Released October 9, 2012
1 hr, 16 min, 18 sec
There are a lot of things that The Heist isn’t. It’s not Macklemore’s debut album – that honor goes to The Language of My World, released a decade ago. It’s not the debut of the collaboration between Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis – that’s The VS, released in 2011. It’s not even the duo’s major label debut – Macklemore and Lewis have made their names on being wholly independent artists, releasing The VS and The Heist themselves, with nothing resembling record label backing beyond post-release single distribution by a company several degrees separated from parent Warner Music Group.
What The Heist is, then, is a clever, fresh album that tackles quite a few points of interest in the hip-hop community, tropes of the genre as a whole, and wider social issues, many of them wrapped around personal issues from Macklemore’s own life. This is where the album’s dubious reputation is sourced, and where many of the album’s sticking points originate.
Hip-hop is an inherently black genre, intertwined deeply with black culture, inseparable from the history of black culture in America. Because of this, white artists like Macklemore are invaders by default, taking a style of music that is not theirs and using it themselves. Macklemore is, obviously, not the first white man to rap – everyone knows Eminem and Paul Wall, alongside less revered artists like Vanilla Ice and, hell, even John Cena. What The Heist does differently – and what Macklemore does differently in general with his music – is challenge aspects of the genre that he takes issue with. Chief among them is the materialism in hip-hop culture of the 1990s, which lives on in a great deal of artists today. Iconic single “Thrift Shop” lambasts obsession with name brands, while “Wing$” takes a more pointed, aggressive stance, a brutal takedown of the culture surrounding collecting expensive shoes, expanded to American consumer culture as a whole. The album’s other iconic single, “Same Love,” focuses on acceptance of same-sex relationships, building off of Macklemore’s own point of view, and Macklemore turns the lens on himself in “A Wake,” discussing white privilege and the problems that come with a white man inserting himself into black movements.
Macklemore is not an ignorant man. In many interviews discussing his music, he specifically notes that he is using a style of music that does not belong to him, and demonstrates a great deal of respect for the art form, keeping himself at a distance from a culture that he does not belong in. And he is not some entitled white boy co-opting a culture for the hell of it – Macklemore spent most of his adult life struggling with alcoholism that nearly destroyed his career and life, and that specter lords over him and the album throughout.
The problem, however, is that Macklemore is still a white man condemning aspects of a culture that he does not belong to, and it is something that he has trouble gripping properly. Though his intentions are, on the surface, noble, and it’s clear that his heart is in the right place, some of the concepts he takes on throughout The Heist are done in a surprisingly ham-fisted manner, the voice of a man who doesn’t quite have a grasp on the issues he’s talking about. “Same Love,” incidentally, is the most egregious example, with its notorious opening lines discussing how Macklemore, as an eight-year-old, had an existential crisis and feared that he was gay, because he had good grades and could draw. When written out like that, of course, it sounds completely ridiculous and ignorant. The intent of the message is clear after thinking about it a little – American culture really is rough enough that a poor child would be driven to such drastic conclusions – but the message really gets buried in a poor metaphor.
There’s also the issue of the album’s sheer ubiquity throughout 2013. “Thrift Shop” was a huge hit, everyone loved it, “Same Love” mostly did the same thing, but The Heist just would not go away. And, for a lot of people, it seemed pretty clear why – this was hip-hop, for sure, and it was strong, meaningful hip-hop, but there was no avoiding that this was white hip-hop. Something the white folks could comfortably listen to. Well, at least until they got to “A Wake.” But still, even with Macklemore directly addressing this exact scenario before the album even came out, on the album itself, it was clear that white people flocked to Macklemore because he represented them in an alien genre. And then the Grammys happened. Jesus Christ, the 56th Grammy Awards. The Heist, represented in four of the five hip-hop categories, swept the awards, winning in all four categories. This, by the way, was over Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Drake. Given that this was a category for a proudly black genre, dominated by talented, incredibly high-level black artists, the biggest names in the industry, the fact that two white dudes swept the category is absolutely atrocious. So atrocious, in fact, that Macklemore actually apologized to Kendrick after the show, because, frankly, Kendrick should’ve been the one sweeping the damn awards.
And then, yeah, there was also the incredibly awkward, public marriage ceremony, consisting of both same-sex and heterosexual couples, presided over by Queen Latifah. I’ve never seen such an overt publicity stunt in my life. Those couples got a great Grammy moment, yeah, but you know what? It wasn’t about them, and anyone who watched the segment for five seconds knew that. This is a huge problem with allies of the LGBTQ+ community. Allies, ideally, are at the back of the crowd, providing private, not-very-visible support to their queer cohorts, because allies are not the ones being oppressed. Allies show support, they stand with their queer cohorts, but they never stand in front of them, and they never, ever talk over them in any situation. This ceremony was Macklemore feat. gay people.
All of this added up to Macklemore’s public image taking a real fucking beating, something that he probably didn’t want to happen so quickly after his triumphant comeback. Macklemore is one of the few artists that I don’t always feel comfortable mentioning that I’m a fan of, because there’s so much baggage attached to that. There’s the problems with his white privilege and his unintentional trampling of non-white and non-straight people on one side, and then there’s the fact that he looks like a damn douchebag and is a white boy trying to be a sick rapper on the other. It’s a nightmare. He has none of the bulletproof reputation of Eminem – perhaps because he treats women like people, but that’s not something I want to get into – and gets all the bad image shit that Eminem does anyway.
That’s a real shame, because Macklemore’s artistry is fantastic. He takes pride in his music and the genre he works within, and the struggles he’s endured were transformed into incredible songs like “Thin Line,” “Neon Cathedral,” and “Starting Over.” He’s got a lot to be proud of, rejecting the rough, cutthroat nature of the music industry and retaining his independence, finding immense success without the power of the machine behind him. And, when he really tries, and talks about something he understands, like in “A Wake,” he fucking nails it. And, of course, Ryan Lewis’s beats are dope.
I love The Heist. At this point, I’m not afraid to admit that. This is a smart, well-written, well-made album. Macklemore earned his spot in hip-hop, and though there are others that are clearly above him and more deserving of accolades in the genre, Macklemore is not one to scoff at. But it’s important to understand that The Heist and Macklemore are not perfect, and they operate in a framework where Macklemore has to always tread lightly, as he stand in a culture that is not his, fighting a constant battle against his own prejudices and privilege, conscious or not, lest he step out of line and continue a disappointing tradition of overshadowing those who need the limelight more than he does.