The Trouble With Macklemore: How “White Privilege II” Practices Appropriation and Is Insulting to the Art Form of Hip-Hop
The internet can be both a gift, and a curse.
What was once called the “information super highway,” and was intended to bring knowledge into homes with the click of a mouse, is now a tool of endless self-promotion and self-importance. Musicians, particularly, found the internet to be a blessing, and it was to a certain extent. Any person could post their music online (and I mean ANY PERSON) with the hopes of it catching fire and spreading to various households, meaning instant success, fame, and in some cases, profit.
This leads me to Macklemore.
Now before I get torched by our beloved internet, I do understand and respect that both him, and his partner-in-crime, Ryan Lewis, spent years in the Seattle underground grinding like any other indie musician. And I will admit, being in my thirties means I’m basically a senior citizen when it comes to new mainstream music. So when “Can’t Hold Us” came out and blew up, I knew of the song but not of the artist; I remember thinking “This is a tight track,” and “Oh snap, I didn’t know he was white. Dude sounds just like a black guy.” I was pleasantly surprised by a fresh beat. Then the song became… well, let’s just say I got tired of it.
Then more Macklemore came out. Then the fanboys came out. Then every white guy within 5 feet of me said, “Dude YOU would REALLY like Macklemore; you need to check him out,” (which I despise when people who DON’T know me say what I SHOULD do). But that wasn’t the thing that irritated me the most about him.
Then Macklemore himself said I should listen to him more. Indirectly, of course, but clearly through his music.
The trouble with Macklemore is that he’s an OK rap artist that is often mistaken for being a GREAT rap artist. Some would say that he is one of the most important Hip-Hop musicians of genre. That’s incorrect. It’s not a matter of musical preference, it’s just an overall incorrect statement. His musicality isn’t unique; it’s a watered-down rehash of the past Hip-Hop that blazed a trail of music that few people thought would continue and build in popularity. His style isn’t unique; it’s a pastel amalgam of ironic hipsterism, fur coats and west-coast beachwear. His flow isn’t unique; he fuses phrases and rhymes adequately, but there’s a hundred cats on YouTube that come with more original cadence and attitude. Plus where he excels in word-spitting quickness, he fails in metaphoric creativity and exclusivity. His skills are enough, JUST enough, to be credible and enjoyable. He is at best, tolerable in the extensive and ever-expanding field of rap and Hip-Hop.
So when “White Privilege II” hit the internet last week…
…and parties of people (both black and white) clamored about how “self-aware” Macklemore was and “ props to finally admitting his privilege,” and how it’s “a step forward for equality,” I just groaned. I didn’t feel the same revelation of understanding or the appreciation of the upbringing of the issue, I felt unimpressed. So I listened to it again the next day. Maybe I missed something or I was just in a bad mood that day so I couldn’t take it all in. After the second and third listen, I felt the same way about the song. It felt hollow, yet full of inflated context. It felt overproduced, yet disjointed and confusing in its final mix. It didn’t feel like a song; it felt like a public service announcement from an 80’s after-school special. I didn’t like the song. I STILL don’t like the song.
So I was like, “Ok, D, stop being so cynical. Do your research. Listen to more of his stuff before you make a jump to judgment. You liked that one song he did. Maybe you’ll find more of his stuff to appreciate.” So I did. I took to my silicon surfboard and began to ride the waves of the internet, in my pursuit to appreciate Macklemore… well, more.
And I like him even LESS. Here’s my three main reasons why:
1) He Constantly Highlights Broad Cultural Issues (and Issues About Himself) Which Make Him and His Music Seem Disingenuous
One thing about artists that hip-hop aficionados find most deplorable is the act of ‘trying too hard’. That’s how Macklemore comes off. It seems like he writes songs and chooses actions to stay relevant, favorable and ‘conscious’ in the eyes of his listeners, rather than exciting the genre or being thought-provoking. I can just imagine Macklemore pleading on his digital knees to his fanbase about how important he is to keep listening to…
Like the backlash he caught when he won the Grammy for Best Rap Album instead of Kendrick Lamar’s “Good kid, M.A.A.D City”:
“SEE?? I really didn’t want the Grammy but they gave it to me anyway. I wish Kendrick got it. SEE, I’ll show you! Look, I Instagrammed it! Here’s our conversation;…
My text to Kendrick after the show. He deserved best rap album… I’m honored and completely blown away to win anything much less 4 Grammys. But in that category, he should have won IMO. And that’s taking nothing away from The Heist. Just giving GKMC it’s proper respect.. With that being said, thank you to the fans. You’re the reason we were on that stage tonight. And to play Same Love on that platform was a career highlight. The greatest honor of all. That’s what this is about. Progress and art. Thank you. #grammys
I coulda left that between me and him, but I’m showing you how understanding I am to the culture. SEE?? SEE??”
Like when he wrote “Same Love” to speak out on gay marriage:
“SEE?? I’m down with gay people! I don’t say the F-word, like some OTHER rappers (and that OTHER white rapper in particular! I’m not homophobic like the majority of rappers out there! I love you gay people! You can buy my records now! SEE?? SEE??”
Like when he wrote “Downtown” and aligned himself with great rap veterans of the 80’s:
“SEE?? Remember all those MC’s you used to groove to from back in the day? THEY LIKE ME!! THEY REALLY LIKE ME (ala Sally Field)!! They answered the phone, and now they’re working with me on my music! If you like them, that means you HAVE to like me!! It’s like the mathematical Transitive Property!!
And now his track called “White Privilege II” where he highlights his position on the #BlackLivesMatter movement:
“SEE??? Aw MAAAN this shit is fucked up. I gotta write something about THIS. Is this cool? Lemme run it by some black people, because I don’t want to offend anyone. Not cool? Ok, I’ll do a few rewrites. And lemme get some black girls spittin’ poetry on the track. Worked for Kendrick Lamar and Lupe Fiasco! Conscious black guys like THOSE rappers! Lemme make the song more like them, and depart from my hip-Pop generic productions as of late! SEE, black people I’m DOWN WITH THE CAUSE!! SEE?? SEE???”
And I continue to fucking groan.
This song rings like less of an anthem to call all races into understanding the cause of #BlackLivesMatter, and rings more like the end of a Full House episode. You know you’re about to be lectured to, and an important lesson is about to be unveiled at the end, so you better LISTEN UP. At the third verse of the song, I just imagine Keenan Ivory Wayans from “Don’t Be a Menace…” coming out and yelling, “MESSAGE!!”
Macklemore writes his songs with a duplicitous, yet sensitive imagination. He writes music from a genre that is made to piss people off, but doesn’t want to piss people off. I would have more respect for him if rather than he make a song about the issue, he would do an interview and say “I don’t HAVE to write a song about #BlackLivesMatter; you all SEE how fucked up it is. I’m a prime example of white privilege. I make black music for white people, and I profit the most from it.” I would stand and applause. I would make the transcript my wallpaper on the very laptop I’m writing on. That would be the realest shit I’ve heard in decades. It would ring much more open and truthful than to constantly write a new non-abrasive track on the new hot-button cultural issue in the country. Meanwhile, I’m waiting for Macklemore’s next songs, “Man Don’t Drink That Flint Water,” “Donald Trump Is a Punk,” and the upcoming B.o.B diss track, “Round World.”
2) Eminem Already Wrote a (Better) Song About White Privilege Over 10 Years Ago, And There Are Better Ways To Do Songs About White Privilege
So now, let’s talk about someone who doesn’t care about pissing people off.
In 2002, Eminem released a song called “White America,” the leading track on the The Eminem Show, which is the album after The Slim Shady LP, an album with tracks that were featured highly on MTV’s popular countdown show, TRL, and catapulted him into the mainstream of American music. He comes at his listeners with scathing lyrics announcing that “if (he) was Black, he woulda sold half; (he) didn’t have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that”, and how he and his black producer Dr. Dre both prospered from Eminem’s whiteness: “Helped him get back to the top; every fan black that I’ve got, was probably his in exchange for every white fan that’s he’s got, like damn, we just swapped, sittin’ back lookin’ at shit, wow, I’m like ‘My skin; is it starting to work to my benefit now?’” Eminem is highly aware of his presence in the world of Hip-Hop. He knows that him being white makes him more relatable to the majority of the American populace, which equals in more record sales. It don’t take no genius to add this up.
The difference between Eminem and Macklemore is that Em OWNS it, and he is unapologetic in his delivery. Marshall couldn’t be more self-aware of the privileges (and the curses) that come with being a Caucasian music artist taking over a craft that Blacks have created and nurtured. He accepts and utilizes his salable cute smile to bring white women into his web of charisma. He brags about the fact of not finishing high school and still being able to succeed. He speaks of his relativity to the average high school American citizen, and let’s be quite honest, just by ratio alone, that’s a white person. To a lot of rap critics (black and white) you didn’t have to be a genius to get what Eminem was saying with vindication, which is a key quality of legitimate hip-hop. It didn’t flash in your face annoyingly like the majority of Macklemore’s subject matter in his work.
There are also more innovative, imaginative, and humorous ways for Caucasian rappers to point out white privilege, without metaphorically beating the knuckles of listeners like a Catholic nun. In the song aptly titled, “White Dude” the California rapper (and Richmond University graduate, shout out to VA) Little Dicky highlights all of the advantages of not only being white, but being a white male. He jabs and pokes, almost in a sing-song, “ha-ha, I got it better than you” manner over a quirky, futuristic pop-synth rhythm, with a large sense of indignation, and a slight sense of harmless irritability, but even at the end of the song says he means no discourtesy and disrespect to Black people.
He even lightly points out the betterments of being a Jewish dude living in a White world under the disguise of “racial camouflage” (coined phrase by @sambourne89). He does it all with skill and withering accuracy but all in good jest and most of all, SINCERITY, which is another way to verify authentic rap. And what’s better than well-done, fun party rap? Don’t y’all like Ludacris?
What Macklemore attempts to do in “White Privilege II” is comical, and more in an insulting manner. He usurps a style that even his loyalists deemed as similar to the work on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” drops his jovial hip-Pop essence for a second, and drones over an appropriated beat, seemingly sullen with his head dropped. I can’t wait for the video; is Mack gonna be rocking a kufi hat and dashiki, walking down 5th Avenue with his white fist up, followed by Alvin Ailey dancers? The only way I can understand his motive of taking a mix of music that isn’t intended for his style (or his fanbase) is to catch attention. It’s ill-fitting, overt, and desperate for consideration and scrutiny.
Another thing that agitates me is this new thing where rappers nowadays are following up their albums and tracks in a series, as if they were Netflix episodes. Blackout 2, The Blueprint 3, I Am Not a Human Being 2, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Chronic 2001, The Carter 17 coming out in 2020, and so on. Macklemore does the same marketing ploy with “White Privilege II,” just to get you to listen to the first incarnation of “White Privilege,” which he wrote over six years ago. It’s actually a BETTER song for his stance, both rhythmically and lyrically, because it’s performed from a less outrageous, and a more forthright and secure position. The new version of White Privilege, just by comparison, is garbage. If he had called the song “White Guilt” (which is REALLY what the song is about and NOT white privilege) and chosen the less obvious commercial strategy, perhaps I see the piece with a bit more earnestness.
In six years, White Privilege had 1.2 million views…
In six days, White Privilege II had 1.8 million views…
Hmm. I guess it works.
3) There Are Better White Rappers Out There
I respect Mack’s passion and his level in the game and there haven’t really been a lot of great white rappers that represent hip-hop positively, but people act like he’s the only one here now setting the world on fire. Like I said before, he aight; his cypher is somewhat impressive and he has the minimal believability of being able to go toe-for-toe with the class of rappers in the most recent mainstream, especially with the abhorrent influx of new young rap artists embracing the “money/drugs/hoes” simplicity of the ‘trap rap’ movement.
But let’s not forget the vast reaches of the internet and the new generation of Caucasian children influenced by a truly African-American foundation of music that been brazen, tempered and strengthened in a lifetime of almost 40 years. There are white kids right now that are doing wonderful work with the models of rap and Hip-Hop; that are treating the craft with more appreciation and reverence than the most recent work of Macklemore. Authentic Hip-Hop is about the balance of graphic portrayal and soulful transparency; to be provocative as well as captivating, genuine as well as rhythmical, and image is secondary to raw honesty with no reluctance or want for approval. Macklemore’s “White Privilege II” seems refined and opportunistic as well as auspicious, and it sails past the target of the primary intention of the art form.
Again, Little Dicky is killing the game right now, and here’s the cypher that he murders compared to Mack.
Here’s more of him from Sway in the Morning (this one is the more popular performances).
You want more kids from the suburbs with bars? Check out this kid Token with his insanity:
You white girls feeling left out, looking for that real shit and sick of Iggy? Check out Invincible.
…(shout out to @danielriveraSR for the looks on some of these links). But let’s not insult the game by pretending that Macklemore is the most creative individual with white skin. Let’s also not pretend that his music isn’t done without a determined and calculated effort to stay relevant in the mainstream.
But whether you like the song or not, we’re all talking about it.
And I think that’s what Macklemore wants the most.