Pay the Price
After huge success with his debut album, Macklemore got hit with a wave of backlash. His newest effort looks to prove to hip-hop why he's necessary.
Words: Kris Ex
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

If you’re White and reading this, you’d better be showing up for Black lives. It’s sad that —at this date in American history— this has to be pointed out, but it’s a necessity. It’s imperative that you, the White person who is invested enough in Black culture to be reading XXL—a brand built on the art, culture and work of predominately Black beings—understand that there are actual lives behind the music, language, fashion and dances that fuel your social media existence, power your memes and unlock your swag. If you’re generating any sort of income from hip-hop music—as a musician, performer, promoter, writer or candlestick maker—it’s incumbent on you to internalize that Black music is not just your personal jukebox. Black culture does not exist simply for your use as wardrobe, cosmetics kit and distraction. If you’re listening to Future, you should be investigating self-medication and depression in African-American communities. If you’re dabbing, you should be working to make connections to capoeira and other coded forms of physical expression created by displaced Africans. If you’re saying things like “wavy” and “on fleek,” you should educate yourselves on pit schools and the roots of African-American Vernacular English. If not, you’re part of the problem—even if you don’t know that the problem exists.

“For me right now in terms of showing up for Black lives is listening,” says Ben “Macklemore” Haggerty. It’s 11:15 p.m. where he’s at—somewhere in Europe in early March, taking care of his infant daughter while rehearsing for his upcoming tour in support of This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, the follow-up to 2012’s The Heist, the Grammy-winning, breakthrough album he released with his partner, Ryan Lewis.

“Thrift Shop.” “Can’t Hold Us.” “Same Love.” The Kendrick Lamar apology on Instagram. That guy. That album. Let’s not pretend that you’re coming into this conversation devoid of opinions on this matter. Let’s not pretend that many of you are only hate-reading this piece at this point, in order to say how racist the first paragraph was. Let’s not pretend that you weren’t hate-reading even before that point because it’s Macklemore. Let’s just not. Like this interview, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made begins pretty much in media res, with Macklemore attending an awards show with the players and story already in motion. In the hands of most musical acts, the experiences would be ecstatic highlights, but Macklemore fills the moments with regrets and rebellion. When he mentions that he’s seats away from Jay Z, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, he makes it sound like he’s been sent to the principal’s office.

Macklemore: Honestly that wasn’t my intention. I think award shows in general—and maybe it’s just me, particularly if you’re performing or up for an award—it’s an incredible amount of stress. You don’t get to do that performance over again, and you’re on national television. So going into the element and feeling that nervous energy backstage, it’s palpable. I’ve been sober for all the award shows I’ve been at, but I think that people do drugs and drink to get over that hump. Being sober in that environment is nerve-wracking and by the time I’m mentioning who I’m by, in my mind it’s not bad yet. It’s exciting. Not like, “Oh my God, now I have to sit next to these people.” No, this is exciting but you know what’s interesting about the whole thing is that there’s such a high level of insecurity at award shows. It’s hidden by the makeup. It’s hidden by the entourage, it’s hidden by the alcohol and drugs. It’s hidden by the camera angles but when you’re in that building, in the first 10 rows, you can feel that shit.

XXL: And you talk about all of that stuff in the song.

To me it’s like, “Can we talk about insecurities? Can we talk about anxiety?” I think that the general public doesn’t want us to be human. They don’t want us to tell you what it’s actually like: “I didn’t really want to get makeup on and they put makeup on me and now I feel orange.” If you actually tell the people that, then all of a sudden the mystique is gone, the allure is gone, the fantasy is gone. And for me to be able to admit that on record from certain things I’ve heard, like, “Macklemore is so this, or feels so guilty, or has anxiety, or whatever.” To me, it’s the exact opposite to be able to say that on a record because it’s the truth. People are telling you lies because the insecurity is easier to package than it is to actually tell the people what’s going on in our heads. It’s like: “Are we going to call out these institutions for what they are or are we going to continue to be sheep and not speak up?”

I was talking to your musical partner Ryan Lewis last year about icons versus people; how there are certain people you’ve been able to reach but you haven’t met the person, you’ve just met the icon. Given the amount of success you’ve had, you should be on the other side of that; you should not be making a song like “Brad Pitt’s Cousin.” How did you work to not become part of that world of icons?

You know, there’s been moments where I could go left or go right in terms of how my career goes—because how your career goes is often times how your life goes. It was a conscious choice to, like, [still] live three blocks away from where I grew up. I have the same car that I first got when I got pre-Heist money. And that’s not some humble brag shit, it’s just like those were life choices that I think equate to the person that I want to be. I’m much better rolling around Seattle or any other city with no security and my family, without a disguise on, not trying to hide anything. When all of a sudden I’m trying to duck through the airport and I have an entourage and I’m constantly worried about losing my spot, that’s when I become miserable. And I’ve been in those places. I’ve dipped my feet in that water and I didn’t like the way that it felt.

Check Out Exclusive Photos From Macklemore's XXL Feature 

The first-week sales for this album are being projected around 60,000, which is pretty low considering your last album’s success. [This Unruly Mess I’ve Made debuted at No. 4 on Billboard’s Top 200, with 61,000 units; 51,000 were pure album sales, the rest streaming equivalents.]

There’s a lot of contributing factors to that number. I think that we didn’t want to come out of the gate with singles. The strategy that we had around releasing this music wasn’t about sales. If it would’ve been about sales, I don’t think we would’ve put out a nine-minute song about White privilege and White supremacy five weeks out before the album drops. The reasoning for doing that had nothing to do with numbers. We wanted to give “White Privilege II” its own moment. That was more important than a set-up single and I think that the numbers are reflective of not having a set-up single, but I feel great about that honestly. You know, I’ve sold millions of records and been miserable. The album is a piece of music that I’m really proud of—a number doesn’t reflect that, a comma doesn’t reflect that, some zeroes don’t reflect that. I’ve been able to have [the album] out for a week and to honestly reflect on this last week and be truly fulfilled and happy.

You’re talking about this particular week and this moment in time as it is now and it’s interesting that right now, you know who’s No. 1 on the Hot Rap Songs and the Streaming Songs for Billboard?

No, who?

G-Eazy. But he’s not the lightning rod that you are. Why is there such a Macklemore backlash that a lot of other White rappers seem to escape?

I don’t think that I have it any worse than anybody else. I think that the backlash for us didn’t happen until we had No. 1 songs in the country. When we started selling millions of units, that’s when the backlash started. Up until that point, I didn’t feel the backlash at all. I’d say The Heist, if you look back at the reviews from the hip-hop sources, everyone was reviewing it positively pretty much across the board. I didn’t feel that backlash probably until “Thrift Shop” had sold, you know, maybe two million copies.

That’s usually the crossover mark for an artist, isn’t it?

Right, right. I think that at a certain point, our brand eclipsed the music and what we represented to the world was not defined by the art that we made but what our impression was in terms of the media.

This album feels like it’s defined by earnestness and process, but it’s not a grand statement on process. It’s not a finished thought about process or a mess about process, and it sort of becomes this thing that is somewhere in between the two, where it’s not quite a finished statement but it’s not that raw material mess. How do you do that as a writer? What are the techniques or the tools of conversation that allow you to be like, “Let me share, let me pull back to a certain degree, not an oversharing degree, but to a degree that allows people in but stops before I get to the point where ‘here’s my thought on it?’”

I think each song is different, but in general, it’s always been my style of writing to like, “Okay, let me actually take inventory and figure out how I feel about this issue or walk you through this experience as a storyteller.” And not to tell you how to feel necessarily, maybe not tell you my own conclusion, maybe have it be a question mark. I think in terms of “White Privilege II,” it was really important to walk the listener through my experience on that night [of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the killing of Mike Brown], which was a very pivotal turning point. But the messiness that is race relations in America, that always has been extremely messy, is one I don’t feel my work in terms of being an anti-racist organizer is to the point where I can start giving it out like, “Okay, White people, this is what we need to do.” I’m not at that point yet.

So what can White people do to show up for Black lives?

I can really only speak for myself. What I hope is that [“White Privilege II”] is and will always just be a song. What we have known from the very beginning is that the song is not going to be the end all be all of whether this is successful. It’s what we do from here. It’s how we show up and how we engage with community. It’s how we create spaces of where there's numerous different types of people in the room. We live in a culture and world where it’s easier to point the finger at somebody else and tell them what they’re doing wrong than looking at ourselves and asking, “What are we doing?” For me, right now, in terms of showing up for Black lives is listening. It’s using the resources that I have and that—be it a platform, be it a stage, be it financial resources—creating conversations, having conversations with people that are at the forefront of the movement that have been organizing for much longer than me. It’s stepping into those spaces and listening and yet also, organizing White people and having conversation. We have to actually truly educate ourselves on the history and know what White privilege is and know where it started; know that this is not just like a theory but this is coming from a long lineage of false belief acted out through laws that Whiteness is superior. It’s always easier to talk about the drama than it is to talk about the true issues of what I was attempting to say with that record.

Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2016 issue including Big Sean's cover story, the Letter from the Editor and more.

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