When I first heard about Macklemore, it was through the word of mouth surrounding the craze over his video for the song "Thrift Shop." Memes make stars these days, and the kitschy, comedic video and song about wearing clothes from Goodwill really struck a chord with my young, hipster peers.
I was finally forced to listen to the damn song, just to understand what everybody was freaking out about, and in doing so, I stumbled upon a terrible secret Macklemore and his partner in crime Ryan Lewis have been hiding from all my friends and erstwhile hipsters around the world: He's not really that good.
I know, this revelation will come as a surprise to a lot of people who are really into what this guy does, but I'm going to have to put paid to that idea. It's okay if you like his music. Music is subjective, and I'm not here to say that your taste is, or even can be, wrong. But even if you like what he does, you can't possibly think this guy is actually a good rapper.
He's not even a rapper. He's a gimmick. He's in tune enough with pop culture and hipsters to understand what to rap about to catch people's interest; that much is true. But Macklemore isn't talented; he's smart. He's not an artist; he's a businessman.
He's latched onto a brilliant marketing scheme that literally anyone could think of if he or she tried hard enough: use clichéd indie hip-hop to talk about the things people want to hear about and can relate to in some generalized way. It's so obvious, yet so few people want to do it.
So why don't more people do what Macklemore is doing? For the sake of their art. Some people want to be artists and create something that matters to them, something that is inspired and has some kind of integrity to it.
Macklemore is not interested in that. He's interested in latching onto fads to make money. If this were the 1980s, "Thrift Shop" would have just had a whole lot of references to parachute pants and spiked leather jackets.
But "Thrift Shop" isn't all Macklemore is about. Let's be fair to the guy: He's also about serious business. After calling his integrity into question on Facebook, I was introduced to some of his very, very melodramatic work talking about the very, very serious subject of drug addiction.
The problem here is that this song is also extremely calculated. From his tugging-on-your-heartstrings melancholy minor chords on piano and choral backing vocals, to the part in the chorus where all the music fades and it's just his broken voice, to his frantic, personal, "I'm about to cry just saying this stuff" flow via Sage Francis in 2002, he takes all the tropes of indie hip-hop and mixes them in with modern indie-rock clichés to make the sappiest "my life is so hard" song I've heard in ages.
But forgive me for not buying it. The dichotomy makes it too unbelievable. Jumping fences between this and a song like "Thrift Shop" just shows the bare-bones mathematics behind these songs: It's designed to grab your attention and draw you in with something familiar and simple, with easy emotions that we've all felt before.
Compare with the roots of indie hip-hop, where the rappers didn't trade in easy emotions. Compare with the way Sage Francis bore his soul on Personal Journalist without even asking for sympathy. Compare with the futuristic experimentation of El-P and Cannibal Ox, living in a broken dystopia of hip-hop. Compare with Why?'s jaded bitterness. Or how, in this fantastic track, Astronautalis plies your heart in a way that has none of the flashiness of "Otherside."
What Astronautalis did on "Gaston Ave" was not calculated or flashy. It wasn't designed to get played on the radio like a Lil Wayne ballad. It was designed to appeal to only those interested in art like this. It's uncompromising, which is a challenge to the listeners. But it is real; it's not business.
Macklemore is a businessman and I salute him for that. But I can't eat up his saccharine beats or his lazy comedy, either. It's all too mechanical and easy, too fad-oriented and too desperate. It's the same as watching a Family Guy episode where the show throws 50 pop culture references at you, then attempts an emotional third act where one of the characters tries to display human emotions.
You know what it's doing, and you just can't buy it. That's Macklemore in a nutshell.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are this weekend's musical guest on Saturday Night Live, which airs at 10:30 p.m. Saturday on NBC.
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