in France and trying to pass that off as a love for French cuisine. The Heist is a boring album made by boring people and marketed towards people who don’t know anything about the genre. I defy anyone to listen to any of the other fantastic hip-hop albums made by/with the assistance of a white person in 2012 and say that it doesn’t stack up to The Heist. I don’t see how one can make that claim without indulging in some willful ignorance.
“But John,” someone will likely interject, “I’ve never heard of the artists that you love. How am I supposed to keep up with good music? It’s not like there is some sort of music blog that makes a point of explaining the difference between what’s good and what’s bad. Where can I find a music blog that is all buddy-buddy with my ears?”
Okay, they won’t put it like that—I’m much more likely to be called a “hipster fag”. By the way, please do. Irony is delicious.
I’m still taking requests. Put them in the comment box.
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