Point/Counterpoint: Macklemore's Rising Rap Fame

Macklemore’s career as a mainstream rapper was aided by the release of “Thrift Shop,” his hit single. His rise to fame may signal the birth of a new and original rapper for some. For others, his work may be nothing more than cleverly-disguised tedium.

Point By Alexander Tang

PRO: Washington state is an area best known musically for its indie/alternative darlings, from twee superstars Fleet Foxes and Death Cab for Cutie to greats like Nirvana and Soundgarden. Ben Haggerty, better known as Macklemore, is one of the few exciting hip-hop artists to come from the Evergreen State. He released his debut album, “The Heist,” on October 9th, and it rose to #1 on the iTunes download charts. The Heist also debuted on the US Billboard 200 at #2 of the week of October 27th. While commercial success often does not overlap perfectly with musical talent, Macklemore lounges comfortably in the center of this Venn diagram.

“The Heist” is a refreshing mix of cautiously serious and infectiously cheery tracks. Songs like “Wing$,” in warning against the dangers of consumerism, threaten to become preachy, but Macklemore is able to rein them back into the realm of sincerity by grounding them in solid storytelling. He raps a first verse that could read like a stirring monologue about his obsession with Nike sneakers as a child, and ends the song with the sentiment, “This dream that they sold to you / For a hundred dollars and some change / Consumption is in the veins / And now I see it’s just another pair of shoes.

Macklemore deftly switches his tone from songs like this and his appeal for gay rights in “Same Love” to lines like “Walk up to the club, like ‘What up? I got a big cock,’” in “Thrift Shop,” a song with a weapons-grade catchy beat and devastating comedic timing. Macklemore oozes charisma through every line of the song, equal parts bravado and wit as he delivers gems in his ode to thrifting such as, “Draped in a leopard mink, girl standing next to me / Probably should have washed this, smells like R. Kelly’s sheets, pissssss.”

Ultimately, what separates Macklemore from the horde of unremarkable Generation Y pre-millenials vying for success is his sparkling execution and pristine production. Rarely does he ever resort to inversions or contortions to force his meter or rhyme, and his flow never suffers for it. Each line reads as fluidly as prose as it does in time, and it stands against a beautiful backdrop of live instrumentation and tasteful beats. The use of strings, horns, and especially acoustic piano are the perfect complement to Macklemore’s effortless delivery and candid lyrics. Macklemore is an artist just as fit for provoking serious thought as provoking serious grooves.

—Staff writer Alexander Tang can be reached at tang@college.harvard.edu.

Rebuttal By Andrew R. Chow

Macklemore may try to strike a balance between serious thoughts and serious grooves, but its unclear if he even knows where that balance is. Instead, it seems he compartmentalizes the two sides to sell off to two different audiences. This is extremely apparent on back-to-back tracks late in “The Heist.” “White Walls” is a painfully inane ode to his Cadillac, with lyrics like “In my C-A-D-I-L-L-A-C bitch / Can’t see me through my tints / I’m riding real slow.” If it’s a parody, it’s hard to tell—he even employs gangsta rapper Schoolboy Q to drop the stereotypical verse about cars, women, and cocaine. The very next track, he turns around and skewers the record industry for stealing profits and diluting artistic identity. Is all of his music genuine? Is he forcing his party side or his socially conscious side? Will the real Macklemore please stand up?

Counterpoint By Andrew R. Chow

CON: A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a dear friend of mine who badly wanted to see some new rapper at the House of Blues. “I’m grooving real hard to Macklemore lately,” he wrote. “It should be an insanely fun show.” He linked a song by the rising rapper, and for the next three minutes, I was as hooked as he was. “Thrift Shop” grabbed me right from the opening funk-tastic sax riff and held on all the way through its coat-flinging, onesie-rocking climax. Here was a fresh new rapper, I thought, who had innovative production, a nasty flow, and a sense of humor all at the same time.

Nope. I wish I had ended my interest in Macklemore right there, because a large portion of his music is insufferably generic and uninspired. Rather than cutting against the grain, the Seattle-based rapper slides right into the horde of college-rap pretenders who have come to dominate dorm-room parties for the past few years. His production is largely the opposite of funky: plodding piano chords, treacly synthesizers, and familiar-sounding drum machine beats that are good mostly for jumping up and down and pumping a fist in the air. His choruses are dominated by extremely general, faux-inspirational sentiments: “This is the moment / Tonight is the night / We’ll fight till it’s over.”

Macklemore’s rapping itself is equally disappointing. He becomes trite and heavy handed on his slower songs and vacuous on his party anthems. "Make the money, don't let the money make you / Change the game don't let the game change you," he declares proudly, as if this was an original or clever line.

Now, I am well aware that music is allowed to (and at times should) be simple and fun, and that Macklemore raps about important topics like same-sex equality and drug abuse. But the style and material all feel heavily tread upon, and it is a shame that a man so clearly capable of personality could get squeezed into the mold and stripped of identity so easily. “David Bowie meets Kanye shit?” Not quite.

—Staff writer Andrew Chow can be reached at andrewchow@college.harvard.edu.

Rebuttal by Alexander Tang

I disagree that Macklemore phases into the formless mass of mediocre frat rappers. The production on The Heist may venture from funky at times, but I posit that it ventures into other territories such as tastefully-reserved and refreshingly-clean. The most striking example of this is the track “Bombom,” which displays a degree of instrumental experimentation seldom found on hip-hop albums. While I would admit that Macklemore does not possess a Wilde-esque command of language, nor does he harbor any Shakespearean philosophic revelations, but I argue that he does more than well enough to create a compelling rap album.

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