I Hate Macklemore Haterz

Y'all: I love Macklemore. Like, really LOVE Macklemore. I find him so charming, so funny, self-effacing, so absurd, and yes, so talented. When his songs come on, I can run a little farther, a little faster. His incongruous, charismatic, outrageous videos make my bad days better. He is my sunshine.

So it bums me out when people give Macklemore a hard time. I get that he's sorta asking for it: being a white rapper is a dangerous territory to begin with, rife with landmines of cultural appropriation and privilege and Iggy Azaela. Then you add the silly subjects of his songs, his overnight fame, his eccentric costumes, his insistence on maintaining literally the dumbest haircut on the planet, and he's an easy target. But Macklemore knows all of this and embraces it so thoroughly; his absurdism is a product of his self-awareness and his self-mockery. Doesn't that buy him a pass?

Macklemore's (and musical partner, Ryan Lewis') newest single, "Downtown," just came out to polarizing reviews, the thesis of which seems to be "the song is derivative and it's over-the-top but we all know it's going to be a hit." Music critics are roundly decrying "Downtown" to be a rip-off of last year's Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars megahit "UpTown Funk!", right down to the video's "snapping in a group, sidewalk babes, conveniently empty streets, and a citywide mandate to walk in cadence to music."

There's no arguing that the video is "everything and the kitchen sink," or as Larry Mizel Jr. nailed it: "a too-many-tabs-open mess of musical ideas." It's got moped races. It's got first-generation rap legends. It's got musical-theater: the on-street choreography could've been pilfered from Newsies, it (anti)climaxes with a West-Side-Story-style faux show down, and Mizel says it reminds him of Little Shop of Horror's "Skid Row (Downtown)" more than any other eponymous song. It's also sprinkled with some 1970s/Tarantino homages in the form of some yellow bubble fonts, jumpsuits, and hairstyles. It's got Freddie-Mercury-clone Eric Nally piloting a Ben-Hur chariot powered by four moped "horses." It's got a massive on-foot parade through downtown Spokane, WA. It is extravagant. It is "humongous, charmingly ridiculous." It is, most certainly, "outlandish." And the critics are not pleased.

Andre Grant's article, "Macklemore's 'Downtown' is the Most Sellout Song of 2015," opens with the bold-faced line: "How much longer must we tolerate this guy?" He writes that "Downtown" is so formulaic that he wonders if Macklemore used a literal checklist of "how to make a hit single," and that it's so derivative as to be "paint by number pop-rap crap." He uses the adjectives "horrid, horrible, terrible," "putrid," "flaming bag of shit," and concludes it is so "egregious [that] it should be buried under the Internet, never to be seen again." (No doubt Grant is a delightful writer, no matter that I disagree with him.) As the song (and video) progresses into its sweeping chorus, Grant writes that it "degenerates even further into this completely nonsensical smorgasbord of complete nonsense."

But, nonsense is kind of the point, right? And self-mockery is kind of the point, right? Macklemore's whole song is about riding mopeds not Bugattis, not limos through the streets of not L.A., not Chicago but Spokane, Washington. He rebels by riding his moped at a speedy 38 mph through his suburban neighborhood, where he admonishes his neighbor to "mow your damn lawn and sit the hell down." This is not a struttin', frontin' rapper extolling his money and his women and his badassery. This is Macklemore admitting that he's not that, embracing that he's not that, celebrating that he's not that. This is the "Dad Life" rap with a bigger budget. And isn't there room for that, too?

So much of music rap music, pop music takes itself so seriously. Macklemore is this quirky little gift who doesn't. Rap is so characterized by bravado and braggadocio and chest-puffery and dick-measuring and dissing and self-congratulating. Is it really so terrible to throw a humble hip-hop hero up the pop charts?

Some of "Downtown's" criticism comes in the form of a lukewarm defense: hey Macklemore, you actually ARE talented, we want to see what you can do. Stop recycling the "Thrift Shop" (Macklemore and Lewis' 2012 colossal sleeper hit) formula and show us something new. (Hey, I rhymed! See that Macklemore? Hit me up for your next album!) Mizell writes, "'Downtown' is a safe move. I'm waiting for the riskier, topical material that I suspect is coming."

And I don't deny that "Downtown" has all sorts of echoes of "Thrift Shop:" its weirdness, its quirkiness, its whole comic conceit of pretend-thuggery while doing very ungangsta things. But my answer is: this is just who Macklemore is. Macklemore has been making this kind of music since before "Thrift Shop." He isn't a one-hit wonder who's repeating the model because that's what worked last time; "Thrift Shop" was just a broader audience discovering who Macklemore already was. ("Thrift Shop" itself was Macklemore's eighth career single and the fifth off of The Heist despite it being the general public's initiation to his work.) Think about his "White Walls" video from same album that opened with a bizarre, Three Amigos-style spaghetti western scene (I like to call its theme "Old Wes(t) Anderson"). And it's lyrics where Macklemore brags about his 24-inch rims, then immediately admits "okay, I don't got 24s"? 

Or better yet, consider one of my very favorite Macklemore songs: this little gem from his 2009 (pre-Heist) album The Unplanned Mixtape called "And We Danced." It's this fabulous, dirty, funny little dance track, and the video features Macklemore in a blond Labyrinth-era-David-Bowie wig and any-era-David-Bowie gold sequined jumpsuit dancing mock-provocatively in someone's living room.

This is who Macklemore is: he's a fringe weirdo. He's one step away, honestly, from being Weird Al Macklemore, a full-on musical satirist. What keeps him from that is how seriously we take him, and that's a testament to his talent and his newness and the fact that he's creating sharp, critical, deft, political, fun, hot, catchy music for which there was obviously a ready niché. He's making music people wanted. He's making music people (I) want.

Look, I understand the criticisms of "Downtown:" it's suspicious similarity to "UpTown Funk!," for one. But, didn't "UpTown Funk!" draw heavily from its heroes? Slate's Chris Molanphy called the single a "brazen return to the electro-funk of the early ’80s," and wrote "[s]o dense are the song’s allusions that you could strip it for vintage parts, like a Cuban car." The song's refrain, "don't believe me just watch!" was snagged directly from Atlanta rapper Trinidad James' "All Gold Everything." And Billboard did a whole piece on nine count 'em, nine songs that Ronson borrowed from or alludes to in the song.

And, yes, "Downtown" can be fairly said to be more of the same. I appreciate that it would be fun to see something different from Macklemore, a departure from his tried-and-true hit parade. And, I don't doubt that we will see new music from him as he and his and our tastes evolve. But for now, more of the same is exactly what I want from him. If there were ten "Thrift Shops," I'd play them all. I love the whole shebang. "Downtown's" soaring piano parts, it's Meatloaf-y vocals, it's classic Macklemore raps, its cluttered, eccentric, charismatic video, are just what I was waiting for.
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Write comments
August 30, 2015 at 8:34 PM delete

I am just sayin' I never hate anyone... even the haters, I offer them a big hug! :)

November 6, 2015 at 8:30 AM delete

My favourite thing about macklemore is probably more the fact that though alot of his songs are quirky and fun they all have very serious meanings behind them or an important agenda. Even with thrift shop and downtown, as light hearted as they seem he's glamorizing demographics that don't have alot and are constantly told by mainstream media that they should want expensive things. Hopefully giving them pride in who they are and where they come from

August 3, 2016 at 11:20 PM delete

I liked your article very much. I thought it was fairly on-point. I grew up listening to 80's hair metal. Through all of my changes in taste, I never like much hip-hop. There just simply wasn't much that I could relate to, but some of the music was cool.

When I heard thrift shop for the first time, I was more or less "meh." But what caught my ear was "My Oh My". M&RL's homage to local legendary sportscaster Dave Niehaus. It gave me goose bumps and tears. I could relate 100% to that song. I wanted to hear more. Being a musician I naturally gravitated toward the musical arrangements first. The songwriter in me began digesting the lyrics and I understood where he was coming from. I'm now a full-on, 100% M&RL fan, and proud they're from my city!


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