Critic’s Notebook: Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop’ and Baauer’s ‘Harlem Shake’

February 20th, 2013

Even though hip-hop has countless shades, colors, splinter wings and internal dissenters, it’s still often spoken about as if it were an undifferentiated mass. Many consider it an outsider phenomenon, even though hip-hop has effectively become the center of pop music. This attitude partly stems from age, race and other things, but mainly from a refusal to see the world as it has become.

This narrow understanding of hip-hop is even more surprising because part of the genre’s brilliance is how it’s moved away from the margins and seeped into the mainstream in unexpected places and ways — providing soundtracks for ads, shilling brands, giving teenagers new slang. Like oxygen, it belongs to everyone.

And then, inevitably, the adopters and interlopers begin to succeed on their own terms, which leads to phenomena like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop” and Baauer’s “Harlem Shake.” For the last few weeks “Thrift Shop” has been the No. 1 song in the country, according to the Billboard Hot 100, and since the beginning of February “Harlem Shake” — more specifically, the first 30 seconds of it — has been the soundtrack for the latest viral dance-video craze. Both songs have been hovering at or near the top of the iTunes sales chart.

Depending on your lens, this reflects a tremendous cultural victory for hip-hop or the moment when hip-hop, as a construct, begins to lose meaning. What it really portends is hip-hop’s centerless future, in which its elements and references will be widely up for grabs — even more so than they are now — and used in unanticipated ways, inevitably weakening the center, and maybe undoing it altogether.

Undoubtedly, “Thrift Shop,” which also features the singer Wanz, is a hip-hop song, though one that bears almost no connection to hip-hop as a living genre. It’s a lighthearted song about the thrills of thrifting, though it’s not quite the robust sendup of hip-hop-extravagance clichés that it aspires to be. (If white rappers pilfering the exuberant moods of late-1980s/early-1990s party rap is your thing, you’d do better with Mac Miller’s “Party on Fifth Ave.” from 2011.)

Macklemore raps in a sleepy, casual tone, and while he’s nimble at times, he’s as often overreaching. The album from which “Thrift Shop” is drawn, “The Heist” (Macklemore Records), oozes lumpy sincerity. It opens with a number that refers to the writer Malcolm Gladwell and has thoughtful songs about sexual-orientation equality and Macklemore’s own addiction struggles.

As a rapper, he recalls most vividly the progressive independent hip-hop of the early 2000s, as if he had swallowed whole the early works of Atmosphere. That was an era when hip-hop was still filling out its margins, and a heavily white underground was exploring new thematic territory.

The success of that scene also helped generate an audience for hip-hop that did not seek out or understand the genre from the inside out but rather from the other way. Macklemore may be a rapper — last year, prophetically, he was one of the 10 young rappers on the cover of XXL magazine’s annual “Freshman Class” issue — but his audience is something else.

In addition to topping the Billboard Hot 100, “Thrift Shop” has also topped the Billboard rap songs chart, despite limited play on hip-hop radio stations. This certainly has at least a little to do with Billboard’s ever-broadening definition of what constitutes a rap song; Psy’s K-pop novelty crossover, “Gangnam Style,” also topped the rap songs chart recently. The weakening of this chart is just a symptom of what happens when decisions about nomenclature come from outside the genre.

Macklemore’s success is a reminder that in 2013 it is possible to consume hip-hop while remaining at a far remove from the center of the genre or, in some cases, from black culture altogether. That’s not only because Macklemore is white — he sets off triggers that are different from those of Eminem, Yelawolf, Machine Gun Kelly, Action Bronson and any number of white rappers — or because his audience is mainstream. It’s because on “Thrift Shop” the rapping is merely a tool to advance ideas that are not connected to hip-hop to an audience that doesn’t mind receiving them under a veneer of hip-hop cool.

This audience — hip-hop-aware but not hip-hop-exclusive — is huge, and its needs are being filled in several ways. You can see the audience in action, literally, in the recent “Harlem Shake” dance videos, which have been the dominant viral-video meme of the month, with tens of thousands of versions posted to YouTube featuring groups of people dancing, poorly, to the song’s opening segment.

Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” isn’t a hip-hop song, but it is hip-hop-influenced. (I recently heard about a minute of it played on Power 105.1 FM, one of New York’s two hip-hop radio stations, during a mixshow, though it felt more like a novelty than like part of a strategy.) Baauer is at the forefront of trap, the lately emergent wing of dance music that takes its inspiration, and some of its samples, from the aggressive Southern hip-hop of the last few years. Also, the words in “Harlem Shake” are sampled from the clever art-rap obscurities Plastic Little (whose rapper, Jayson Musson, is now better known for his art-world sendups as Hennessy Youngman) and from a remix by the D.J. duo Philadelphyinz.

The Harlem Shake is a real dance, though. The dance in the video, to the extent that it’s a dance at all, isn’t the actual Harlem Shake, which has been an uptown staple for more than a decade. (See most of the videos by the former Bad Boy rapper G. Dep for a tutorial.) The explosion of this song, and its accompanying videos, threatens to all but obliterate the original dance’s claim on the name. (The “Harlem Shake” video done by the staff of the liberal political-comedy show “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell” winkingly concludes with someone doing the actual Harlem Shake.)

And it serves Baauer well, the more videos that are made; according to Billboard, his label, Mad Decent, has been aggressively monetizing the videos that use his song, even as the samples in it have not been contractually cleared. But Baauer or someone on his team did have one version of the song removed: a remix made by the rapper Azealia Banks.

Ms. Banks, a grade-A Internet troll, was doing something almost every rapper of note has done: take someone else’s beat and rap over it. Baauer, for whatever reason, took umbrage at that, leading to a Twitter war of words. “You don’t belong in hip-hop,” she wrote. “You don’t even know what a” — and here she added a colorful expletive — “Harlem Shake even is.”

After squabbling with Baauer she posted a video for her version of the song — one of her best songs, it should be said — and released what purported to be an e-mail of Baauer’s in which he said he liked her version.

Ms. Banks, a major-label signee more beloved of fashionistas than of hip-hop fans, has, at best, a tenuous relationship to hip-hop’s center.

She is, at a minimum, from Harlem, though that doesn’t mean what it used to, either. But her beef with Baauer played out as one interloper shaming another: hip-hop’s bold future.

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