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The White Rapper Roundtable

What’s the ideal balance between being a totally clueless white rapper and being a super self-conscious white rapper?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Post Malone released his latest album, Twelve Carat Toothache, last week. Jack Harlow released his sophomore album, Come Home the Kids Miss You, a few weeks earlier. Justin Charity and Rob Harvilla reviewed both albums for The Ringer.

Below we’ve reconvened Charity and Harvilla for a meditation on the state of white rappers. What’s changed since Macklemore blew up Kendrick Lamar’s phone with an apology for winning Best Rap Album at the 2014 Grammys? What’s the ideal balance between being a totally clueless white rapper and being a super self-conscious white rapper? Why is the Jack Harlow album so bad? So many questions. So many answers, below.

Charity: Did you know Post Malone has a tattoo of JFK?

Harvilla: JFK doing what, exactly?

Charity: Glad you asked. It’s JFK smiling. Headshot, side profile, left cheek. On his left hand. Post says he got the tattoo because JFK was “a real one.” Indeed, Post believes JFK “was really the only president to speak out against the crazy corruption stuff that’s going on in our government nowadays.” I dislike JFK but, weirdly enough, I love this interpretation of his political career. It’s adorable.

Speaking of presidential politics, we’ve convened here to deliver a sort of State of the Union—but about the state of the white rapper in 2022. There’s a lot to discuss these days in this regard. For one, I reviewed Post’s latest album, Twelve Carat Toothache, out last weekend. I rather enjoyed Toothache. Have you listened?

Harvilla: I did, and I devoted somewhere between 15 and 35 percent of my attention to it, and I, too, rather enjoyed it, much to my chagrin. “I might chop the roof off the Suburban” is the exact series of words Post Malone was born to sing. (Born to … rap? Moan? Warble?) The ugly truth is that Postie’s smeary, self-pitying hedonist balladeer shtick is still quite appealing to me, as a chagrined devotee of Drake + the Weeknd; he further interests me as maybe the only current streaming superstar it is totally cool for critics to eloquently despise.

I get the hate; I also get the streaming superstardom. The Algorithm, quote-unquote, has a face tattoo of Post Malone. I would have to listen to Twelve Carat Toothache 30 times to even start to tell any of these tracks apart, but I wouldn’t rule that out. (The single most important song he will release in 2022 is his bold reimagining of the Chip ’n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers theme.) My question for you is: Are we still calling Post Malone a rapper? Is Post Malone still calling Post Malone a rapper? Is the Algorithm still calling Post Malone a rapper? Isn’t music like this—just rap-presenting enough to hit that sales quadrant but not the work of a Real One in any meaningful sense—just another symptom of all that crazy corruption stuff that’s going on in our government nowadays?

Charity: His face tats and his trap drums mean that, even though he’s almost always yodeling, we must call him a rapper. That’s how genre works in this country. I don’t know what to tell you.

Is he a white rapper, though? I mean, yes, obviously, he’s white, and he’s a rapper. But the whole notion of the white rapper used to suggest a certain clumsiness in race relations within the genre, a certain self-consciousness about the white rapper’s own novelty in a majority-minority genre. Post Malone doesn’t wear these anxieties and so he doesn’t quite fit the old stereotype. I’m not saying he’s Paul Wall. But he’s not Asher Roth, you know? I think, in some sense, Asher Roth was the last white rapper. Do you see what I mean?

Harvilla: Yodeling. That’s the word. Thank you. I do see what you mean, but I submit to you that Asher Roth was the second-to-last white rapper. You’re thinking of Macklemore.

Charity: Oh, yes, duh, right, I forgot—Macklemore. He was the last white rapper.

Harvilla: In every film I watch, Justin, I’m on the side of the bad guy, so here’s a villainous, troll-y, overbroad statement: The concept of the white rapper finally died when Macklemore apologized to Kendrick Lamar after the 2014 Grammys. Or, really, when he posted the apology on Instagram. Or, really, when everyone (even Drake!) viciously roasted him for posting the apology on Instagram.

White rappers, historically, have made at least grudging efforts to reckon with their own white guilt/privilege—to prove themselves worthy of rap superstardom despite it (Eminem) or play it up so egregiously they neutralize it (Asher, briefly)—but Macklemore performed his guilt so, uh, performatively that he exploded the whole concept. Fast-forward to 2017 and you got Mr. White Iverson saying, “There’s great hip-hop songs where they talk about life and they spit that real shit, but right now, there’s not a lot of people talking about real shit. Whenever I want to cry, whenever I want to sit down and have a nice cry, I’ll listen to some Bob Dylan.”

I realize that was 50 years ago in the Post Malone discourse, but I still think of him as the famous rapping white guy who’s guiltier about the rapper part than the white part.

Charity: It’s really a combination of Macklemore and Riff Raff who killed the whole notion of the white rapper in the mid-2010s. There was no salvaging the stereotype at that point. Macklemore and Riff Raff both humiliated the white rapper in these very different, but very debilitating, ways—Macklemore sincerely, Riff Raff tip-toeing in his Jordans.

By the mid-2010s, though, you’ve also got Mac Miller and Post Malone—guys who got tokenized for a while but then outgrew the parameters of the white rapper discourse. You’ve got Machine Gun Kelly, too. He was sorta on par with Riff Raff, engaging in a lot of classic white rapper antics for a few years, beefing with Eminem and whatnot. But this was getting him only so far, and then later he fucked around and switched genres, from hip-hop to pop-punk, altogether. So now we’re left with a more subtle variety of white rappers.

This is, in part, due to the decentralization of hip-hop. There are fewer gatekeepers. The fandoms are so self-contained and self-perpetuating. And, again, there’s this critical mass of white rappers proliferating in different corners of the culture. You can’t pigeonhole them so easily.

That’s what’s so strange to me about Jack Harlow. He’s always positioned as the next Drake but on some level he’s a throwback to Macklemore. He’s so self-consciously white. He’s talking to GQ about his Black “gatekeepers.” He’s talking to Teen Vogue about how much he loves Black women. When are the Grammys? Is Kendrick in Jack’s phone? Should we be worried?

I should note, for context, as a disclaimer: Harlow’s Come Home the Kids Miss You is the worst album I have ever heard in my entire life. Drake should’ve called out of “Churchill Downs” with a doctor’s note. Destiny’s Child should send a cease-and-desist.

Harvilla: Destiny’s Child are content to let Jack Harlow pay a few of their bills for a few months; Drake at least had fun at the Kentucky Derby. Come Home the Kids Miss You is a grower, dude. Marinate in it. Really contemplate that line about the doughnut on the song called “Side Piece.” Jack’s the closest anybody’s come in years to embodying the white rapper as I used to understand the archetype: Spend years grinding on the regional circuit, align with a few ringers cooler and more credible than you, be 15 percent better at rapping than people assume you’ll be, insult everyone who underestimated you as politely as possible (“The ones that hate me the most look just like me / You tell me what that means”), and patiently wait for all that disproportionate disrespect (the white rapper’s burden) to give way to all that disproportionate commercial opportunity (the white rapper’s boon). I hope to never listen to Come Home again, but you definitely hate him more than anyone I know; IIRC, you don’t look anything like him, and I have no idea what that means.

Mac Miller’s arc is definitely the most complex and fascinating white rapper hero’s journey in recent memory: sub-Asher levels of critical derision slowly eroded by dogged experimentalism, even-cooler-than-usual friends, Post Malone–caliber tattoos, and (eventually) legitimate excellence. Machine Gun Kelly is basically just doing what Lil Wayne tried to do with Rebirth but actually succeeding, and God bless him: We Cleveland guys gotta stick together. In terms of finding any common ground here, and in part because he’s the guy who’s gotta edit this, I’m gonna agree with our dear friend Justin Sayles: “White rapper” is a borderline meaningless term now. There are too many subgenres, too many nuances, too many shades. Plus the whole notion of a white rapper, even as an explicit provocation à la Iggy Azalea, might just be boring now. Jack Harlow’s just a less charismatic Drake to me; Post Malone’s just a less ambitious Weeknd. Their whiteness, as glaring as it might be, is neither the most prominent nor the most interesting nor the worst thing about them. Will the next great white rapper redefine the term or just finally render it meaningless? Or put it this way: When the next great white rapper emerges, which former president will be tattooed on his (or her!) arm?

Charity: Don’t say Trump. It’s not Trump. It’s Bill Clinton. He’ll be overdue for a resurgence in youth culture via ironic hyper-revisionism.

I like Jack Harlow. I just hate the album. Now he thinks he’s Drake but really he’s a guy who still doesn’t quite know himself, musically—which is why he spends the entire album pantomiming Drake circa “Forever.” It’s not his suit and it doesn’t fit quite right. Meanwhile, Post Malone doesn’t even wear suits. I’m taking this metaphor a step too far but, you know, he’s on to something.

Ideally the next great white rapper won’t be sneering at hip-hop, talking about how they’d rather be listening to Bob Dylan and Billie Eilish, but they won’t be groveling before gatekeepers either. They’ll use fewer napkins. They’ll get over themselves, we’ll give them a fair shake, and together we’ll get over these stereotypes. I have a dream, etc., etc.

Did you know that Post Malone has a tattoo of the late Lil Peep?

Harvilla: Lil Peep doing what, exactly? I’ll answer that: Post Malone has a tattoo of Lil Peep getting a Post Malone tattoo. I share your optimism (LOL) that the days of groveling before gatekeepers are over, and the days of these jokers insisting that rap music is beneath them are over, too. (Related: Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” is the best white rap song of the past 10 years.) Follow those trends to their reasonable (LMAO) conclusion and the future of the white rapper is rooted in both total atomization (more subgenres!) and absolute insularity (no outsiders!), such that a decade from now white rappers will only rap about other white rappers. The future is Post Malone getting a tattoo of G-Eazy getting a tattoo of Bubba Sparxxx getting a tattoo of the Kid LAROI getting a tattoo of Machine Gun Kelly getting a tattoo of yeah I said it Vanilla Ice. It’ll be like when you’re getting a haircut at Supercuts (the official salon for white rappers) and you look in the mirror at the mirror on the wall behind you—$20 buzz cuts stretching to infinity. The song playing will be Jack Harlow’s “Like a Blade of Grass.”

Charity: Mac ain’t die for this.