So, I’ll begin with a simple statement of truth: I don’t hate Macklemore.
Far from, actually. I enjoy Macklemore’s music pretty much the same way I enjoy other radio staples nowadays–in an ephemeral, listen-as-the-trees-whiz-by sort of way. What makes Macklemore a little different, in my eyes, is the song “Same Love” and its unequivocal support of gay rights, a heartwarming sentiment that I very much support. But following Macklemore’s sweep at the Grammys, many of the words directed at him haven’t been as positive. Read any number of Brandon Soderberg’s myriad rancorous pieces on Macklemore in Spin, who displays the sentiment in all of its vitriolic glory. He’s a sanctimonious hack. He’s a villain.
Is it fair? In my eyes, no. Perhaps if Macklemore knowingly and deviously took advantage of the system to benefit himself, such criticisms would be totally fair, but given the fact that Macklemore’s independent record The Heist came as a bit of a shock to the radio world, I’m not inclined to believe he did either of things. No, in this instance, we need to avoid the slinging of acrimonious nothings at a particular person and redirect the anger toward the system itself.
Let me ask you a question: what are the Grammys trying to be? No, seriously, this isn’t rhetorical–I’d genuinely like to know. Some years, a consensus critical favorite takes home top honors (Arcade Fire), and others, you get some dudes who “came home like a stone” or whatever. This year, Daft Punk won Album of the Year for Random Access Memories, a critical favorite I’ve gushed about in earlier letters. But what’s with the Kendrick Lamar snub? How can it be that the critics and music fans who coined it a classic were simply wrong?
This isn’t a matter of the “indie community” fighting for relevance. Remember, Kendrick Lamar’s record was not an independent release; Macklemore’s was. This is a critical matter and a cultural matter.
Critical, of course, in how the Grammys seem to alienate music writers and their opinions, unlike, for instance, the Academy Awards. Relatively speaking, big Oscars seem to go to critical favorites on a regular basis (Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, and The Artist to name a few of the most recent ones), which makes film criticism feel a lot weightier and more important than music criticism on a cultural level. It brings merit to the passion that spills out of the pens of American greats who’ve demanded nothing less (rest in peace, Roger Ebert). As a music journalist, that’s personally a frustrating proposition, but given how much I truly love music and how much my colleagues feel the same way, it feels disappointing on a much bigger level. Criticism, after all, is a reflection of culture and art. See the quote on the front page of this paper to learn a little bit more about that.
But even that pales in comparison to the cultural impact itself. Only one predominantly rap hip-hop album has won a Grammy for Album of the Year, Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below in 2004. Only two rap albums (The Fugees’ The Score and MC Hammer’s Please Don’t Hurt ‘Em) were even nominated for the big prize in the 1990s, when hip hop experienced a major renaissance and rappers delivered some of the highest selling and critically adored records of the decade. The genre’s biggest Grammy triumph of the decade wasn’t even really a rap album, but the 1999 neo-soul classic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Is it racial? I don’t have any definitive answers, but doesn’t it feel that way? Sure, the jazz great Herbie Hancock and the blues legend Ray Charles have won album of the year honors in the last decade, but no rap albums? And the consensus best hip hop album of the last several years and a bonafide classic in Good Kid, m.A.A.d city lost in the rap category to some dude who raps about thrift shops and the Seattle Mariners? If it had been the other way around–if The Heist was known as game-changing record and it sold many more copies than GKMC–it’d be different. But it’s not that way. And it feels like more of the same.
Of course, Lamar’s snub at the Grammys came on the heels of the Richard Sherman “incident,” during which the star athlete had to endure “thug” status and anonymously-hurled racial epithets after showing a refreshing amount of unfiltered passion at the end of a football game. The two events dominated popular culture at the time, and thus feel connected. Maybe they’ll always be, and maybe they’ll serve as a collective, stark reminder that we have some waking up to do as a nation.
But let’s go back to the product itself, though. Let’s talk about the music.
I’ve listened to The Heist, and it’s O.K. Like I said earlier, “Same Love” has a laudable sentiment. “Can’t Hold Us” is a high-octane, undeniably infectious rap workout. But some of the songs fall flat, like the Ab Soul feature “Jimmy Iovine” and, yes, the irritating hit “Thrift Shop,” with its neanderthalic hook (“This is —— awesome”) and utterly funkless horn line. Good kid mA.A.d city, meanwhile, is pure poetry. It’s cinematic and it is absolutely ingrained with its maker’s heart and soul. Listening to that record? An absolute joy, even in its darkest, most uncomfortable moments. Give it a spin–it was nominated for a few Grammys, I hear.