Last night Macklemore and Ryan Lewis quietly released the third offering from their forthcoming This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, follow-up to 2012’s platinum-selling The Heist. Titled “White Privilege II,” the song is a nine-minute exploration of Macklemore’s ascent to fame as a white artist in a predominately black art form and the cultural ramifications of that in the midst of the current police brutality protest movement. In it, Macklemore describes a feeling of alienation as a white male at a Black Lives Matter protest and his dismay when parents of white fans commend his messages at the expense of his African American peers. It closes offering a challenge to the artist and his listeners to reach out and engage each other in prickly conversations about race and privilege. Though the song serves as a sequel to the Seattle rapper’s own 2005 cut about white artists gentrifying hip-hop without carrying any of the societal stigma, it most resembles uncomfortably introspective Eminem tracks like “White America” in its weary look at what it’s like to be scores of white teens’ only tenuous connection to music born in the black and Latin inner city.
“White Privilege II” immediately sparked a deep dialogue among activists, social justice enthusiasts, music critics, and rap fans about what the Black Lives Matter movement gains from the song versus what Macklemore stands to gain from looking gratifyingly self-aware for creating it. Many viewed Macklemore’s gesture through a lens of suspicion; the same rapper netted buckets of cash and coveted award season acclaim in 2013 for The Heist’s anti-bling trifle “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love,” a song questioning hip-hop’s lingering homophobia problem that was roundly criticized for being didactic and pandering. Noted black feminist Mikki Kendall took the rapper to task, remarking that “White Privilege II” is a safe, self-serving move that doesn’t provide solutions for black America's ills. “I’m black,” writer and media personality JasFly quipped. “I can sit out the part where the white guy explains privilege to the white people.” “Does it go far enough?” Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson asked. “Perhaps not. But I’ll never accept that changing minds is not disruptive.”
Others responded with humor. MTV News’s David Turner: “How are the kids supposed to ‘Hit the Quan’ to ‘White Privilege II’?” Vulture editor Ira Madison III: “This new Macklemore song is like if you turned Matt McGorry tweets into an off-Broadway Hamilton knockoff.” VICE’s own Mitchell Sunderland: “Nothing says white privilege like Macklemore releasing a nine-minute song about Black Lives Matter.” Writer and podcaster Jensen Karp: “Macklemore’s review of the movie Crash is pretty intense.” It speaks to the residual bad taste left from Macklemore’s mammoth, poppy chart smashes, award season traction, and patronizing, publicized text to Kendrick Lamar apologizing for beating out good kid, m.A.A.d city at the Grammys that people would knee jerk reject “White Privilege II,” or at least smell a whiff of disingenuous grandstanding in it. (It speaks to the pulse of the music blog economy that many would reduce the message to beef headlines after hearing the rapper castigate himself, Iggy Azalea, and Miley Cyrus for mining black culture wihtout giving enough back.) We’re within our rights to question Macklemore’s intentions and snark about the extreme navel-gazing at play here, but anyone paying cursory attention to his trajectory over the last year, even, can see him trying to pivot and use his colossal platform for good.
The first inkling Macklemore had begun to think about his fame and its attendant obligations differently came in a lengthy late 2014 interview at New York rap radio station Hot 97’s Ebro in the Morning, where he returned from a lengthy vacation to get candid about white success and black erasure in hip-hop. “Downtown,” last fall’s big Macklemore and Ryan Lewis comeback single, proofed itself from these criticisms by giving shine to old school hip-hop veterans Kool Moe Dee, Melle Mel, and Grandmaster Caz. The follow-up, “Kevin,” called in Texas soul singer Leon Bridges to touch on pharmaceutical dependence and mental illness. There is the sense that Macklemore is torching his pop radio cachet in refusing to deliver a “Thrift Shop” or “Can’t Hold Us” styled heatseeker, that he’s using his fame as a disruptive element, spooning knotty sociopolitical screeds down the throats of listeners who might’ve only come to pop more tags. After a year where we saw T.I. deliver a spoken word performance declaring social media activism futile and RZA rep “All Lives Matter,” this should be refreshing.
The logistical woes that bar “White Privilege II” from an easy reception—that it’s being commended more for message than musicality, that it’s been taken more seriously for coming from a white writer’s voice than it would’ve out of a black one, and that it’s heavy on ideology but light on actionable solutions—deserve examining. At nine minutes, it is an unwieldy construct. The lengthy vignette in the middle, where Macklemore pantomimes a conversation with a white mom who stops him for an autograph before trashing hip-hop culture at large and praising him as One of the Good Ones as someone plunks out a variation on “Chopsticks” on piano underfoot, makes for a somewhat forbidding listen. “White Privilege II” might make a better documentary than a song: It’s puzzling why a track shot through with Black Lives Matter protest audio and testimonials from blue collar whites balking at the idea of privilege didn’t arrive with an arresting visual to tie it all together. The performance is heartfelt, but as music, the song is a mountain hike.
The deeper reservation about “WPII” rewarding white soul searching above pained black art is a serious allegation, but a sort of strange one. Coming off a wonderful year of challenging black art that swam in acclaim, engrossing ideological debate, and, in the case of Kendrick Lamar’s titan of a sophomore retail album To Pimp a Butterfly, respectable record sales and album of the year accolades, worrying that Macklemore will get credit for pushing the dial on matters of black sociopolitical interest seems odd. In 2016, Macklemore is not driving the conversation about race. He is attempting to push an existing dialogue out into territories a To Pimp a Butterfly can’t reach. We want white allies having these conversations in our absence. We need a Mac Miller questioning white fans' commitment to Black Lives Matter. We need woke ones out of mixed company challenging aunties and cousins to check their privilege.
Concern from DeRay and others about Macklemore’s endgame in his urge for white allies to speak out about racial inequality illuminates the greatest flaw of “WPII” as a possible galvanizing force for change. It appears to stop at just getting people talking about the issues, hardly a salient solution to a nearly five hundred year old American evil. But the business of a protest song has rarely been to offer specific actionable legislation. CSNY’s “Ohio” didn’t give instructions on how to respond to the Kent State shooting that inspired its creation. Kendrick’s “The Blacker the Berry” doesn’t rattle off phone numbers to local government officials. Good protest music sets the mood for action, puts a pep in the step of the weary protester, electrifies a moment in history. Though the song is short on solutions, the website hosting “WPII” provides contact information for four black-led organizations actually doing the grunt work in enacting change on a local level and lists activist collaborators who assisted in the recording of the song. That helps!
Macklemore rubs people the wrong way often for good reason. But using the occasion of him actively working to be a good ally as a launch pad for airing old grievances about “Thrift Shop” is wasted energy. His audience sits on the outer edge of our ideological reach. Regardless of how “White Privilege II” holds up as music, what Macklemore’s personal intentions are in releasing it to the public, or even what money and awards he might stand to collect from the enterprise, it’s important for his base of listeners to receive this message. Change is bumpy, and cohabitation requires understanding and patience. “White Privilege II” is a lot to deal with and somehow not nearly enough, but the alternative, rappers like Iggy Azalea, who seem crystalline in their cluelessness to the racial machinations of the world around them, continuing to subvert black artistry in black spaces without addressing black pain or black death, is untenable. Better “White Privilege II” than “Thrift Shop II.” Let it rock.