Sympathy for the Macklemore

“White Privilege II” bravely tackles difficult truths about race, but that doesn’t make it a good song.

Stefano Rellandini / Reuters

The third verse of Macklemore’s new song, “White Privilege II,” is from the perspective of a fan complimenting the 32-year-old Seattle rapper for hits like “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love.” Everything is copacetic and nice until the speaker—it’s Macklemore using a filter and multi-tracking to make it clear that this isn’t his voice—disses the rest of hip-hop:

That’s so cool, look what you’re accomplishing
Even an old mom like me likes it cause it’s positive
You’re the only hip-hop that I let my kids listen to
Cause you get it, all that negative stuff isn’t cool
Yeah, like all the guns and the drugs
The bitches and the hoes and the gangs and the thugs
Even the protest outside—so sad and so dumb
If a cop pulls you over, it’s your fault if you run

Awkward silence. Clanging of silverware. Macklemore’s natural voice: “Huh?”

It’s good to keep that image of the middle-aged, rap-hating parent in mind when evaluating a song like this, which triggered a wave of groans on certain parts of the Internet when it was released last night. The irony is that Macklemore has clearly internalized, and sympathizes with, the groaners. But this song isn’t explicitly addressing them. It’s addressing the audience that turned him from an indie-rap stalwart to a pop star. And the message he sends them is, theoretically, in line with the worldview of a lot of people who believe that racial inequality is responsible for a lot of America’s most pressing problems. Black Lives Matter’s DeRay Mckesson has even endorsed it.

You can recognize all of these things and still hate the song.

I’d start unpacking what Macklemore says, but the thing is that there isn’t much unpacking to be done. He isn’t a rapper who hides his meaning. Just go and read the lyrics. The first verse has him realizing the surface-level contradictions of being a white supporter at a Black Lives Matter protest. The second has him comparing himself to Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, and Elvis—all musicians who have profited by repackaging musical styles born of black experiences with a white face and a white point of view—and wondering whether he’s done enough to fight racism. The third is the awkward exchange with that unwittingly racist mom-fan. And the fourth starts “Damn, a lot of opinions” and says he needs to read more articles and have more conversations to make the world better. At one point in the song, you hear soundbites from folks who don’t get why Black Lives Matters exists. Later, you hear soundbites explaining why it does. It all ends with the vocalist Jamila Woods singing, “Your silence is a luxury, hip-hop is not a luxury.”

So the song is both a statement—don’t just be aware of racism, speak up about it—and a demonstration. Macklemore is practicing what he preaches, as he preaches it. He also spotlights the voices of actual black activists. Who could attack him for that? I can’t. This is a brave song. For anyone who suspects that this airing of guilt is just a belated, performative way for him to feel okay with his success—like the useless public apology he once sent to Kendrick Lamar after beating him at the Grammys—the song title points out that all the way back in 2005, Macklemore released a song called “White Privilege.” That track provided a more detailed rebuke to those who elevate him over “negative” hip-hop: “Now I don’t rap about guns, so they label me conscious / But I don’t rap about guns cause I wasn't forced into the projects.”

But. One of music’s virtues as an art form is that it always, on some level, communicates things that mere language cannot. Macklemore has never seemed super in-control of this idea. The fact that his lyrics are so basic, forgoing metaphor or ambiguity or impressionism, certainly accounts for a big part of his wide appeal. But it also accounts for why many other listeners (ahem) feel pandered to, exhausted by, and/or vaguely embarrassed by his songs. Even for those who don’t have a negative response, there’s the question of how effective his blunt-force approach really is. Aren’t narratives whose meaning takes some interpretation more likely to stick in the head than an op-ed that tells you exactly what to think?

The music itself is sending a mixed message, too. Macklemore’s verses here are all about his internal conflict, but the choruses and final refrain, sung by other vocalists, scan as pretty straightforward protest-chant material. The chords are going for goosebumps at all times. You could see this as an admirable attempt to reconcile Macklemore’s intractable soulsearch with the desire to still take action—to not be paralyzed by guilt but rather turn it into a tool. Or you can see it as compromising the uncomfortable truth of the song. A lot of commentators immediately picked up on the fact that the song’s instrumentation—jazzy, spooky—resembles the material on Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly; Macklemore lecturing himself is also a less-artful version of what Lamar does on that album. But Lamar would never let anyone come away thinking the solution was as exciting as Macklemore makes it sound here. He probably wouldn’t tack on the uplifting coda at the end of this song.

Again, the politics of “White Privilege II” are admirable, and it would be churlish or worse to root for it to go ignored by the public. But in various ways—the straining nature of Macklemore’s voice, the lyrical focus on his inner self, the instrumentation—the main appeal of this song isn’t politics. It’s pathos. Macklemore never explicitly asks you to feel sorry for him, the rich white rapper bedeviled by his own conscience, but you still walk away feeling as though he has. The song, fundamentally, is a nine-minute version of the pop trope Sia once helpfully termed “victim to victory.” Macklemore as victim? Yes, it’s okay to groan.