The recently-crowned number one song in the country, as you probably know, is a Seattle-based white independent hip-hop artist’s ode to shopping at thrift stores. I’m not sure exactly how the stars aligned and/or what Illuminati clerical error caused it to happen, but “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis has found a wide audience. This has subsequently resulted in their album The Heist debuting at number two on Billboard, which has subsequently made a lot of critics and rap purists sick (and not in like, the good way).
From Spin‘s Brandon Soderberg’s “Stop Saying Nice Things About Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop'” to critic Chris Weingarten getting all Joseph McCarthy on critics who included it in their Pazzes and Jops (“in case you were looking for a short list of people not to trust with having opinions…”), the rapper has become a musical punching bag.
But believe it or not, Macklemore’s success does not herald the arrival of rap armageddon.
Sure, his style and persona aren’t for everybody. That’s fine. But to so deeply lament his success is pretty shortsighted, in terms of what “Thrift Shop” at #1 means to hip-hop.
Macklemore’s harshest critics mock “Thift Shop” as many listeners’ first favored rap song. I’d suspect many of these same critics got their feet wet with the Space Jam soundtrack, or something equally mockable. The point is, everyone’s had a first favorite rap song, and it’s clear from Twitter that many of these folks wouldn’t have given hip-hop a chance until Macklemore came along. But now that they’ve got his album, it’s quite likely they’ll support another. Once you break the “I don’t like rap” barrier all bets are off.
Some dub Macklemore’s success somehow artificial because he’s attracting fans via a shared ideology. Sure, “Thrift Shop” and the pro-gay marriage “Same Love” offer kindred sensibilities to many in a manner they haven’t heard before (and performed on “Ellen” no less). But Macklemore is far from the first to do this. Look at the conspiracy-peddling political rappers that xeroxed Immortal Technique’s style and captured the hearts of a generation of college students during the Bush Administration, citing their messages as the calling card of “real hip-hop.” Look at the third generation Cypress Hill and Pharcyde-knock-off stoner-rap outfits who’ve become the tokin’ hip-hop acts at any number of jam band festivals. Er, token.
Macklemore’s not spreading his messages at the expense of any particular hip-hop tradition. For that reason, I fail to see how connecting with listeners in these ways is a bad thing. I admittedly have little interest in polka, but if someone of my generation produced an update of “Roll Out the Barrel” that was about the films of Carl Dreyer or the wrestler Goldust, I wouldn’t call that pandering. I’d call that awesome.
Others assert Macklemore is somehow a derivative rip-off of indie-rap heavyweights like Brother Ali and Slug of Atmosphere. These days, the lines between influence and imitation have become blurred to the point of being nearly indistinguishable. Yes, Macklemore sounds reminiscent of a few members of the Rhymesayers label (who’ve maintained a strong connection with the Seattle hip-hop scene for over a decade), but if this were truly a case of blatant jacking, would the collective and their Minneapolis hometown be as consistently supportive of Macklemore as they are? (Not likely, no.)
Furthermore, at a time when critics have come to fully embrace and no longer automatically dismiss Big K.R.I.T.’s Pimp C influence, Action Bronson’s Ghostface influence, Childish Gambino’s Young Money influence and The Game’s whoever-he’s-sharing-a-track-with influence, why is this solely an issue with Macklemore?
I spoke with him last fall, about everything from open mics in New York to grinding in Seattle. He mentioned that he’s always aimed to follow in the independent tradition of Hieroglyphics, Living Legends and Freestyle Fellowship.
He’s since implemented that same DIY drive into a number two album on Billboard and the number one song in the country. (Even if he did get a little help.) Regardless if you agree with “Thrift Shop’s” anti-materialistic message, or see it as a worthwhile alternative, there’s no question that so many people being excited about an independent rap artist actually interested in rapping is a good thing.