The Seattle-based hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have long had a sharp ear for progressive politics — sharper, it might be said, than their actual musical instincts. And last week, their work may have reached its apotheosis in the release of “White Privilege II.” It’s a song intended to capture the political moment in the United States. But it’s also a perfect illustration of an emerging pop culture market, one where political compliance is valued more highly than artistic transcendence.
“White Privilege II” is not a particularly listenable song. At 8 minutes and 42 seconds, it’s capacious, but Macklemore and Lewis’s ambitions don’t quite live up to the scale of the track. As “White Privilege II” meanders between Macklemore’s rapping, clips that sound excerpted from man-on-the-street interviews about Black Lives Matter protests and police shootings, and Jamila Woods’s singing, it sounds like a collection of vignettes, rather than a cohesive song that builds in any particular direction. The lulls in the track sound more like the artists are regrouping than organic pauses for contemplation.
It’s striking to compare “White Privilege II” to “Hell You Talmbout,” a reworking of a song by the same name from Janelle Monáe’s 2013 album, “The Electric Lady.” “Hell You Talmbout,” in its new iteration, is 6 minutes and 38 seconds long: It’s no pop trinket. And while Monáe brought her colleagues on her Wondaland label — Deep Cotton, St. Beauty, Jidenna, Roman GianArthur and George 2.0 — onto the song, it’s carved down to the bones, a spare drum arrangement and repeated calls to say the names of people killed by police. But it feels fuller and more cohesive than “White Privilege II”; “Hell You Talmbout” builds, where “White Privilege II” meanders off.
Plenty of the people who are urging folks to listen to “White Privilege II” acknowledge the artistic limitations of the song. “As often is the case with Macklemore’s music, the biggest problem here is his mediocre talent,” notes the New Republic’s Jamil Smith. In a piece for Pitchfork titled “Macklemore’s ‘White Privilege II’ Is a Mess, But We Should Talk About It,” Kris Ex writes that “it’s hard to tell if this thing succeeds as a piece of music.” GQ’s Joshua Rivera suggests that “sonically, as far as rap tracks — even Macklemore rap tracks — go, it suffers from terrible bloat and stilted rhythmic shifts barely held together by Ryan Lewis’ production. But it’s still worth talking about.”
All these pieces are premised on the idea that there’s something politically valuable to be extracted from Macklemore’s tortured musings about his position within hip-hop and his desire to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
“White Privilege II” is defined by a pervasive sense of guilt. Describing attending a Black Lives Matter march, Macklemore wonders “Is this awkward?/Should I even be here marching?” and wonders “Is it okay for me to say?” the signal chant of the movement. In a second verse, he speaks from the perspective of a critic, excoriating himself for having “heisted the magic” and declaring his music “fascist and backwards” — but it’s not as though Macklemore is announcing his retirement, ceding the culture he suggests that he has appropriated back to its original practitioners. At another moment, he reflects uncomfortably on the perspective of white fans who embrace his music as positive and constructive while rejecting the work of black rappers, even as “White Privilege II” is a track designed to appeal to precisely those listeners.
And finally, in an interstitial section, a voice declares that “the best thing white people can do is talk to each other, having those very difficult, very painful conversations with your parents, with your family members. — I think one of the critical questions for white people in this society is, ‘What are you willing to risk? What are you willing to sacrifice to create a more just society?’ ” Notably, those questions go unanswered.
I should note that I don’t have particular doubts that Macklemore and Lewis are sincere: Macklemore is clearly open to conversations with his critics and leaders of the movements he suggests he wants to support. The pair used the song’s release to call attention to a group of organizations “whose work inspires and informs us.” And plenty of the sentiments in the song have merit and are genuinely worthy of discussion.
But “White Privilege II” is the clear product of a moment in mass culture when expressing certain political ideas can elevate work that wouldn’t be deemed worthy or significant on its artistic merits, and other ideas turn critics off from work they find masterful but ugly.
I’m all for more consideration of art’s actual ideas; my entire career is based on the idea that the politics of art deserve to be taken seriously because music, film and television are such powerful forms of communication. But these conversations are most interesting when they’re disruptive rather than compliance-oriented; when a piece of art proposes an idea that’s unspeakable given the limits of our political discourse; or when the powerful aesthetic qualities of a piece of art force us to reckon with our attraction to thoughts or images we’d reject if phrased in plain language. Art’s much more interesting, both as aesthetics and politics, when it’s unnerving.
And for all that “White Privilege II” is posed as a disruptive statement, it’s very neatly aligned with widespread thinking on everything from the role of white artists in a historically black medium to the discomfort white allies might feel in black-led protest movements. Judging by the reaction to the song when it was released, this is a position that’s at least as valuable for garnering media coverage as it is for making change. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis may have been uniquely adept at spotting the opportunity at the intersection of a rising left-leaning critique of pop culture and what makes people click on online news stories. But I doubt they’ll be the last.