Macklemore’s Not the Best Rap Album

by Betsy Woodruff
It’s hard not to wonder if the Grammys put politics before music this year.

Besides the obvious — the Fourth of July, the Super Bowl, whatever nonsense we’re collectively celebrating during the entire month of December, etc., etc. — nothing unites Americans like getting upset about awards shows. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say anything nice about them, ever. It’s like their telos is making us all really really angry at the same time. This time last August, everyone was either upset about Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance or upset at other people for being upset about it. People have lots of feelings about Miley Cyrus, and I understand that. But something happened last night that was way worse: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won the Grammy for Best Rap Album.

I won’t be talking about Ryan Lewis at all here because first, I don’t know anything about him, and second, he seems to be more of a sidekick or accessory after the fact than anything else. The only thing I would have noted about him if that was something I had wanted to do would be that he wore this eye-bleedingly awful houndstooth suit last night that made him look like a pick-up artist who got trapped in a room full of failed Project Runway contestants. The most charitable explanation is that he wore this because he was coerced. So I have nothing to say about Ryan Lewis.

I have a lot to say about Macklemore, though. Good lord. I don’t even know where to start. Macklemore, who is 30 years old and whose real name is Ben Haggerty, is from Seattle and is a rapper. He is also white. He is not as good at rapping as fellow white rapper Eminem, but people still LOVE him, perhaps because of his model-ish good looks and hipster fashion sense. Macklemore has also won a number of awards at the kind of ceremonies that exist purely to engender rage (especially in coast-dwelling reporter-types), including Best Video with a Social Message from the VMAs and Best Group at the BET Awards. Macklemore and co-pilot Ryan Lewis were also nominated for the American Music Awards’ New Artist of the Year Presented by Kohl’s Award but lost out to someone named Ariana Grande about whom I know nothing. Good for her.

That’s all fine. Sometimes people get famous who don’t necessarily deserve it, blah blah blah, whatever. The problem is that last night at the Grammys Macklemore won Best Rap Album, which good people should not take sitting down. This is terrible because Macklemore (who, by the way, is the most annoying person in the world) beat someone with a genuinely amazing album, and that means that any residual seriousness with which we planned to take future dispensations of Grammy Awards has completely evaporated.

First, on Macklemore’s Most Annoying Person in the World status: Macklemore first burrowed his hip little way into the public consciousness with “Thrift Shop,” a song about, well, how cool it is to buy clothing at thrift shops. It was one of those things that was a little entertaining the first time you heard it, and then got steadily more excruciating with each listen (none voluntary, of course; I listened to “Thrift Shop” against my will probably 2,394,578,234,957 times last year just going in and out of Target). Finally it gets to the point that the first few bars are enough to make your eyes cross and your hands twitch and your mouth start frothing.

Macklemore also made this really odd PSA for the ACLU in which he suggested that carrying an ACLU card is preventative of police brutality: “I’ve got a lot of things to do during the day,” he says. “So something like being beaten with a club, pepper-sprayed, and tased for expressing my political views would really slow me down. That’s why I carry the ACLU card.” If only the Kiev protesters had remembered their ACLU cards!

It’s the kind of smarmy, willed naïveté that you can’t even get mad about because it’s so bland-facedly dumb.

Someone with a better grasp of hip-hop history than I (read: someone with any grasp of it at all, really) could probably write something great contrasting Macklemore’s cutesy romanticization of seeking out low-cost clothing with rap music that treats urban poverty with the gravitas it deserves. (And if this piece already exists, can someone send it to me?)

But anyway, Macklemore put out a few other singles over the year and a lot of people LOVED THEM, and they were played on loop in Kohl’s department stores across the land. One of those songs is called “Same Love,” and it’s about gay marriage. It’s extremely popular. That’s fine. It’s not the worst song in the world, and as far as political pop tunes go, it’s way better than, say, the Hillary Clinton song or the predictably unlistenable “No Labels Anthem.”  

So: not the worst song in the world. But also not the best. “Same Love” is kind of flat, and very, very preachy — essentially, the highwater mark (at least, I hope it’s the highwater mark, because it’s hard to see how the water could get higher) of politically correct, intellectually lazy hipster sanctimoniousness. There are worse songs, like anything by Pitbull. But there are also way, way better ones, and a lot of those were on good kid, m.A.A.d. city, a really gorgeous, moving album by Kendrick Lamar about life in Compton that was also up for Best Rap Album. That album should have won. I am not the only person who thinks this. Everyone thinks this, including Macklemore, who texted him after the ceremony saying, “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you.”

Far be it from me to assume there’s any rhyme or reason behind who wins Grammys (ha! not doing that). But it’s hard not to look at this situation and wonder if the Grammys put politics before music.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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