There are many ways of looking at and thinking about Mackelmore’s new single, the eight-minute-and-46-second goulash of narcissism, activism, self-indictment, and provocative zeitgeist-fingering entitled “White Privilege II,” which came out late last night. One of them, by Nikkita Oliver (who collaborated on the track), is a couple posts down from here. You should read it. Then, here are 20 more:
1) Bold choice on several levels.
2) Admirably self-critical.
3) Less admirably self-obsessed.
4) The song’s extrapolated structure consists some rapping (including an extended a cappella bit), gospel-style backing vocals and pleasing jazz instrumentation (local eminences Hollis Wong-Wear, Ahamefule J. Oluo, D’vonne Lewis, Evan Flory-Barnes, Dustin Washington, Martin Freidman, make appearances, as does Chicago's Jamila Woods and many others listed here), lots of sound effects, several chunks of audio collage meant to sound documentary in the vein of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Voices of Old People”—people talking shit, people speaking truth—though I would not be shocked to learn they were scripted (also like "Voices of Old People," apparently), and two refrains— “Blood in the streets/no justice, no peace” and “your silence is a luxury/hiphop is not a luxury”—that are less like anthems and more like billboards advertising the artist’s stance on social issues.
5) It's impossible not to hear this as an answer to Raz Simone's "Macklemore and Chief Keef," in which Simone basically dares Macklemore to mention Black Lives Matter, at the risk of "losing half your demograph." Given the specific tenor of Macklemore’s success, both in terms of Seattle hiphop and of hiphop itself, this is appropriate.
6) Appropriate has zero to do with art. This is why most art that leads with activism is the opposite of art and the opposite of education: propaganda. It’s undeniably admirable for a famous pop music figure to use his/her work to foreground a social issue. But it’s not an artist’s job to be admirable, and I can't think of another song that has taken a knee and extended its hand in such a brazen effort to be approved of.
7) The bit in the middle, where Macklemore ventriloquizes a typical interaction with a bougie white Seattle fan—“my oldest? You even got him to go thrifting”—is next-level self-referential, to the point of compulsion, really. Also: medium funny, which, in the context of this song, brings welcome levity.
8) The premise of the song is that it springs straight from the artist’s guilty conscience, which is an unusual, though not unheard of conceit in popular music. The closest analogy to “White Privilege II” is not a hiphop track. It’s George Michael’s “Freedom ’90,” in which the artist indicts his own past success, and nakedly begs his audience to please let him stay famous now that he understands his former trespasses. Though Black Lives Matter and cultural appropriation are the song’s literal subjects, its subtext is 100% that fame destroys people’s capacity to think about anything other than what people think about them.
9) Cf. “A Quick One While He’s Away” by the Who, “Blood on the Leaves” by Kanye West, “No Vaseline” by Ice Cube, “Blackstar” by David Bowie, “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley and LL Cool J, “Guilty of Being White” by Minor Threat , “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone, "Macklemore and Chief Keef" and "Drake & Macklemore's Platform" and "Same Problems" by Raz Simone, "Field Commander Cohen" by Leonard Cohen, "Sweet Smog Children" by Smog, "History Lesson" parts 1 & 2 by Minutemen. Addendum: "Give Me Back My Shit (Then We Might Get Along)" by Ahamefule J. Oluo.
10) The song is so unwieldy that Macklemore occasionally has to step in to summarize it (“Damn, a lot of opinions, a lot of confusion, a lot of resentment…”). This a semi-comic reminder that rappers used to be called MCs. It’s also the source of lecturing, hectoring didacticism that further reinforces the idea that the artist thinks his role is to provide wisdom to a mass audience. “It seems like we’re more concerned with being called racist/than with racism” is an undeniable statement. It’s also the most aesthetically bankrupt bit of the song. Does he really imagine a white person hearing that and being like “hmmm… maybe he has a point”? This is the fallout of social media writ large: people substituting banal truisms for reflection or “courage” for risk.
11) But then again, what about that nine-year-old in Sheboygan whose parents talk about Sandra Bland like she must have done something to deserve whatever she got? What about him hearing these lines and being exposed for the first time to the idea that white privilege/supremacy has built a shelter for all of us who benefit from it that’s so large we mistake it for the whole world. What about the seed the song plants, the realizations that begin to take root in his consciousness from that point forward every time his friends make a racist joke, or his dad defends a cop who kills an unarmed black teenager? What about the progressive young person he becomes, all the selfless work he does to advance the consciousness he has gained, all the racist minds he will change, all the good he could do if only some righteous (but, you know, humble) white rapper can expose him to the light of his own culpability? You can’t leave that kid out of the equation when thinking about this song, because that kid is almost certainly the target audience of this song, just as moderately homophobic swing voters were the target of “Same Love.”
12) Changed minds are well and good, but there is a huge degree to which this song is not aimed at racist whites. For all its putative introspection, “White Privilege II” is, like many public declarations of solidarity and ally-dom made by white people, deeply cynical, and essentially hollow—an effort to seem like something, as opposed to being it. It has one foot in the same weird gloaming in which white people calling out cultural appropriation is in itself an act of cultural appropriation.
13) Then again, the symbolic value of a famous white rapper using his platform to talk about the advantages his race has provided him is significant.
14) Then again, a a good song is more important, more valuable, more effective, more meaningful than a significant symbolic gesture, any day.
15) Then again, any public conversation about this subject must be valuable.
16) Then again, public mention of this subject doesn’t constitute a conversation.
17) To hear “White Privilege II” you would think that every conversation about white privilege is basically a coded reference to Macklemore.
18) At least in Seattle, a remarkable number of conversations about white privilege ARE in fact uncoded references to Macklemore, so why shouldn’t he put himself at the center of the narrative (as well as on all other points around its circumference)? Self-involvement is the most honest element of “White Privilege II.”
19) That very honesty is the most self-incriminating element of “White Privilege II,” which, for all its positive intention, makes the same fundamental lapse so many of us do when talking about this subject: It focuses on the white experience of having feelings about the black experience rather than on the immensity of the black experience itself. This is, to some extent unavoidable, I suppose—it’d surely have be worse if he had attempted to speak from a black perspective. But there is a degree of hand-wringing in this song that, after fifth, sixth, seventh minute you’re like “OKAY! YOU’RE CONFLICTED! I GET IT! ENOUGH ABOUT YOU ALREADY” And conflicted is the correct thing to be. And finding a way to channel that conflict into music is the correct choice for a committed artist to make. But again: Correct doesn't make it art. (That doesn’t mean incorrect does, by the way.) The song pre-supposes that the world not only needs but wants to know what Macklemore has to say for himself. And it isn’t wrong to pre-suppose at least one of those things, but STILL. I just wish it didn’t sound so much like he was rapping directly into a gigantic mirror, rehearsing his contrition for being a white rapper whose success has outdistanced that of so many worthy black artists. Again, contrite in this context is correct. But it’s also cloying. But it’s also the best he can do. But it’s also a mess. But it’s also inspired. But it’s also ludicrous. But it’s also “brave.” But it’s also craven. But it’s also completely insane. But it’s also indescribably calculated.
20) “White Privilege II” is the most accurate musical reflection of the soul of white liberal Seattle I have ever heard. And, speaking both as an exponent of and disgrace to that benighted caste, I will almost definitely never listen to it again, at least not on purpose.