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Macklemore Fights White Privilege (And Loses)

David Turner on the mirror Macklemore places in his audience's hands.

White fame must be exhausting. That is the main takeaway from "Light Tunnels," the opening track on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. The monologue disguised as a “song” places the listener in Macklemore’s shoes on the night of the 2014 Grammys — the infamous evening when his victory over Kendrick Lamar in the Best Rap Album category caused an immediate scandal that Macklemore only magnified by Instagramming an apology text he sent to Kendrick after the fact. That white supremacy got him the award wasn’t enough: White guilt compelled Macklemore to tell first Kendrick, then the world, that he knew he didn't deserve the honor, turning private regret into public self-aggrandizement.

If Macklemore and Lewis's 2012 breakthrough album, The Heist, presented the MC as perhaps overeager and wedded to his ideas on songs like “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love,” at least he wasn't yet famous enough to have worn out his welcome. The former was a goofy party song with an anti-materialist message, which he repeats here to less winning effect on “Let’s Eat”; the latter was a straight-faced song with something to say, a pattern that he once again returns to on the run of tracks from “Growing Up” to “St. Ides.” He is taking on different, more serious topics on This Unruly Mess — the issue of addiction runs throughout several songs, creating a dour mood that weighs down the album. Lewis's maudlin production and doleful keys take songs about parenthood and substance abuse and push their messages with a didacticism usually reserved for after-school specials. Not that the duo’s music didn’t veer into that lane with The Heist, but hearing Ed Sheeran’s always try-hard voice singing about being a father is too much.

When This Unruly Mess attempts to have fun, the levity feels forced. The zesty moped romp “Downtown” was a mess of a first single that achieved moderate success; in the context of the album, it sounds like a too-on-the-nose, nostalgic hip-hop musical from a nightmare world where Hamilton doesn’t exist. (Poor Grandmaster Caz, Melle Mel, and Kool Moe Dee!) The obtuse, "hell, why not?" pairing of Idris Elba and Anderson .Paak on “Dance Off” feels like it’s rolling into the morgue by the 27th second, when Macklemore says “I grab my ankle and pull it up / And do that thing where I move my butt.” Chance the Rapper (“Need to Know”) and YG (“Bolo Tie”) deliver on their guest appearances — but it's hard to hear their black excellence clearly when it's surrounded by so many white neuroses.

The most frustrating quality of this dive into whiteness can be heard in the closer, “White Privilege II.” In the third verse, Macklemore speaks (to himself) in the voice of a presumably white mother about how her kids love his music, how one of her children was excited by the prospect of thrifting for clothes and another grew outspoken in their feelings about a queer aunt — then reveals that she still harbors unexamined racist thoughts toward black people. That's the distance that Macklemore wants to bridge. He's driven to connect with those people who were willing to hear his pleas about consumerism and homophobia but not white America’s racism.

But he misread the distance between this mother — a surrogate for his assumed white audience — and the more considered personal-political values he wants to impart. Macklemore didn’t achieve success with “Thrift Shop” because Americans distrust excessive capitalism; they loved it because the hook was catchy, the video was funny, and he presented all of these critiques with a wink and a laugh. “Same Love” found a home on pop radio not because it drilled deep into the nuances of his personal politics, but because his opener — “When I was in the third grade, I thought I was gay because I could draw” — invited conversation among its listeners no matter their feelings on the issue. Encouraging white children to open their eyes and be more accepting of their own family or question American materialism is no small accomplishment. But that mirror Macklemore placed in his white listeners' hands with The Heist — well, it just wasn’t framed with centuries of racial hatred, violence, and oppression. Where those hits let his fans see ways to do better though his music, “White Privilege II” understands that it cannot offer an easy fix for institutional American racism — but sends up flares to ensure that we notice he’s trying.

“White Privilege II” is a lecture from a professor who misunderstood why students loved his class. Poorly structured, tedious, and far too considered, it’s a chore at nearly nine minutes long. Macklemore’s appeal for many was that he provided pop music that spoke to real issues (as if the rest of popular hip-hop somehow didn’t). “White Privilege II” overcorrects for an error that is societal, not artistic. He sparked a conversation, the thoughts resonated — but “White Privilege II” assumes that not completely changing listeners' hearts in regard to race is the same thing as failure. That is a task too great for any artist.

Macklemore has already proven (at least twice) that it's possible to get out a strong message if one makes a great pop song. The problem with "White Privilege II" — and too much of this album — is that it isn't great pop. Macklemore tries his best, but it all slips through his hands; this album strives but fails to really use the tools at its disposal. Sure, Macklemore can be critiqued for how he does or does not support #BlackLivesMatter, how he tackles issues obliquely or explicitly on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. The sad truth is, none of that matters when you make a record this misguided.