Warning: This is a loooong read. But it's worth considering. Are you mad at Macklemore?
The Grammys postmortem has good news and bad news for hip-hop. The good news: rap music is the most talked-about category of the awards program last night. Yay! The bad news is of course that something very strange happened and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won Best Rap Album, over Kendrick Lamar, who even Macklemore agrees should have won the award. Whoops.
Have I listened to The Heist? No. Am I familiar with the group? Very much. In fact, a former colleague and continued friend was sending me Macklemore music at least two years before all this "Thrift Shop" stuff.
To be honest, I haven't been anywhere where that song has been played, which is weird. I wouldn't know "Thrift Shop" when I heard it, unless the words "thrift" and "shop" are repeated on the hook (I'm guessing they are). Same thing for "Same Love," except that I happened to see the gimmicky performance with the couples and Queen Latifah and Madonna and whoever the lady was singing. And to be honest, all I could focus on was the lack of feeling in Mm's performance.
I don't mean to sound mean when I say Mm looked like a guy that watched the Roc-A-Fella Records tour documentary "Backstage" about 10,000 times on LaserDisc and studied Jay-Z's posture and delivery. It's that same lean forward and rock backward thing where you catch yourself in mid-step and fall back suddenly, swinging your hand over the crowd at certain lyrical points as to suggest that you're influencing everyone from the vantage point of your arms waving.
Sure, the lyrical content of "Same Love" is admirable, because it's a universal message of letting people be free to follow their hearts. Can't hate that. Macklemore has talent, hustle and independent credibility. But my own concern is that Macklemore is not as influential as the Grammys would have you believe if you didn't know better. And the real issue is that, in all honesty, he's just not wowing anybody with his flow.
A rapper's "flow" is basically the way his words fall in/around the drum track and musicality of a beat, and it is at least as important to the emcee's repertoire as street credibility, storytelling ability, lyrical content, a beat, and sometimes even a powerful industry/celebrity co-sign. Maybe even more so.
So when I say my own personal opinion is that Macklemore isn't really bringing it with the flow, it is not about him being white. I seriously don't care, even though the fumes are still thick in the air from plenty other black hip-hop fans, writers and complainers who don't agree with last night's statement, whatever it really said. And you can take my respect for Eminem as proof.
Eminem has won 13 Grammys, and Best Rap Album four times, and it's not like any rapper out there can really step to Eminem and claim to be a better rapper. He's not just a genius with wordplay--the guy famously out-flowed Jay-Z on the sublime Blueprint song "Renegade." Ask Nas.
On the other hand, I can name more than a couple Atlanta rap artists that could battle Macklemore on a flow-vs.-flow basis, and come out victorious. And I'm sure we can all agree that at this moment, aside from a handful of rappers, Atlanta rap sucks.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis not only won Best Rap Album--they won Best New Artist. And I'm sorry, but no. Of course we're now talking overall skill instead of album construction, but still. Eminem is untouchable as a rap artist. Macklemore, as far as Grammy academy voters are concerned, conquered the world in 2013. I'm saying, as a true fan, that it's a little too early in his career, and that he's not rapped convincingly enough, for him to be perceived as the best rapper in any category. And again--his whiteness is just not a big deal.
Did heavily promoted rapper Asher Roth blow up like his Loud Records label boss Steve Rifkind told us he would? No he did not. And that's not because he wasn't a decent rapper--it was because he wasn't as good as his hype.
Back to Mm. He seems like a good guy. I admire the fact that he's got something to say and can say it on a beat, even if I think his technical skill level could stand improvement. But let's compare that with his competition in the Best Rap Album category at the Grammys: Jay-Z, Kanye West, Drake and Kendrick Lamar.
First of all, my stomach turns just typing those names and realizing they got beat by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. But moving on, I'll admit that while Jay-Z shows style and substance in the high majority of his music, his latest album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, just didn't quite hit the mark of The Blueprint, The Black Album, Reasonable Doubt, or even In My Lifetime Vol. 1. I'd put it in fourth place.
Now let's talk Kanye West. Yeezus was a challenging listen. I've always been a Kanye fan, though he almost lost me with 808s & Heartbreak. I was actually quoted in The Guardian (under my old pseudonym The Underwriter) saying the album was wack. Fast forward a few years and I can honestly admit that the first six songs really are good, but the rest is just weird. That same weird thing sort of came back on Yeezus, although in this case I'd say it was easier to digest thanks to less auto-tune, and there were only two or three songs that should have been left off, as opposed to half the album on 808s. Still, Black Skinhead is one of my top five songs of 2013. I knew not everybody would agree when I first heard it, but that was also the point. Kanye took another hard left turn, on purpose, to throw people off guard and see if they were willing to take a musical ego-trip with him. I'd bet that his next album goes furiously back home to the essence of "real" boom-bap hip-hop, and we'll all be as amazed as we were with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy again. Because you can't follow a crazy album like Yeezus with something just as crazy and alienating. People just don't have the patience to try catching up with your futuristic vision when they could just listen to Gucci Mane. I really like Yeezus, but I'll give you that it might be alienating and we'll call it third.
Drake's Nothing Was the Same was also nominated against Mm & RL, and it was another solid Drake album. At this point you have to say Drake's the top rapper in the game. Nobody else is consistently giving the people what they want to hear while adjusting the formula only so much that you can detect artistic growth without feeling left behind. However, I can see that NARAS (the Grammys academy) wasn't impressed, because Drake is also a cash cow who does not need to ruthlessly innovate or win a Grammy to continue dominating. Matter fact, was he even at the show? He probably had a gig that paid a million or more for a single night. Unless I was up for Album of the Year, I'd have skipped also. Nothing succeeds like success. Maybe second place.
But Kendrick Lamar? There's where I draw the line, because there's just no way in hell The Heist is in the same league as good kid, m.A.A.d. city, even if hip-hop seems to be in a state of eternal damnation in these modern times. As a friend of mine said on Facebook--and this friend works in the music industry and helped promote The Heist--Kendrick's album was his favorite since The College Dropout and 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin, and it was the album he listened to the most.
Kendrick has amazing storytelling skills. Not only that, but he actually has a story to tell and isn't just narrating another experience. GKMC is a complete tale, skits included, of him coming of age as a teenager from Compton, CA, with a realization of his surroundings expressed through insightful and conscientious poetry. His lyrical ability stands above and beyond most rappers' capabilities. And though he has a quiet presence that would fool you into thinking he lacks the confidence to rock a stadium, he absolutely delivers (watch that Grammy performance again for proof).
But most important is Kendrick's ability to deliver creative wordplay with unexpected flows and impassioned energy that can match any beat as he's telling his truth. That's critical.
So then, how and why did Macklemore and Ryan Lewis win?
First, let's keep it real about how they got here. Without being snide, there's a trend in which white artists are now succeeding at making mainstream "urban" music at a higher rate than what seems like ever. You've heard about the whole thing where no black artists topped Billboard's Hot 100 chart in 2013, for the first time in the history of the chart.
That's pretty unfortunate. Yet what we're seeing is black artists are becoming entrepreneurs of entertainment and are playing a role in writing, producing for, and playing executive roles in the development of megastar white artists who perform what is traditionally considered "black" music. We all saw Pharrell make a monstrous step back into the spotlight with his contributions to songs by Robin Thicke and Daft Punk, after being the driving force behind Justin Timberlake's debut solo album (watch for Daley next). Let's not forget that Usher signed Justin Bieber. Akon signed Lady Gaga. And Timbaland has become an inseparable partner in Justin Timberlake's current musical projects. If you think in terms of ownership, maybe it's a good thing that black people, by going behind the scenes and using good business sense, are getting our share of the pie instead of just cooking and serving it.
But is it true that payola played a role in Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' success? Truth be told, they aren't truly independent, although that's what they'd have you believe. In America, you don't just get your song played on radio. It doesn't happen. Someone at a major label has a relationship with corporate radio. That relationship could be based on money that is paid on a promotional basis to get these songs played. Is that payola? Regardless, people are salty about the perception that these guys are "indie", and they're not exactly hiding it.
We won't ask how much money was given to pop radio to play "Thrift Shop", which surely wasn't an insignificant few bucks. We'll just shrug and say this is the nature of the game. Payola isn't new, on the independent side of the business or corporate. I'm sure many of us have heard about Atlanta's famous strip club DJs, who have broken records in these spots where women dance naked, and depending on who's in the crowd to see the girls' energy and the audience response, you just might get your record on the air. But I'd venture to believe these DJs aren't just good citizens who will give any old idiot's record a try. Your song could kill the DJ's reputation/vibe, and that's... bad. I guess it kinda makes sense that disc jockeys working in adult entertainment establishments would want their palms greased…
Which brings up another question: why have I never heard any of these songs being played at high volume from inside cars driving through residential areas? That's always the sign of good hip-hop. It disturbs the peace. Hell, I haven't heard it on urban radio, in a club, at a party… anywhere I go. And you can call me one of those authentic hip-hop guys who can quote lines from gangsta rap albums all the way down to some of the hardest-working underground artists that never made it and never will. At least people play those songs somewhere that I've been, and I don't apologize for not frequenting pop music establishments. That stuff is hard to dance to unless you're taking recreational drugs. Seriously, the only time I've ever heard "Thrift Shop" or "Same Love" was on a TV clip. And TV is of course where you can find great programming like Honey Boo Boo.
Anyway, we can go on and on with this, but at this point it is what it is. Will there be backlash? Yes. Are Macklemore and Ryan Lewis the white, two-man musical version of the political "Barack Hussein Obama"? Maybe. Will hip-hop heads take a long honest look at the heavily declined level of creativity that led us down this road where these two dudes made a "better" album than Jay-Z, Drake, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar? Probably not.
Hopefully somebody out there will take this Macklemore & Ryan Lewis win for Best Rap Album and be inspired, rather than depressed or soured. Hopefully he/she/they will make an undeniable classic rap album that keeps people from saying "white people stole hip-hop." Or at least they'll do what Kendrick Lamar did at the Grammys and shut it down with a live performance that should make people question the validity of Grammy voters over actual hip-hop culture and the vote of the people. Yes?
Who knows. But at least now I'm curious enough to listen to The Heist. And I might even be concerned enough to renew my Grammy membership, depending on what this thing sounds like, just to keep from writing a long, rambling, confused blog of how and why we have arrived at a place where nobody I know, besides my good friend/former colleague, and my buddy at Warner Brothers Records, has heard enough of the album to be able to say in good faith that it deserved the win. If it's as good as the hype suggests, it's a win for diversity. If not, Grammys, you got some 'splainin' to do.
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