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In Defense of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

NBC Universal

While Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have finally gone platinum with their album ‘The Heist,’ the duo is receiving fierce criticism. But the platinum certification is something hip-hop should appreciate and not vehemently reject.

This milestone follows the group’s wildly successful showing during the  2013 MTV Video Music Awards and their recent performance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The commercial success of the album is due to the album’s hit singles. At this point, ‘Thrift Shop’ and ‘Can’t Hold Us’ have topped the Billboard charts, while a third single, ‘Same Love,’ has peaked at #11. At the VMAs, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won awards for Best Hip-Hop Video, Best Video With A Social Message and Best Cinematography.

Most of the online dialogue following the VMAs has revolved around Miley Cyrus, but Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ success has sparked intense criticism. From a musical aspect, they have been accused of making “Wedding Rap. Bar Mitzvah Rap. Rap for people that don’t actually like rap.” From a sociological perspective, both ‘Thrift Shop’ and ‘Same Love’ have been slammed as statements of privilege. The latter song, which speaks on the issue of gay rights in America, has been criticized by members of the LGBT community, including the rapper Le1f. For Le1f and other critics, ‘Same Love’ is exploitative.

These concerns have some validity but are Macklemore and Ryan Lewis really bad for hip-hop?

The biggest misconception about the Seattle duo is that their success has been instantaneous, the result of an exploited gimmick. For Macklemore, this couldn’t be further from the truth. As a solo rapper under the moniker of Professor Macklemore, he has released music dating back to 2000. And as evident from songs such as ‘Welcome to the Culture,’ he has always focused on making music promoting positivity and shunning hip-hop’s traditional tropes.

Meanwhile, as a duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have been releasing music since 2009. ‘Can’t Hold Us’ originally came out in 2011. The video for ‘Same Love’ was released almost a year ago with little media fanfare.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are successful ambassadors for the DIY movement in hip-hop music. The duo cultivated their fan base from the ground up by touring the country consistently, opening up for other Seattle acts such as Blue Scholars. In early 2011, they raised $18,000 from their fans for a Kickstarter campaign for a music video in a span of three weeks. ‘The Heist’ itself went number one on the Billboard charts at a time when none of the singles had reached terrestrial radio, while being put out through Macklemore LLC. The distributor of the album and the singles, the Alternative Distribution Alliance, is responsible for putting out the releases of Rhymesayers Entertainment, a pillar of the independent hip-hop scene.

With each accolade and award show victory, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis challenge the long accepted notion that major label marketing budgets are required to become a mainstream superstar, or that to win awards from MTV or BET one has to sign away portions of their merchandising and touring rights in a 360 record deal. Most importantly, the duo has been able to succeed without sacrificing their artistic integrity.

From a musical standpoint, Macklemore may lose points for occasionally veering into the spoken word lane with his rhymes, however he’s redeemed by his uncanny storytelling skill and his ability to remain focused on a concept from the beginning to the end of a song. Maybe his music is not “cool,” by certain critics standards but the reality is that hip-hop, especially hip-hop media, has co-signed and embraced much worse. Meanwhile, there is no denying the brilliant production work of Lewis, whose music sounds like no other producers’ work right now.

Some would argue that there are better predecessors of Macklemore’s style, with Atmosphere being the most notable name cited. And while Atmosphere is an incredible, pioneering group, one cannot rewrite history to bring them back into prominence in the present era. Besides, their music is simply not as mainstream accessible.

When it comes to politics, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are not a revolutionary rap group nor do they claim to be. ‘Same Love’ may be a “message record,” but it’s a passing phase in a career that also includes catchy numbers like ‘Can’t Hold Us.’ But the group has never declared itself as the torchbearer for gay rights in hip-hop. That mantle has been thrown on them by those such as Ellen Degeneres, who are not a part of the hip-hop community. In that sense, their opinion does not matter. ‘Same Love’ should be accepted for what it is: a song that expresses an opinion seldom expressed in hip-hop. In the meantime, we need artists like Le1f to continue to expand that dialogue and represent the community.

The success of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis should be embraced within hip-hop just as much as it is in the pop world. Their vision, style, and substance places them in a unique lane within the genre that challenges conventional notions about what hip-hop should be without chopping down the culture’s roots. And for independent artists on the come up, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis should not be a source of jealous hatred. The duo has laid down a blueprint to success that should be studied and emulated (not replicated) for years to come.

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