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Macklemore Trades White Guilt for White Silence

The rapper’s latest album, ‘Gemini,’ released Friday, is a fun corrective to the political angst that once haunted Macklemore’s stardom

Macklemore Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Macklemore released “White Privilege II” in January 2016, he meant for the song—a sequel to a similarly well-intentioned white-guilt confessional that the Seattle rapper released in 2005—to launch a national conversation about the role of white rappers in a black culture and the role of thoughtful white citizens in challenging white supremacy. But “White Privilege II” is a song so repulsive, on so many levels, irredeemable even given the black singer Jamila Woods’s best efforts to forge a chorus from Macklemore’s ideological chaos, that the song’s commercial failure instantly liberated an already hostile critical consensus from having to think about Macklemore ever again. All anyone could think to do at the time was thank God that Macklemore had decided to spare us yet another album full of maddeningly ubiquitous hit records from an unbearably white rapper: Thank God Macklemore is finally over.

Macklemore’s latest album, Gemini, out Friday, is liberation for him, too. In June, Macklemore announced he would be splitting from his longtime producer, Ryan Lewis, in order to record his first proper solo album since 2005. In crafting Gemini, the white Seattle rapper would strike out on a new musical that, for the most part, recalls his old sounds and instincts. He still raps kumbaya bars over relaxing piano melodies. Lyrically, he’s as sincere and breathless as ever, still a backpack rapper to his core. In fact, the biggest change that you’ll hear from Macklemore on Gemini seems to have nothing to do with Ryan Lewis; Macklemore has stripped his songs of the self-regard and the quixotic introspection that had, frankly, started to get on everyone’s nerves.

Gemini is the lightest, least cloying music that Macklemore has released since he and Ryan Lewis first became household names five years ago. The duo’s 2012 breakout album, The Heist, positioned Macklemore as a rapper so exceedingly virtuous that he, a straight man, backed by a gay singer-songwriter, Mary Lambert, could make a nostalgic piano ballad about marriage equality, “Same Love,” into a massive hit single. Pop radio embraced “Same Love” as well as Macklemore’s breakout single, his calling card, “Thrift Shop,” a squeaking hipster ditty about shopping proudly for second-hand clothing. Meanwhile, hip-hop fans and critics, most of whom first heard of Macklemore when the rest of the country did, resisted his easy stardom. Here’s a decent white rapper who is suddenly outearning most black musicians in the most prolific and powerful genre of its generation, we thought. When the white Seattle rap duo was up for several Grammys in 2014, hip-hop’s wariness curdled into contempt once they beat out Compton hip-hop visionary Kendrick Lamar for Best New Artist, and The Heist beat out Lamar’s own breakout project, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, for Best Rap Album. Kendrick Lamar is arguably the most vital rapper of his generation, and, even with massive critical acclaim for his debut album, he lost to a goofy white guy who gave us “Thrift Shop,” a novelty rap record about “flannel zebra jammies.”

Macklemore is perhaps the only musician for whom winning several Grammys might be his biggest professional regret. Four years after The Heist, Macklemore saddled his follow-up album, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, with a white man’s burden so overwhelming that even the fun-loving songs that diverge from the conceit of “White Privilege II”—such as the lead single, “Downtown,” which was Macklemore’s stab at making an “Uptown Funk” of his own—succumbed to the album’s central self-importance. “Macklemore would not be the first rapper to alternate between goofiness and gravitas,” the music critic Jeremy Gordon wrote for Pitchfork, “but the gulf between sober analysis of Oxycontin abuse and white privilege, and the ‘DEEZ NUTS’ jokes is just too wide.” “White Privilege II” was a black hole from which no 2016 discussion of Macklemore could escape.

Thankfully, Macklemore is so nimble and unburdened on his latest album that he sounds totally removed, and repaired, from the white-rapper angst that tanked his stardom after The Heist. After spending a full year apologizing for beating hip-hop’s favored son, Macklemore prepared to explore the peak of his privilege in his follow-up to The Heist. But by the time he and Ryan Lewis released Unruly Mess, Macklemore had already exhausted listeners with his interviews before he got around to pouring all these thoughts into new music. “This isn’t so much an album as a charm offensive for everyone with reasonable gripe about the guy and his art last time around,” the music critic Craig Jenkins wrote for Noisey. “Downtown” had a decent run on the Top 100 chart, but overall Unruly Mess met commercial failure and critical indifference. “White Privilege II” flopped, the album quietly tanked, and the critical discourse moved on from Macklemore to Chance the Rapper as hip-hop’s premier choir boy.

Gemini isn’t as ambitious or as complicated as “White Privilege II” was, and that’s to the music’s credit. Gemini is fun because Macklemore is in good spirits. On Gemini, as always, Macklemore is fond of indie singers, fellow West Coast rappers, campfire chants, and redemption narratives. Macklemore tapped Kesha for the album’s third single, “Good Old Days,” a nostalgic piano ballad that recalls his sappiest hit, “Same Love.” On balance, however, Gemini favors loopy rap gymnastics. On “Marmalade,” Macklemore and Lil Yachty bounce off walls and xylophone keys while a children’s choir sings the chorus. Offset joins Macklemore on “Willy Wonka,” and the two race one another with kid-friendly Eminem flows over playful, honking brass. “Let the truth be told, I’m in a Coogi robe / With the dookie rope and Lil Boosie on,” Macklemore raps. “I’m eating sushi rolls, doing the Tootsie Roll / Thinking ’bout future goals; hater, what you been on?” On Gemini, silliness prevails.

Once a proud, white prototype for wokeness in modern pop, Macklemore is now a discarded figure, a relic of ancient news cycles that are best left forgotten. Macklemore now seems to relish his political irrelevance. In one interview to promote Gemini, he says he thought better of his previously agonized style of songwriting. “I feel like music is a form of resistance and that doesn’t need to come via an overt social message,” he told NPR. “Music is a tool to heal and it doesn’t need to just be spelled out what that healing should look like.” By his own design, Macklemore has rendered himself inessential to a political climate where liberal consumerists are often clamoring for Top 40 music that acknowledges urgent social concerns about racism, misogyny, facism, and the rule of law that Donald Trump’s presidency raises. “I don’t need to convince anyone that Trump’s a racist,” Macklemore says. “Trump has already either convinced you, or if he hasn’t convinced you, you’re a racist as well. Or, you’re not paying attention and you’re not going to pay attention to me, if that’s the case. People already have their mind made up and I didn’t think that I needed to make some political rap to try to uplift the world right now from Trump’s doing.”

Of course, black rappers have been cutting protest records all along, implicitly and explicitly defiant, sometimes both, and I’d be thrilled if post-Trump anxiety drove more people to heed YG. But the white, liberal listener Macklemore once courted is rather dead set on hearing protest records cut on pop music’s terms. Fair enough. Some of Macklemore’s white peers have tried to satisfy these demands. Katy Perry spent her most recent album cycle heeding this call, relaunching herself as a “woke” “ally” who sings satire and holds court with civil rights activists. But Perry’s political conclusions were uninteresting, and her musical results were somewhat disastrous. Commercially, Witness is the least successful album of Katy Perry’s career. Macklemore might’ve warned her that this is how it would go, that the only thing listeners enjoy more than interrogating a pop star’s politics is eviscerating a pop star’s politics.

In his music and in his public persona, Macklemore has presented himself as an ally for years longer than Katy Perry has, and he demonstrates more constructive self-awareness on Gemini than he does in all eight minutes and 46 seconds of “White Privilege II.” Finally, he’s learned that a crucial rule for being a straight, white, male ally to frustrated, marginalized peers is that sometimes, ideally, you shut up.