With his sweep in the Grammys’ rap categories on Sunday, Macklemore is facing the requisite amount of internet backlash. The main complaints against him are that his pro-gay anthem “Same Love” is pandering and focuses too much on Macklemore’s heterosexuality, and that his wins (and subsequent apology) are emblematic of white privilege.
These debates will rage on — as they should, frankly. When a straight white man becomes the voice for marriage equality and the most celebrated artist in a music genre founded in black culture, that’s something worth dissecting and challenging. At the same time, there is one criticism of Macklemore that seems off the mark to me: that his message is insincere. As Slate’s Jack Hamilton puts it, he’s “a man hawking hip-hop that switches out faked emotion for real intellect and faked intellect for real emotion and has no discernible goals other than to congratulate its makers for making it and its listeners for purchasing it.”
While I understand the backlash against “Same Love” in particular, I have always defended the song for having its heart in the right place. Of course Macklemore focuses on his experiences as a straight man — anything else would be disingenuous, and the fact that many LGBT people have adopted it as a rallying cry for equality isn’t on the artist. That aside, Macklemore’s sincerity should not be under fire. Some of his best work is his most honest and those are the songs that document his struggles with addiction: the gripping “Otherside,” from the 2010 VS. Redux EP, and the painful admission of relapse that is “Starting Over,” from his now Grammy-winning 2012 debut album The Heist.
Fans of Macklemore, especially those who jumped onboard before “Thrift Shop” snuck its way onto every radio station, know about his history of drug abuse and recovery. And there is a relentless confessional quality to “Otherside.” This is not Macklemore pandering to addicts, in treatment or otherwise, but rather a purging of his soul.
Broken, hopeless, headed nowhere
Only motivation for what the dealer’s supplying
That rush, that drug, that dope
Those pills, that crumb, that roach
Thinkin’ I would never do that, not that drug
And growing up nobody ever does
Until you’re stuck, lookin’ in the mirror like I can’t believe what I’ve become
Swore I was goin’ to be someone
Being open about addiction is a tricky thing. In many ways, it’s riskier than coming out in favor of marriage equality. While anti-gay listeners may have switched off Macklemore when he released “Same Love,” his stance has overwhelmingly worked in his favor. Being an LGBT ally is a negative only among ultraconservatives, but the stigma of being a drug addict runs across the board. Being upfront about addiction, as Macklemore is on “Otherside,” isn’t an act of self-promotion — it’s grounded in brazen emotional honesty.
But if “Otherside” is admirable, “Starting Over” is truly brave, as Macklemore recounts a relapse and his struggles with being an icon of recovery.
The irony, everyone will think that he lied to me
Made my sobriety so public, there’s no fuckin’ privacy
If I don’t talk about it then I carry a date
08/10/08, but now it’s been changed
And every wanna put me in some box as a saint that I never was
It’s the false prophet that never came
Relapse, while a very real part of the recovery process, isn’t easy to talk about. Rehab is perceived as a cure: When a celebrity goes through it and presents himself as sober, we cease calling him an “addict,” even though he still is. For Macklemore, who was lauded by the sober community before the LGBT community, coming clean about relapse — something he never really needed to do — was the riskiest move of all. There was little to be gained here, aside from the catharsis of confession, as he raps, “I’d rather live telling the truth and be judged for my mistakes / Than falsely held up, given props, loved and praised / I guess I gotta get this on the page.” As far as his addiction songs go, questioning Macklemore’s sincerity rings wrong.
What’s also interesting about “Starting Over” is that is showcases the perspective time affords. With the follow-up song, Macklemore comments on the effect “Otherside” had on struggling addicts. As the lyrics of “Starting Over” indicate, his impact wasn’t a source of pride, but one of uneasiness. “I’m just a flawed man,” he raps. He laments being “an example of getting sober,” because that means staying sober, something that is far easier said than done. His honesty on “Otherside” means he feels like he has to continue laying it all out there, even when he fucks up. And now, post-relapse, he has to redefine himself, not as a guide to sobriety, but as someone who is “starting over.”
While it’s impossible to know what exactly Macklemore will do next, his history of self-awareness suggests that he might offer a follow-up to “Same Love.” Surely his current status as symbol of marriage equality merits the same examination as his past role as paragon of sobriety. I don’t believe “Same Love” is insincere, but I recognize its faults. And who’s to say that Macklemore won’t either? Perhaps down the line, he can reflect on his unexpected position as straight representative for gay rights, and the problems therein.
I have to give Macklemore the benefit of the doubt because he has demonstrated an ability to see and address his faults, to look back on a past version of himself and contrast it with where he is now, for better or worse.