One of the most canny moves Macklemore made in releasing his new song “White Privilege II” was settling on that title. In case anyone’s forgotten, the title subtly reminds us, Macklemore’s been rapping about structural racism since he released the original “White Privilege” way back on his 2005 debut album.
In other words, this isn’t Ben Hegarty’s first trip around the block, and many who rush to dismiss this thinkpiece-as-pop-song might not be giving him enough credit. In fact, the song has already been widely misrepresented, in the rush to summarize it in headlines and tweets and soundbites, so if you care about understanding the guy (and given the offenses to justice and good musical taste that he’s perpetuated, it’s totally OK with me if you don’t), you’re going to have to understand the whole song. Yes, all nine minutes of it. (It’s 1,300 words, and I’ll try to summarize it in less than that here.)
The biggest mistake early reactions to the song have made, pretty consistently, is assuming that everything Macklemore raps is in his own voice. The song’s first verse is Macklemore himself, taking us inside his head as he feels unsure about his role at a Black Lives Matter protest. But the second verse zooms out to give a larger perspective, starting with Macklemore delivering the case against himself, in the voice of his critics. The many, many headlines that trumpet how Macklemore “calls out,” “comes for,” and “slams” Iggy Azalea and Miley Cyrus on this verse miss the larger point, which is that his real target here is himself. (Note the choice of words when he tells himself, “You’re Miley, you’re Elvis, you’re Iggy Azalea/ Fake and so plastic, you’ve heisted the magic,” with a reference to the name of his Grammy-stealing breakout album.) Azalea, who responded on Twitter, seems to have missed the point, too. It’s not about you, Iggy.
The third verse whips the camera around, to turn it on Macklemore’s more ignorant fans, as he raps from their perspective. Specifically, he takes on the voice of an “old mom” who asks to take a selfie with Macklemore, praising him at the expense of the rest of hip-hop, which she backhandedly slanders. Ironically, this seems to so far have been lost on many of those same ignorant fans, judging by these annotations already up on Genius:
It’s worth pausing here to consider how much Macklemore might be responsible for the ignorance of fans like this “old mom” and the Genius annotators above. After all, this is the same guy who elevated himself at the expense of the rest of hip-hop. Never forget that he rapped, on one of his most famous songs, “If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me,” citing “the YouTube comments”—which is like saying that Stravinsky was a barbarian because “Did you see the reaction at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées?” Inadvertently or not, he let fans go on with the hateful misconception that he was the only kind of rapper who would speak out against homophobia. (On the original “White Privilege,” he was more clear that the reason he doesn’t rap about guns isn’t because he’s more “conscious,” but “’cause I wasn’t forced into the projects.”)
On the other hand, the best way for Macklemore to counteract this kind of ignorance is to educate these same fans, which is exactly what he aims to do in the fourth verse. “If I’m the hero,” he raps, “you know who gets cast as the villain,” before reemphasizing, “My success is the product of the same system that let off Darren Wilson guilty.” Sure enough, some of those Genius annotations I screengrabbed above are already starting to change, and in the end this song should do more good than ill. Because of this, you might forgive the fact that his delivery is still leaden and his rhymes are still clumsy, though I’m not sure I can. (Seriously, most of them aren’t rhymes at all: Just taking the first six lines of that same verse as a random sample, they “rhyme” resentment, defensive, attention, racist, racism, and passive. If you can chart out the rhyme scheme there, you’re smarter than me.)
In the end, the best thing Macklemore does is giving Black Lives Matter protesters (along with up-and-coming singer Jamila Woods) the last word. “The best thing white people can do is talk to each other,” one voice says. With this song, Macklemore is talking to his more ignorant fans, doing his part to help them start to sort things out. He still might not be a great rapper, but by learning to amplify the voices of others over his own, he’s becoming a better ally.