MUSIC JANUARY 27, 2014
For rap fans, the premiere match-up of the 56th Grammy Awards was between Macklemore, of infinitely played-out "Thrift Shop" fame, versus Kendrick Lamar, whose major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, cemented a landmark narrative within the genre, frequently compared to Nas's '94 classic, Illmatic. Radio Disney bop-fun versus nihilistic, sex-fueled correspondence from the wrong boulevard in Compton, California—guess which LP the Grammys voters preferred?
On all comparable counts—Best New Artist, Best Rap Album, Best Rap Song, and Best Rap Performance—the tall blonde from Seattle's crunchy rap scene, last spotted in a fur coat swagger-jacked from Christopher Nolan's Bane, bested the in-genre favorite on Sunday night. Cue the tweets and the fury. Even Macklemore agreed that Lamar was "robbed."
It goes without belaboring that the voting committee convened by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences likely isn't too fluent or fond of rap. You know who loved "Thrift Shop"? Middle-class children, a.k.a. the kids of the Recording Academy. Meanwhile, his homophobe-hating track "Same Love," which was up for Song of the Year, checked the tolerance box of coastal media sensibilities that, to some extent, rewarded pandering with accolades. Macklemore's coup is part of a long tradition of Grammy snubs in favor of safe picks: Young MC beats De La Soul, Lupe Fiasco's debut loses to a Ludacris album that no one remembers, Nas loses all 13 Grammy nominations of his 19-year career.
Several activists and journos have moderated Twitter discussion of the upset. A common theme of Macklemore wariness is hyper-scrutiny of the messenger, rather regardless of his message. Appropriation fears abound. Macklemore is a straight white male emcee who, as such, has no business beating Lamar to the bathroom, much less to the podium. Tuesday morning, for instance, BuzzFeed's Ayesha Siddiqi tweeted, "if Macklemore is so self aware then he needs to stop pandering w apologetic screenshots of 'private' texts and start bowing out." Oh, so that's how lifelong artistic commitment works.
That Macklemore writes and performs so explicitly as a progressive—in support of marriage equality, against structural inequalities, and in lengthy examination of privilege—has created a strange feedback loop in which rap-illiterate critics laud Macklemore's politics, and rap fans resent him all the more for invoking this trump card. Or they resent his "mediocrity" in the literary context of a Kendrick Lamar—ignoring that Macklemore isn't trying to be Lamar, and he shouldn't have to be. Writing for VICE last year, Brooklyn producer Skinny Friedman declared: "Don't Kid Yourself: Macklemore's Edgy Politics Are Not Edgy." Fine, that's true, but who sold you the lie in the first place? Did Macklemore? Or did VICE? It's media, more than Macklemore himself, that have hoisted him as a liberal-activist here to save hip hop from bling and gay-bashing.
But this is Twitter, so a day later, the fury resides. Mostly. "Awards shows don't matter," sings the resigned chorus. What's infuriating to so many fans across genres is that awards shows do matter, and that's quite why we loathe them. Each year, either the Recording Academy is either validating our tastes or proving that we're old and/or out of touch. If you really don't care, then calm down. Don't worry. They'll ruin music next year, too.