Macklemore’s ‘Unruly Mess’ as Manifestation of the White Rap Critic’s Self-Loathing

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Last week, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis released The Unruly Mess I’ve Made, the duo’s sophomore release and followup to 2012’s smash hit The Heist. Its first single, “Downtown,” features hip-hop legends Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Caz. But it’s The Unruly Mess’ second single, “White Privilege II,” which has been at the forefront of the conversation around the album.

An eight-minute-plus opus with several movements, “White Privilege II” is a long, messy sketch of the internal dialogue of the successful, white, liberal creative, fact-checked by actual black people. It’s a continuation of the dialogue begun on “White Privilege,” a 2005 solo track from Macklemore to which few outside of Seattle paid much mind. The 2016 version explores Macklemore’s struggle with his place in hip-hop, his relationship with well-intentioned but clueless fans, and reconciliation with his desire to be an ally for justice and equality, even as he profits from the creative labor of black artists. It’s the kind of song that gets issues such as police brutality and privilege discussed in spaces that are often lacking in such discourse: the suburban homes, the country club locker rooms, the sidelines at soccer practice.

But when it dropped, many of the headlines read like this: “On Macklemore and that ‘White Privilege’ song, and also why Eminem is so much better: A rant,” or “Macklemore’s ‘White Privilege II’ Isn’t a Great Song, But as a Think Piece It’s Not Terrible.” Even Kris Ex, who wrote what might be the best rapid opinion piece on the subject, had his essay on Pitchfork’s The Pitch blog packaged as “Macklemore’s ‘White Privilege II’ Is a Mess, But We Should Talk About It.” It seems like before we can talk about the social significance of Macklemore’s music, we must first acknowledge that no, the writer does not think Macklemore is good, so yes, you can take them seriously when they talk about why it’s important.

Sure, plenty of black people will tell you how bad they think Macklemore is, but it’s telling that the most measured critiques of the song and its impact have come from black critics and activists. Kris Ex acknowledged Macklemore’s intentions, writing, “‘White Privilege II’ is too messy to be [a] ploy; too unruly to be calculated; too all over the place to be a chess move — unless the endgame is to piss off the ‘Same Thrift Shop Love Can’t Hold Us’ demographic to appeal to a Black audience that seems unlikely to ever fully accept him.”

Gene Demby at NPR admitted he felt like “he’s genuinely trying to work all this stuff out while also gingerly avoiding landmines,” while pointing out that activist Deray McKesson “has argued that this song does exactly what lots of people say they want more of in conversations about race — that is, it would be great if more white folks actively engaged in uncomfortable conversations about race with each other.” Not to mention the Black Lives Matter organization, which was consulted during the song’s creation suggested others take his lead: “We encourage other white allies to use their privilege, influence, and wealth to talk about white supremacy and state violence against Black people.”

So if black people can understand the song’s importance without being distracted by how bad the music is, why is it so hard for some white critics? If there’s one essay that clearly distills the white rap critic’s problem with Macklemore, it’s this screed on the now-defunct Four Pins, published a little more than a year ago in the wake of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ Grammys success. Ignoring the various generalizations in the essay passed off as fact, one passage of unfiltered shit-talking stands out:

To wrap up, here are all of the reasons why Macklemore is uncool and makes me, as a rap fan, shiver: He is an unfunny episode of Portlandia brought to life, the personification of why the well-meaning American upper-middle-class is a fucking nightmare. His favorite movie is probably An Inconvenient Truth. Saying, “I am a Macklemore fan” in a mirror three times in a row will automatically make you donate to your local 4H Club. His hair makes his head look like something you’d clean a dry erase board with. He used the phrase “turn up function” to caption an Instagram selfie he took with Miley Cyrus, which managed to siphon the swagger right out of words like “turn up”, “function” and “Miley Cyrus”, relocating them directly to hell. The face he uses in his said selfies is the sort of smug, self-satisfied grin that just begs to be punched off of someone’s fucking face. Macklemore sucks because he tries to take hip-hop and make it goofy, fun and family-friendly, but does so in a way that makes it seem like he’s making fun of it. He sucks because we shouldn’t even have to debate whether or not he sucks because he shouldn’t exist. He sucks because he seems like a nice guy, but he also sucks because meaning well can only get you so far. He sucks because his music is wild corny and makes him seem like he’s really into Reddit. He sucks because in the face of all his success he has only paid lip service to the idea that he might have become successful by taking advantage of the fact that he is white and good looking, and this gives everyone the sneaking suspicion that he just might suck because he is disingenuous and not actually worried about his privilege.

Is the writer’s subjective assessment about Macklemore accurate? Maybe… but about whom? How many white rap critics could this describe? Is the writer one of them?

Macklemore is a white dude who loves hip-hop. He’s studied the classics of the genre, reads thinkpieces about race, art, and culture, and washes them down with artisanal coffee. He considers himself “woke” — he’s aware of his privilege, and wrestles with it. He considers himself an ally, and tries to reconcile his desire to have a successful career working with music that he loves while simultaneously knowing that every opportunity he gets likely comes at the expense of a black creator that’s at least equally — if not more — deserving. We’re talking about Macklemore, but couldn’t we be talking about any number of rap writers and critics working today?

This is ultimately what’s so troubling about much of the criticism of Macklemore and his music. If Macklemore is so much like his fiercest critics, do their critiques tell us more about the artist, or themselves? Macklemore is so much a reflection of the white dude rap critic that it’s hard not to interpret their vociferous hate as self-loathing. Macklemore is their secret shame made manifest on the pop charts.

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?