Macklemore made bold moves when choosing the opening acts for his three-night stand at Madison Square Garden, selecting Mississippi-bred rapper Big K.R.I.T. and Brooklyn legend Talib Kweli, artists with ample street cred and classic rap sensibilities–basically the diametric opposites of the thrift-shopping honky from Seattle. Both openers burned through their brief sets, dropping fierce rhymes and stalking the stage with just a DJ on the turntables backing them up. It was an impressive display of hip-hop the old-fashioned way, and it was nothing at all like Macklemore’s performance, which is precisely how it should be.
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Macklemore does his own thing. Love him or hate him (and there’s precious little room for middle ground), at the very least the dude knows how to entertain. When the house lights dimmed, the first keyboard notes of the song “10,000 Hours” blasted over the speakers, and the man of the hour emerged in a ornate gold sequined jacket, you could feel the floor shaking as the sold-out crowd lost their collective shit. He managed to milk that feeling for a solid 90 minutes.
Where K.R.I.T. and Kweli are studies in hip-hop minimalism, Macklemore delivers an extravagant production replete with blasts of confetti, billowing smoke, pyrotechnic displays, costume changes, and a massive LED video screen projecting clips of his music videos. A dozen or so musicians were arranged on a huge terraced platform decorated with faux foliage, with mastermind producer Ryan Lewis perched at the top hunched over a laptop and mixing board. A trio of spandex-clad dancers–“The Macklerettes”–writhed and shimmied across the stage. It was a smorgasbord of visual stimuli.
Macklemore seemed genuinely excited to be there. “New York is still the only place in the country I feel nervous [before going on stage,]” he confessed to the audience while reminiscing about playing much smaller spaces like Webster Hall and Bowery Ballroom during visits earlier in his career. “I love New York ’cause New Yorkers know how to fucking party.”
Although the crowd was overwhelmingly white, the diversity in the age of attendees was interesting, running the gamut from 20-something bros and hipsters to pre-teens being chaperoned by their parents. Regardless of age, everybody in attendance stood at rapt attention when Macklemore began spinning a yarn about leaving his hotel at 5 a.m. to explore the city and ending up swimming “buck ass naked” in the Hudson River.
He described how two guys stole his pants and underwear, which left him “all shriveled” in the freezing cold with no cell phone. Luckily, he continued, a burly old lady smoking a Black and Mild came to the rescue and gave him “the best piggyback ride I’ve ever had in my entire life”–carrying him straight to the nearest thrift shop. Segue to “Thrift Shop,” cue the blasts of confetti and bursts of flames.
The mini standup routine was a small slice of the night’s stage banter, which became serious later as Macklemore discussed his well-documented history of substance abuse. “When I would smoke weed and drink my creativity would totally stop,” he said. It felt a bit like a preacher’s sermon, and a tad awkward considering the pungent aroma of weed wafting above the general admission crowd all evening.
On the whole, however, the energy was extremely positive. A rotating cast of guest singers–Wanz for “Thrift Shop,” Ray Dalton for “Can’t Hold Us,” and Hollis Wong-Wear for “White Walls”–helped make each song feel fresh. The band–a veritable orchestra complete with brass and string sections–were clearly enjoying themselves, bounding all over the stage and revving up the crowd when they weren’t busy rocking out.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the night came during the buildup to the marriage equality anthem “Same Love.” Although Macklemore’s social commentaries can sometimes feel overwrought and trite, he elicited a genuine stir of emotion as he declared “I believe with every ounce of fiber that makes me a human being…nobody can tell you who you love in your heart. It’s up to you.” When singer Mary Lambert arrived on stage wearing a stunning gold sequined gown, the ovation was cacophonous. Her voice is clear and powerful, and a lesbian couple in my immediate vicinity were wiping tears out of their eyes as they sang along.
It’s easy to hate on Macklemore’s white boy personae and (10 years in the making) overnight success, but songs like “Same Love” ensure that his legacy will be more than just the 21st Century version of Vanilla Ice. At the very least he deserves respect as a game-changing and successful independent artist (an achievement that drew reverent praise from Kweli during his opening set), and dynamic shows like the one last night are proof his fame is no fluke.