So what are the fair critiques of Macklemore? For one, he’s undeniably corny — the goofiness of “Thrift Shop” is all over This Unruly Mess I’ve Made tracks like “Dance Off” and “Let’s Eat.” He’s often awkwardly earnest — “WINGS,” his ode to the deification of Air Jordans, feels rooted in personal experience, and his recent songs about the trappings of success are almost embarrassingly honest “Wanted to throw up the Roc, wanted to be Hova/ Wanted to be Wayne with the accent from the ‘Nolia,” he raps on “Light Tunnels.” He’s more successful than arguably more talented black artists (see beating Kendrick at the Grammys) and takes their shine (see the XXL Freshman 10). He’ll probably get more credit than he deserves from one segment of the media, as well as more flak than he deserves from another.
As an MC, Macklemore is decidedly average. This is not a revelation. He’s not exceptionally skilled, but he’s not unskilled, either; He’s got more lyrical dexterity than a good number of artists on the charts. On Mess he’s both charming, awkward, and goofy, alternating between braggadocio boasts and self-deprecating digs. There’s lots of piano, bouncy jams (“Dance Off”), classic boom-bap (“Buckshot”), and even a Buffalo Springfield-esque ballad with Ed Sheeran (“Growing Up”). We don’t hear any obvious smash hits, but we’ve been wrong about that before.
One easy way to justify the increasingly unpopular argument that Macklemore isn’t garbage is to point at the guest stars on Mess: Chance the Rapper. KRS-One. DJ Premier. Melle Mel. Kool Moe Dee. Grandmaster-freaking-Caz! These are not rando rappers du jour, but rather some of the most important luminaries in hip-hop history, along with one of its brightest young stars. To indict Macklemore is to indict them; are you gonna tell DJ Premier he sold out? Or claim Chance is just cashing in? Would any of these artists allow themselves to be a shield for a white rapper’s conscience? It’s laughable! Talib Kweli is nobody’s Stan, yet he rides for Macklemore, on record, on tour, and on Twitter. Are they all just tripping? Were Schoolboy Q and Ab Soul when they guested on The Heist?
It’s shocking that in the age of the poptimist, it’s so difficult for us to talk about the cultural significance and impact of one of pop music’s biggest stars because his music is corny. If you think Macklemore is telling you things you already know, then it’s not for you. That’s OK. In the streaming era, no one really needs a critic to tell them if a song is good or not; they can listen for themselves instantly. So when you shout from the rooftops about how much you don’t like Macklemore, who are you really talking to? Who is that for?