Imagine that a hip-hop song inspired by a successful marriage-equality ballot initiative became one of pop’s biggest hits. Now picture the rapper behind it bringing an underground king like Big K.R.I.T. and a Golden Era legend like Talib Kweli as his fiery opening acts.
And if that rapper headlining the date did all this with an independent, self-released debut studio album? Why, this MC must be a revolutionary.
So how strange that Macklemore -- an apple-cheeked rapper who advocates for gay marriage, self-awareness of privilege and personal financial responsibility -- is one of pop’s most mocked villains.
Rap heads hate him for his goobery optimism, and the sense that he’s the rapper of choice for the “I don’t like rap, but ...” crowd. Gay-rights activists criticize him for being a straight white guy who got a huge hit on the back of someone else’s struggle – especially because there’s a wild underground of queer hip-hop that got there first.
But on Wednesday night, Macklemore and his producer Ryan Lewis made Staples Center a safe place for one particularly marginalized group – serious Macklemore and Ryan Lewis fans.
The show was a brisk, ramshackle and hit-centric set. The duo have a short catalog, but almost all of it, from the ravey “Can’t Hold Us” to the slow-rolling “White Walls” and, yes, the sax-skronking hit “Thrift Shop” are radio staples.
Macklemore, born Ben Haggerty, opened the show in a gilded Sgt. Pepper-style jacket: a silly and swaggering topcoat for a rapper known for championing junk-shop finds. A Seattle-appropriate indie orchestra of horns and strings backed the duo, with the hipster-handsome Lewis juicing proceedings with fist-pumps behind his DJ deck.
No Kanye-sized art installations as stage decoration here: this was an arena show played as a bigger-budget high school musical. Even Macklemore’s ode to shoe culture “Wings” came with a smatter of AdBusters-like criticism of placing too much value in a brand’s pompous cachet.
For the most part, the socio-cultural knocks on Macklemore and Lewis are unfair. Whatever the sonic merits of “Same Love,” it was a genuine effort that probably did move the needle of Washington’s Referendum 74, which legalized gay marriage in the state. You don’t have to be personally oppressed to feel empathetic to a cause (Haggerty’s gay uncle is pictured with his partner on the single’s artwork), and it’s dicey to tell an artist to avoid a topic because they don’t have the identity-politics in place to do it.
On Wednesday, the duo made sure to give Mary Lambert, an out lesbian who sings the tune’s chorus hook, plenty of stage time and accolades (for her part, Lambert sounded great and looked genuinely awed at the arena audience’s adoration). In past interviews, Haggerty has been sharp and candid about how being a straight, white guy has given him all sorts of pop music advantages that MCs of other ethnicities and sexualities wouldn’t enjoy.
The duo played "Same Love" with rousing, baton-passing sincerity: the same instinct that led them to hire Kweli and K.R.I.T. as openers. Macklemore and Lewis knew what rap debts they needed to pay down after their success. Haggerty even almost held his own in a freestyle bout with Kweli onstage – a worthy reminder that he does work at the craft of actually rapping.
The problem, however, recalls the adage about good intentions paving roads to undesirable places. Macklemore and Lewis mean so well, and deserve so little of the cultural criticism lobbed at them, that it almost makes you forget how treacly their music is.
“White Walls” had a dazed lean to it, but every minute listening to “Thrift Shop” should instead be spent with “Wut,” an infinitely raunchier and nimbler funk blast by Le1f, a charismatic queer New York MC who has noted the songs' similarities. “Can’t Hold Us” makes an undrinkable gruel out of the upbeat ingredients of classic house music. When Haggerty went on a long tangent about getting sober because drinking and weed made him uncreative, the calculated wholesomeness of his speech felt equally saccharine and uninspired.
There’s the real knock on Macklemore and Lewis. It’s not that they’re piggybacking on the hard-won battles of the LGBT community to the top of the charts. It’s that they’ve taken hip-hop, stripped it for its fun parts, and left out everything raw, difficult and dangerous about the music.
By bringing Lambert, K.R.I.T. and Kweli along at Staples, Macklemore and Lewis paid debts to artists who had to fight harder for success. Now it's time for someone more exciting to take that check and run it up the charts. What's Le1f up to tonight?