“Hip-hop is not a luxury”
On January 21st, hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis released what I assume to be the next song in a line of singles leading up to their recently announced sophomore album ‘The Unruly Mess I’ve Made‘. Except this latest track isn’t in keeping with the themes that the two seemed to craft for themselves in the debut album. This isn’t a song about mopeds or second-hand clothes. This is a message.
It’s been around 6 years since Macklemore (before meeting Ryan Lewis) dropped the album ‘The Language of My World’, featuring the song ‘White Privilege’, a conscious piece which explored the place of the young, white male and his place in the genre pioneered and developed by a culture he was never part of. Macklemore, known to his friends and family as Ben Haggerty, was pretty much underground at this point and so the song didn’t create much buzz and word-of-mouth. It should have, as it was a rare, introspective look at a topic that many white rappers choose to avoid across there career. It’s something I’ve always respected the Seattle-born MC for, something that has sadly been lost in the midst of an explosive journey to stardom him and his fellow producer have found themselves in since the release of the (some would say) infamous ‘Thrift Shop‘. Until now.
‘White Privilege II‘ is everything a sequel should be in it’s architecture; it’s bigger, longer and widens its view to not just race relations within hip-hop, but within the entirety of American society. Even from listening to the first 10 seconds you can instantly see this song is more intricately produced than its predecessor, and it isn’t hard to draw comparisons from this to the song ‘Wing$‘, where there is a definite aim to recreate the cinematic feel found on it. And that’s one thing this song unarguably does right. The production from Ryan Lewis brilliantly captures the raw passion and intensity that a song like this would require when discussing such a sensitive subject. There’s a lot of switching up throughout the track, each verse having its own spin on the blues-type piano riffs and soft percussion, with other selected sounds (like saxophones and a large choir) dropping in and out. It’s a far cry from the usually pop-rap structure we’ve become accustom to, the track evidently reaching for an aura more of a poem than an actual song. Each verse gradually grows to a crescendo, until Macklemore throws in a bold statement and decides to move on to a different aspect of the issue.
Okay cool we got the production out of the way. The real talking point here is of course the lyricism. Macklemore, as we know, isn’t one to stray away from open, to-the-point wording when communicating to his fans. Hell, he opened ‘Same Love‘ with the line “when I was in the 3rd grade, I thought that I was gay”. On this particular piece he begins to narrate the events of the day he marched alongside the Black Lives Matter movement in Seattle, questioning whether he should even be there.
This initial memory evolves to the second verse, and (what amounts to) an attack on other white artists that apparently ‘appropriate’ black culture; Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea and most famously Elvis Presley. Hypocritical some may say, others may argue the opposite due to Mack being the only one actually addressing the issue.
We then enter a coffee shop, where the rapper humbly enjoys his beverage before being approached by what we assume to be a suburban, white mom (thanks to Macklemore’s exaggerated impression) who ushers him for a photograph. She explains how much she loved his hit singles from his first album and how she admires him for being ‘different‘. What we all know of course is that she’s comfortable with the fact his ethnicity and background doesn’t allow him to talk about the standard rap topics of ‘money, drugs and hoes’ that one would arguably expect from a rapper of black origin.
The fourth and final verse of the almost 9-minute song addresses questions that have frequently by those involved in the fight for black lives. Mack poses some interesting questions, asking whether he’s really doing enough while also ‘inciting’ others in the wider white community to take the baby steps of “reading an article” (not exactly going to stop racism but I guess everyone’s got to start somewhere). The end of the verse is the most memorable part of the track too, as the MC repeats:
“We want to dress like, walk like, talk like, dance like, yet we just stand by, we take all we want from black culture, but will we show up for black lives?”
Yeah, the song certainly doesn’t sugarcoat things. You have to give props to Macklemore for making statements that a lot of other white rappers (at least in the mainstream) haven’t made, perhaps barring Eminem and his 2002 track ‘White America‘. He lays it out clearly for America to dissect and critique in which ever way they can, and for that I’ve got to give him respect. But ‘White Privilege II‘ will not remembered. It’ll spark another momentary debate about the treatment of whites in contrasts to those of darker complexion yes, and it may incite action in a number of white people. However all this means nothing when you start to think about the structure and past context of the song. Like I said it’s almost 9 minutes long. A song like that (especially with this kind of message) isn’t going to get any airplay on American radio, and it certainly won’t enjoy an extended period in the charts. That mom in the coffee shop isn’t going to let her kids listen to this, one part because they won’t get it and another part because it’s not the fun, risk-free rap that America has labelled Macklemore & Ryan Lewis with. That’s its downfall. The Seattle duo are one of the few hip-hop acts to be widely accepted by the US mainstream with no backlash, and this song will undoubtedly be swept under the rug in order to maintain their image.