Macklemore is a pop star so famous, he’s now a hairstyle. Shave the sides to a sand-papery stubble, comb back the top and whoosh, you’ve been Macklemored.
Last year, few would have made this guy out to be America’s next rap superstar — which gave the 30-year-old Seattle native’s Monday-night performance at a half-full Verizon Center an air of triumph. It also posed a few bumpy questions about race, privilege and American pop music.
The spirited 14-song set featured his DJ-producer Ryan Lewis and a cast of previously unknown collaborators who helped make the duo’s 2012 album, “The Heist,” one of this year’s biggest platinum-selling surprises. Center stage: a tank-topped white dude rhyming about against-the-odds rap dreams that somehow came true.
“I spent the afternoon at Obama’s house!” Macklemore bragged early in the set. “Today has been awesome!”
He and Lewis are having a big year at a time when commercial hip-hop has rarely felt more multifarious. Rappers currently competing for turf on the Billboard Hot 100 chart include Drake, a grown-up Canadian teen actor; Trinidad James, a Macklemore fan who raps about aspirational goods made of gold; Jay-Z, a 1-percenter who raps about aspirational goods made of oil paint; Eminem, the world’s angriest 41-year-old multimillionaire; and Nicki Minaj, a woman. Swap out the word “rappers” for “artists who occasionally rap” and the list grows to include Miley Cyrus, Ke$ha, country singer Luke Bryan and a cast of others.
And coming in at No. 39 this week is Macklemore and Lewis’s “White Walls,” an ode to vintage Cadillacs. It appeared in slightly truncated form at Monday night’s gig, but in the space of a few moments, Macklemore managed to show his prowess as a verbal technician and an all-around affable guy. “I’m rolling in that same whip that my granddad had,” he boasted before punching the gas pedal, rhyming in a double-time staccato that could be traced back to Busta Rhymes.
The song’s shabby-chic ethos echoed the sentiment of the duo’s inescapable “Thrift Shop,” a mega-hit that the Verizon Center audience could have shouted along to even if the lyrics weren’t splayed across a giant LED screen.
The song’s unexpected ascent earlier this year proved that a blond bro with a Goodwill wardrobe could scold hip-hop’s materialism all the way to the top of the charts. And does an outsider have the right to critique hip-hop in the first place?
He seems acutely aware of white privilege. Check out the song “White Privilege” from his 2005 album: “I give everything I have when I write a rhyme/But that doesn’t change the fact that this culture’s not mine.”
But Macklemore didn’t do that one on Monday — which was too bad, considering how many momentum-sucking minutes were spent on long stretches of well-intentioned stage banter about his struggles with addiction and his crusade for equality.
“If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me,” he rapped on “Same Love,” a recent single that didn’t climb quite as high as “Thrift Shop” but has become a highly radio-friendly anthem for gay rights. Its message is righteous, but it spawns more questions about the messenger. Why is the discussion on hip-hop’s homophobia being led by a white heterosexual male? And what about Macklemore’s audience? Would “Same Love” have been as huge a hit if it were rapped by a gay man? Or a woman? Or a minority? Easy to wonder, hard to say.
And at Verizon Center on Monday night, those questions felt somewhat moot. Before the song, Macklemore introduced two male fans, partners of 16 years. One got down on one knee to propose. The other said yes. The audience went bonkers before the song even started.
But when Macklemore wasn’t a golden-hearted do-gooder, he was a goofball, performing a segment of his encore in an alter ego that required a sequined cape and a heavy metal wig. “Take my hand,” he shouted during the refrain of “And We Danced.” “Let’s have a blast and remember this moment for the rest of our lives.”
It was far from unforgettable, but it strangely made hip-hop feel more vast than ever. When the game gets bigger, there are more ways to play.