Column: The Critical Curmudgeon
Macklemore: Actually Keeping It Real
Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 23:02
Happy Birthday to Johnny Cash, who would have turned a whopping 81 on Feb. 26. Unfortunately, this will have to be just a tangential acknowledgement, since I used up my quota for posthumous birthday-related columns last week with a dedication to grunge great Kurt Cobain. Of course, you already know that though … you are reading my columns every week, aren’t you, loyal reader? I don’t write these for my health, you know.
No, this week’s unabashedly one-sided discussion is inspired by the exciting news from UGBC that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis will be headlining this year’s Modstock Concert! Despite having some qualms with the culture of formulaic laziness behind most popular rap being released nowadays (as you know so well, loyal reader), I’m actually not being the least bit sarcastic when I call that “exciting news.” Within the last year, Macklemore has released a U.S. Billboard No. 1 single, “Thrift Shop feat. Wanz,” as well as an album that charted at No. 2, The Heist. His commercial success is especially impressive when you consider that he and his producer Lewis never even signed with a major record label … But that’s not why I’m so gung-ho about him coming here. The reason has more to do with his style of songwriting, which comes out particularly in “Thrift Shop”: he’s mastered that certain element of not-so-subtle farce and self-deprecation that’s so refreshing to see. A performer’s capability to make fun of his or her self is what I’d like to talk about today. Why has the silly, parsimonious premise of “Thrift Shop” appealed to people so much, while the rest of pop musicians are concerned with depicting their own wealth and confidence in precisely the opposite way? In my opinion, the ability to dangle at the edge of parody is an invaluable skill for any entertainer to have, whether comedy is directly involved in their act or not.
With that said, there are also plenty of other reasons I’m glad they booked these guys this year, including the fact that we aren’t scraping the bottom of the barrel for more washed up late-’90s/early-2000s deadbeats. What a relief it is to hear they’re giving Nelly a break from the hassles of showbiz, so he can finally tend to his rhododendrons in peace. It’s really nice to see that we can still get somebody to show up who’s relevant to the current scene, be it as it may that listeners are now waiting for a second major album since Macklemore’s triumphant break into the mainstream. The last time this happened for Boston College was probably when we got Kid Cudi, who will be a useful example of exactly the opposite of what I’m saying Macklemore does well.
So take “Thrift Shop”: it’s a fun song, definitely catchy, and distinctively upbeat. More than that, though, it’s a reversal of an accepted theme in rap, the nearly constant boasting about having stacks of cash, fabulously tricked out cars, and all of that jazz. Macklemore, instead, proudly declares that he’d rather wear $.99 leopard mink smelling vaguely of urine than pay $50 for a tee shirt. It works because it’s new and funny, but also because it turns that off-putting, generic, in-your-face ego associated with the genre on its head. Now take “Man on the Moon,” the title track of one of Cudi’s biggest albums: the theme of the song isn’t very specific besides “I’m super in love with myself,” though he definitely makes that part clear in his opening lines when he simply repeats how he doesn’t give a f—k about his critics because they “can’t comprehend” how awesome he is. He claims that if he was “boring,” people might be more ready to accept him. Yeah, Cudi, that’s it: your raps about how great you are must be just too innovative for people to handle. Fascinating analysis, right there.
What I’m saying is, it’s admirable to see humility in an artist, but even more admirable to see an artist who is legitimately self-aware and having actual fun in the studio. Sure, the music business is stressful and you’ve got to be tough to get to the top, but that doesn’t mean putting on airs and constantly reminding everyone that you’re rich and therefore verified as an artist. In the long run, it just makes you seem like you’re even less secure. For me, that ability to just relax and not take yourself so seriously in the studio pushes a guy like Macklemore over the edge.