The 2014 Grammy Awards should have been the crowning laurel for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' amazing year. Despite the fact that the artists recorded it themselves (and admittedly got a substantial marketing and distribution assist from Warner Bros.), The Heist has sold over a million copies, launched two No. 1 hits in "Thrift Shop" and "Can't Hold Us," and landed a third Top 20 hit in "Same Love," a collaboration with Mary Lambert that boldly celebrates gay marriage.
Instead, the Grammys mark a new nadir for a duo whose rise coincides with the ugly politics of Internet rage. It should have been an unalloyed celebration for a duo that, in Kendrick Lamar's words, "worked their ass off" last year. Instead, it has turned into a referendum on the presence of white people in hip-hop culture and how well-intentioned "straight" white men hijack LGBT issues to certify their liberal credentials. Macklemore didn't help himself when he posted on Instagram a text message he sent to Lamar claiming that the critically hailed good kid, m.A.A.d city should have won the Grammy for Rap Album of the Year.
In interviews and occasionally in songs such as "A Wake," Macklemore often strikes a pose of guilt, as if he's just another example of how whites appropriate black culture. And his rise, unfortunately, coincides with an era in which the music industry, both through its radio programmers and Billboard magazine, seems to be whitewashing the charts and pushing black music to the fringes. But it's not Macklemore's fault that The Heist has struck a chord with audiences who want to hear socially conscious, life-affirming music of the sort that A Tribe Called Quest once made.
Macklemore wasn't hatched in a Warner Bros. Records boardroom. He hails from a Northwest underground scene that is racially cosmopolitan. Its best-known artists, like Lifesavas, Blue Scholars and Shabazz Palaces, write lyrics that are politically leftist. Macklemore's music hewed toward the emo/backpacker style popularized by Minneapolis group Atmosphere until he began working with producer Ryan Lewis, whose energetic melodies and arrangements recall The College Dropout-era Kanye West. It's frustrating that Macklemore doesn't promote his origins more often, whether through guest verses or collaborations, instead of trying to make his bones in mainstream rap. It seems like a strategic choice. As The New York Times' Jon Caramanica wrote in a damning assessment of the duo's Grammy triumph, "Macklemore & Ryan Lewis jumped straight from the independent hip-hop underground to the pop charts, which has left them scrambling to shore up their bona fides retroactively."
Yet that Northwest backpack progressivism is a part of The Heist, from needling major-label tycoon "Jimmy Iovine" to picking apart the obsession with expensive sneakers on "Wing$." Macklemore owns up to his inherent male chauvinism on "Thin Line." He struggles between embracing newfound fame -- he and Lewis were selling out theaters across the country before the album's October 2012 release -- and retaining his underground spirit. "Make the money, don't let the money make you," he tells himself on "Make the Money."
Incidentally, two of the album's three hits are its weakest tracks. "Can't Hold Us" is a harmless and fun arena-rap rouser, but "Thrift Shop" has come under scrutiny. Rampant consumerism is a hallmark of modern rap, which is dominated by black men, so some listeners make the leap that Macklemore is mocking black people in general. And … so what? Hip-hop has been one of the most popular art forms in the world for the past 40 years. Using the race card whenever white people try to participate in a discussion about the genre's topical obsessions seems ludicrous. (The same idiotic logic was used to criticize Lorde's pop hit "Royals.")
Still, anyone who believes "Thrift Shop" has nothing to do with race is naïve, especially when Macklemore clumsily mimics a black man praising his Goodwill threads by saying, "That's a cold-ass honky." (Who the hell uses the word "honky" anymore?) The moment crystallizes his glaring weakness: He's an imaginative conceptualist, and a doggedly persuasive writer, but he lacks precision and grace. His guilelessness trips up "Same Love," which opens with a Lewis piano riff reminiscent of Scarface's "My Block" as Macklemore remembers going through an identity crisis as a child: "When I was in the third grade/ I thought that I was gay/ I could draw, my uncle was, and I kept my room straight." Instead of simply focusing on a lovely sentiment -- wanting to be like a beloved uncle who happens to be gay -- he loses himself in "preconceived notions of what it all meant," and invites confusion over whether he abides by the same gay stereotypes he wants to dismantle.
Macklemore may sound hopelessly awkward when compared to the wonderfully poetic Kendrick Lamar. But too many of his critics have only heard those three singles assaulting them from pop radio and haven't listened to The Heist in full; or, worse, they've only bothered to listen to The Heist after getting sick of "Thrift Shop."
Heard within the context of The Heist, "Thrift Shop" underscores the duo's wariness of an encroaching mass audience. While Lewis' maximalist pop beats invite us in, Macklemore gives voice to ambivalence. He's the crate-digging thrift-shop dude, not the guy scouring EBay for limited-edition Nikes, so what does it mean when the mall kids suddenly recognize him? It's a great theme on adjusting to success, even if the execution often comes off ham-fisted. As I wrote in my original review, "The Heist's earnestness is its weakness and strength. Macklemore's bleeding-heart politics may make you squirm, but he'll draw you in with his conviction."
The Grammy Awards are a tradition that everyone loves to hate. If we place no faith in their process, then why waste time complaining about who wins or loses? Still, at their best, the Grammys can't possibly recognize the "best" album, which is subjective. (There's no disagreement here that Kendrick Lamar's good kid is much better than Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' The Heist.) The awards honor the albums with the biggest economic and cultural impact. Using those criteria, The Heist qualifies as the Rap Album of the Year, though that fact may not be immediately clear from a hardcore rap nerd's fishbowl-like existence.
Nevertheless, there's that Instagram post where Macklemore says he "robbed" Kendrick Lamar, and far too many interviews about white guilt that underline the bumbling, annoyingly apologetic part of his personality. He'll need more self-confidence in the future if he wants to grow into a credible rap superstar.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis didn't save hip-hop from degeneracy with "Same Love" and "Thrift Shop," and we shouldn't blame the duo for clueless pop idiots who wrongly think otherwise. They aren't even the first hetero-normative rap group to lend its support to gay rights, and God knows there is a tradition of gay and lesbian musicians in hip-hop culture. But by making a platinum-selling rap record that bravely places social issues at its fore, they've managed a remarkable achievement. They should own it. There's no need to be sorry.