What The Kendrick/Macklemore Debate Means For Hip-Hop

What The Kendrick/Macklemore Debate Means For Hip-Hop

There has been a lot of discourse about the Grammy upset, where Macklemore swept up in the Rap categories in favor of Kendrick Lamar's heralded album. But what does this mean in the larger picture? Does it even matter or does it matter all too much?

There are many out there who are still upset and lay dormant, content to grumble mildly because, after all, it has been a week. A week and two days, to be precise, since Macklemore took home Best Rap Album and Best New Artist at the Grammys, signaling a parade of heated discourse, Instagrams, tweets, Instagrams of tweets, and a general consensus from the “real hip-hop” community that Kendrick Lamar should have won for both of those categories and, as Macklemore said himself, was robbed royally that night. In the wake of this fervent backlash, an acquaintance of mine turned to me and asked, innocently enough, “Is it just me or are [Hip-Hop] fans the only people left on Earth who still care about the Grammys?”

And she is almost right, in a way. I never met anyone who was really upset over who took home “Best Rock Album.” They just shrug it off, if they even were aware of it in the first place. After all, it’s not like the Grammys are the Academy Awards, who cares who wins? Isn’t it all some ploy to drum up business, celebrating music already meant for the lowest-common-denominator of a backwards industry that’s been tanking ever since Napster? Shouldn’t we all collectively cringe and laugh and half-mock when it becomes readily apparent that the Grammys, indeed, are going to marry twenty-something same-sex couples to a song called, “Same Love,” largely written by a heterosexual white male, taking an important issue and triumph and turning it into some distasteful PR stunt? What’s the point of even arguing when it doesn’t matter? Who cares?

Well, we care. We care, I think, because as fans of hip-hop we still feel the need to validate the music we listen to and love so much. Because as fans we recall, from not too long ago, when people would disregard hip-hop as trashy music, of no discernible artistic merit. This made us angry, because how could something we regard so highly, something that means so much to us, be dismissed so readily. How could Illmatic, 36 Chambers, and Ready To Die be artless when they meant so much to us? Rap is relatively new and like jazz and rock and what-have-you before it, it is taking the mass public some time before it readily accepts the genre.  We look to Awards shows still, because it offers some menial validation for the music. So the Grammy Awards, while hopelessly lame and tacky, is still something fans, at least hardcore fans, remain aware of and formulate opinions on.

Because if you think about it, this genre is still relatively new. That’s what makes it so fun. The genre is still evolving creatively and hasn’t stagnated into the two categories of radio-friendly blandness and esoteric indie acts. Hip-hop is still being defined and we’re not quite sure what it will resemble. It’s a time where the biggest acts are still producing innovative output that takes the genre forward. People like Kanye West and Drake are putting out massive records that sound adventurous and risky, something that’s different each time, and these are some of the biggest names out there. It’s not confined to just underground artists, although certain sub-groups are radically experimenting right now, which will surface to the mainstream in a few years from now. This time period for our genre is akin to what the sixties were for rock n' roll, with big artists taking big risks, trying to prove something.

So since Hip-Hop is still being defined, fans are extra-prickly when it comes to sniffing out trends that they perceive as backwards in terms of progress. When Macklemore’s (and Ryan Lewis’) amiable The Heist took precedence over Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city at the awards show the Sunday before last, it was only natural that there would be a significant reaction. See, the two artists represent two different directions the genre can take. It can (and will) take both directions, but the one that is more publicly embraced will affect which one will remain dominant in the interim.

On one hand you have Kendrick Lamar’s record. Widely heralded as a masterpiece, Kendrick Lamar seemed like the next logical step for the genre to emulate. His album was incredibly good, with a production quality that seemed both new and familiar. Not to say Kendrick sound wasn’t completely unique, because it was, but it was enjoyable in the same way we found those old West Coast nineties records to be great. And Kendrick himself perfectly melded conscious lyricism with a sense of fun. He remained a moral figure while he allowed himself to enjoy his vices and boast his boasts. Like a conscious rapper you would actually want to party with. He mastered the street-corner prophet and the street-wise emcee, successfully merging the old-school sound with a pop-friendly on, while simultaneously shedding the more cringe-worthy excesses of the genre. In other words, Kendrick’s album, while completely new, sounded exactly like you’d expect a hip-hop masterpiece would. And should.

But there’s a new trend in hip-hop. One I noticed gaining a lot of traction in the late 2000’s. A kind of genre I labeled the
"white-college-kid" genre. Now, take notice. I was a white college kid too at one point, but I harbored resentment, at the time, towards artists like Hoodie Allen and Logic, who I saw as emblematic of the trend. They weren’t bad, no. The rappers in this genre weren’t all white or in college, either. “White-College-Kid Rap” was just a broad umbrella term I coined to use as a short hand for a trend that I was wary of, even though I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because the hip-hop I listened to growing up had some fangs to bare. This music had no ferocity, so urban-based cultural mythology to it. It sounded, well, disposable.

These were artists who listened to backpacker-friendly, stoner-oriented artists like Kid Cudi (who is undoubtedly an artist of substance) or underground acts like Atmosphere (they're great, no disrespect here), and then started making music a little later. The flows were fun and clever, but mostly disposable and mostly about smoking weed, watching cartoons, and flirting with girls. The production was usually low-key, laid-back like a lot of the underground stuff from a couple years ago. The music was fun and light and sounded good, but for some reason I was slightly bothered by it. What was bothering me, I think, at the time was that this new trend in the genre sounded very safe. It was like hip-hop without the edge: just an endless array of raps you could put on in the car in front of any company without having to worry about someone disliking it. No, these kids weren’t hipsters, although it might be tempting to use that label. They were mostly kids who grew up listening to stoner rap and gave it their own try, often to similar-sounding results. The music was similar because a lot of these kids had similar backgrounds and because a lot of them were making music in their early-twenties and, more often than you would expect, their late teens, so they didn’t have much to rap about other than ripping bong hits and chilling with friends; with production that sounded like it was made more by an indie electro-pop band than a hip-hop producer. This rap was more or less in the underground until Macklemore set it free.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were around longer than most of these kids, but their music had the sound and heart of the aforementioned sub-genre.  Their music was fun and light, with the occasional sincere conscious message. Yes, Macklemore is still hip-hop, but he’s from a new breed that long-term fans are wary of. Maybe because they’re too old, maybe because they’re convictions hold an inkling of truth, or maybe because it’s new. And yes, Macklemore’s songs were overplayed on the radio. So were Kendrick’s too, for that matter (avid radio-play is good for any commercial artists, radio-play that just won’t stop is not) but I think we all shuddered when we heard the opening loop for “Thrift Shop,” for the millionth time that day. And over-exposure breeds contempt, that’s not new, nor was that ever valid. But when Macklemore won the Grammy for Best Rap Album, even he seemed to think that Kendrick was robbed.

Now, some people are trying to say that the backlash, from the core hip-hop community, is because he is white. But that’s a tired argument, right? I mean, I’m sure you can remember the talk about Eminem back in the day, and he’s now readily mentioned among the greats. Others say that it’s because Macklemore’s “Same Love” message nettled some remaining homophobia in the core community. However, while that may unfortunately be the case for some backwards, moronic individuals, I very much doubt everyone who doesn’t like Macklemore is a raging homophobe. That being said Macklemore is a new face in hip-hop, and it’s a face that we’re going to see a lot more of. Not just Macklemore’s, I mean. The floodgates are now open and we are going to see a torrential downpour of similar artists who have been lingering in the underground.

Let’s put this into perspective. Kendrick Lamar did not win the Grammy, but that matters little, at least not in the most obvious sense. Kendrick will still be remembered, he’s probably the most buzzed about artist around right now. Good Kid will be remembered from now until whenever society decides to stop remembering the history of the genre, which won’t be anytime soon. In fact, Kendrick will probably drop a couple more masterpieces (although inevitably a few duds, I doubt he’ll be perfect all of the time) for which he will also be remembered. If you’re worried that the award snub will hurt his career in any way, stop worrying.

But if you hopped on board with the “hate-Macklemore-for-his music-not because-he’s-white,” trend, you should step back as well. I mean, don’t start hating Macklemore because he’s white, unrelated to his music. But, objectively, Macklemore’s The Heist was pretty good, whether you took a liking to it or not. It was solid from a technical level and an artistic one, as far as commercial records go. Yes, it was overexposed, but that detracts from the issue rather than adds to it. Macklemore won the Grammy because he was getting the most write-ups and the most conversation from everyone, not just hip-hop fans and music blogs. Period. Who wins the Grammy has nothing to do with who is the better artist and it never has and never will. Ever.

However, let’s look at what the win might mean in a broader sense. I believe it was the producer 9th wonder who attributed Macklemore’s success to his ability to appeal to the Soccer Mom crowd. Does that make him lame? Does that mean if you like Macklemore, you’re into all the same things as some frumpy suburban mother in her 30/40’s? Maybe. I don’t know. This, however, signifies that rap like Macklemore’s is widely accessible. Is it because he’s white? Maybe for some horribly racist people, but, it's hard to believe that is the case for those listeners who would even give someone like Macklemore a chance. It probably has more to do with the fact that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ music and that whole sub-genre of hip-hop doesn’t require an already developed taste in hip-hop to appreciate it, its lyrics are broadly accessible to most people, and the music is pop-oriented enough to not alienate those who aren’t fans. It doesn’t mean it’s worse than hip-hop like Kendrick’s, it just means that it’s more accessible. And get used to it, Macklemore is heralding in a brand new front of rappers who will build upon his success.

So look at it this way: if we accept that Kendrick and similar artists will continue to be successful and make similar, incredible records, if we accept that the Grammys is hardly the best barometer for artistic merit, and if we allow for the supposition that Macklemore and his ilk make hip-hop more readily accepted by people who never thought they would listen to the genre in the first place, then we must pose the question: even if good kid, m.A.A.d. city is your favorite record of all time, is it such a bad thing that people like Macklemore are getting the trophy, if it means helping the genre as a whole?

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