Macklemore Finds Himself, With No One Watching - Pacific Standard

Macklemore Finds Himself, With No One Watching

Macklemore has taken a break from checking his privilege. The results are deeply refreshing.
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Macklemore at the 56th Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, on January 26th, 2014.

Macklemore at the 56th Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, on January 26th, 2014.

The enduring memory that I have of Macklemore—the one that I think highlights his fatal flaw at the time—is from about a year ago in the Chattahoochee Hills outside Atlanta, Georgia. It was the first day of the Many Rivers to Cross festival, and the sun shone over the side stage area while a cluster of festival attendees waited for Macklemore to arrive for his 3:20 start time. Many Rivers to Cross, a new festival at the time, was branded as "a festival of music, art, and justice," which meant that all of the artists booked were associated with some kind of justice movement: Common, Public Enemy, Carlos Santana, and Jussie Smollet, to name a few. Macklemore was one of two white artists on the festival bill; the other was Dave Matthews. Given the festival's mission and location, the audience was largely black and skewed older than at most festivals. In the moments before Macklemore took the stage, there was a general nervous shuffling about; many people seemed to want to hide their excitement for the white rapper who by that point had been derided as corny at best, a deeply problematic tourist of the genre at worst. As smoke began to billow above the stage, signaling his entry, a woman older than me leaned forward and asked, "do you think he'll play that thrift song?"

The enduring moment came when, during a stellar performance, Macklemore took the opportunity to kick an impromptu freestyle over fellow rapper YG's "Fuck Donald Trump" instrumental. It was biting and unchained, the fiercest he'd sounded in a while, especially for those who had followed his work in the years before he rose to fame on the wings of "Same Love" and "Thrift Shop." When it was done, the crowd that, earlier, had mostly sat unmoved by his performance now offered a wild and eager wave of applause. Macklemore, feeling celebratory, basked in the ovation a moment before stepping back to the microphone. "I actually want to talk for a moment about all of the reasons Donald Trump is dangerous," he began, before launching into a long speech that was, in this setting, firmly preaching to the choir.

Soon you could hear a few sighs among the crowd, as Macklemore was distilled down to his sharpest flaw: an artist at his best when not lecturing, but also an artist happiest when lecturing.

"Privilege" is a fixture in the lexicon of the socially aware Millennial, and I think it's often a productive tool of conversation. But the action of checking one's privilege, of coming to terms with privilege and the power it affords you, is a messy process that's perhaps not always best performed publicly. Macklemore often seemed to stumble over competing desires: to be good, and to be seen as good. The over-sincere preaching was a perfect example of this tic.

In short, I first had little interest in the public spectacle that was Macklemore figuring out his shit; eventually I became fascinated by it. It seemed that, after 2012's The Heist took off, he found himself in an interesting position: an artist who was never equipped to become famous (his over-sincere sensibility works better when fewer people are watching), and one poorly equipped to have to answer for his success. There were a lot of factors here: "Same Love," while a feel-good anthem about marriage equality, didn't stand up as well once the lyrics were held to the light. It bears mentioning that the song and everything around it did, in fact, make several people feel good, and that is worth celebrating. But Macklemore was a clumsy messenger, and the clumsiness was more pronounced when he began profiting off of the song at a rate that was both unexpected and far-reaching. Most notably, he performed it at the 2014 Grammy Awards while 33 couples were wed, which fell somewhat in line with the performative nature of "Same Love" as a song and mission: Macklemore as a ringleader for an identity that isn't his own.

In fact, Macklemore had been tuned into social justice issues long before "Same Love" made him an avatar for the discussion of privilege. "A Wake," a lesser-known song from The Heist, deftly touches on race and privilege, and Macklemore's music had always had a similarly cerebral tone, particularly around issues of equality. But he hadn't been on a national stage until that point, so no one had really had to watch him navigate his way around these things.

There was the 2014 Best Rap Album Grammy, in which Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won for The Heist, most notably beating Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. Following the show, in the middle of a conversation about what this meant or didn't mean for hip-hop, Macklemore awkwardly posted a screenshot of a long apology text he sent to Kendrick, which was awkward and seemingly unnecessary. Kendrick later said that Macklemore went "too far" in posting the text screenshot, and Macklemore apologized for betraying Kendrick's trust.

There was the long and exhausting song "White Privilege II," which was thoughtfully crafted but didn't exactly reach its target audience (read: conservative white people). In the album that followed, the sprawling This Unruly Mess I've Made, Macklemore opened with "Light Tunnels," a nearly seven-minute song in which the MC, once again, tells everyone how bad he feels about winning a Grammy. The album wasn't all bad, but it presented yet another example of Macklemore not being able to shake his own guilt, and a lot of people wondering, increasingly, why they should care about it. Unruly Mess got very mixed reviews and fell entirely off of the Billboard charts by its seventh week.

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Many of my friends don't know that Macklemore still makes music. I realized this last week, when I was talking (perhaps too much) about the release of Gemini, Macklemore's new album and his first in 12 years without producing partner Ryan Lewis. It seems he was the Thrift Shop Guy and then the Same Love Guy and then the White Privilege Guy and then nothing.

I find myself interested in Macklemore's career trajectory because I remember the excitement that surrounded his early career movements among the "real hip-hop" sector, landing in The Source's Unsigned Hype column in 2012, which highlights rappers on the rise. His strength isn't really in sharp lyricism, but rather in a controlled understanding of what he is and isn't capable of as an MC. Macklemore has a unique voice and delivery and knows how to find production to suit them. Despite a career riddled with obvious discomforts, from becoming a punchline to more serious issues of sobriety and a brief relapse, he is seemingly very comfortable with embracing a kind of corniness that, at times, feels genuine enough to translate to something endearing.

Gemini is the album where Macklemore gets out of his own way, which means it isn't an overly political album, which means that the politics of the album revolve largely around Macklemore's belief in himself and nothing else. He's his most likable on this album largely because he's not trying to convince anyone of anything. It's an album of vapid imagery, with Macklemore finally comfortable boasting about wealth and accessories in a way that he's gotten close to before but only leaned into in a way that feels tongue-in-cheek. Here, there's songs like "Willy Wonka," a somewhat standard but delightful car anthem featuring high-demand designated-hitter Quavo, in which Macklemore boasts about his cars and shoes. There's the triumphant "Ain't Gonna Die Tonight," which opens the album with a revived Macklemore rapping about money and pissing off his neighbors.

This is the tone of the album, which musically—despite his break from the sound landscape of Ryan Lewis—doesn't take much of a turn. There are still swelling melodies that rely mostly on piano, like the slow-dripping "Church," which adds horns across the top of the keys. It is hard to even notice that Lewis is missing in these moments. The sparse "Miracle," which relies on silence as a primary instrument, sounds like a track Lewis left for Macklemore before they took their break.

Every chorus is still an event, puffing itself in light clouds to the sky. Saint Claire shines on "Excavate" with an airy falsetto over (of course) a slow piano. It's the way Macklemore fills in the middle parts that marks the biggest difference. He's still somewhat overly earnest, but there's something about his earnestness that seems like it's less concerned with an outward performance, or a political play. During a time when the fight over white supremacy seems to be speeding toward yet another tipping point in a long line of tipping points, the white rapper who once wanted to educate anyone with ears on white supremacy has taken to rapping about money, cars, his daughter, and the fact that he knows he won't be alive forever.

For some listeners, this turn on the part of Macklemore might seem especially frivolous; and while I understand the desire to have all public-facing figures act with a visible urgency, the new approach feels appropriate for Macklemore now. To be fair, he's performed several evolutions of (largely) the same political message for long enough, failing in some ways and succeeding in others, that if you don't know what Macklemore's politics are, you probably don't know the artist himself. Particularly in the era of social media, people want to see everyone publicly declare where they stand on everything, and to do it the right amount and the right pitch at the right time. It's a desire I have been seduced by before, and will be seduced by again.

I don't doubt that Macklemore knows the world has several fires converging all at once—he's just not trying to be the one to put them all out anymore. Gemini is Macklemore trying to be less a hero than a human, which doesn't make it a great album, but does make it the album where Macklemore sounds the most free, perhaps even happy. It likely won't win him another Grammy, and it is entirely possible that his days of selling a million records are behind him; the music is still dripping with too much sugary sincerity amid the boasting to make for a truly even listen. But after trying to get everything right with everyone watching, it's calming to see Macklemore find himself and realize that he can't save the world on his own.

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