Way back on August 25, as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis wrapped up a remarkable outing at the MTV Video Music Awards, that included a superb performance of their smash hit "Same Love" assisted by Jennifer Hudson, and three wins in the categories of Best Hip-Hop Video, Best Video With A Social Message, and Best Cinematography to cap off the night, the duo, without even trying, were attached to a familiar artistic controversy.
On the same night, Miley Cyrus tongue wagged and twerked onto the national consciousness, while basically using women of color as 3 dimensional props. Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke sang their blue-eye soul songs for the millions watching around the world, and thousands gathered in the Barclays Center, located in the new heart of "redeveloped" Brooklyn, N.Y. The icing on the cake was, of the numerous African-American artists that were nominated, only Janelle Monae was awarded the coveted prize of Best Art Direction for "Q.U.E.E.N.," and Monae's moon man landed in her universe earlier that fateful evening off-camera. The angst of the event was summed up in one excellently timed joke from comedian Josh Gondelman, who quipped via Twitter: "No one moment has ever gentrified Brooklyn as hard as Macklemore winning Best Hip Hop Video at the VMAs." Through he received hundreds of favorites and retweets, Gondelman quickly stated that he was simply joking and not making a socioeconomic statement.
Nevertheless, the damage of the evening was already done, and Mackelmore and Ryan Lewis were collateral damage. Even a reasonable comparison of the music Mackelmore and Ryan Lewis create, against the ever-moving standards of cultural appropriation, would produce favorable results. They aren't white musicians trying to be "black," trading on cultural norms for cash. Through a very short sample size of one uber-popular album, the pair don't appear to be agenda-toting interlopers, but rather musicians that happen to be white participating in an art form that was founded by and dominated by artists of color. This does not mean that Mackelmore and Ryan Lewis aren't benefiting from being the other in an overwhelmingly homogeneous space. By comparison, it took Jay-Z a lifetime to get the same Rolling Stone cover and appearance on Saturday Night Live, and this new hip-hop duo chalked it off their to-do list in year one of their fame. There is no question that these are different times and rap music is more widely accepted today than ever before, but for better or worse, Mackelmore and Ryan Lewis have E-Z pass access to the forefront of mainstream, which does eerily resemble that of rap titan of yesteryear, Eminem. Even though, across every creative measure, they could not be more different. Our current practice of cultural nearsightedness too often allows a single, similar trait seen from afar to define and supersede all other attributes that are readily discernible upon a closer view. Fortunately, as Mackelmore & Ryan Lewis' World Tour rolled into town Monday, the similarities between the host Talib Kweli and Big K.R.I.T were on full display.
Well before the 7:30 start time, the Verizon Center filled with teenyboppers, soccer moms, dozens of worlds' greatest dad nominees, couples and singles of every imaginable variety. You were much more likely to see a gleaming set of braces than a golden grill, but everyone mingled well. First up was Mississippi native Big K.R.I.T., who came to the stage dressed in all black with a single chain hanging around his neck. Minus the elaborate staging and the need to be in sync with pyrotechnic queues, Big K.R.I.T. paced the stage throughout his efficient 30 minute set. Big K.R.I.T., who has a more robust mix tape catalogue than some of his peers, may have, at this point, garnered more mainstream success and elicited sparks of reaction from the crowd, but it never reached a fevered pitch. It was good to see songs like Boobie Miles and R.E.M. performed, but the fact that Big K.R.I.T. pulled from his mix tape library and not his mainstream, created a certain level of disconnectedness to the effort. The effort was appreciated nonetheless, and it gave way nicely to the next act of the evening, none other than Brooklyn's own Talib Kweli.
Kweli's veteran polish was noticeable from his seamless entrance right into his up-tempo hit "Rocket Ships" from his latest project Prisoner of Conscious. As Kweli mixed new and vintage material, the crowd came alive with every recognizable beat drop. Then Kweli dug deeper into his repertoire and started to refurnish other artist hits as the throngs bounced along with the beats. In between this lyrical exercise Kweli plugged a new musical venture and website, where he will sell music directly to his fan base. He then brought to the stage, the singer Res. The Philadelphia accompanied Kweli on several songs and took center stage to present a re-imagined version of Fleetwood Mac's staple "Dreams," from her current L.P. As Kweli and Res exited, stage hands added set pieces, and two wide screen monitors were turned on to start a rousing game of "How Do I get on the Jumbo Screen?" or "Look Who's on the Screen and Doesn't Know It!" The moments were as endearing as the kiss cam, and they helped to pass the time as the final touches were put in place.
As the house music and lights were dimmed, it was time to start the show. An altered version of the American flag, with Heist replacing the stars and wavy lines for stripes, hung over the stage. Simultaneously, as the flag was released, the spotlight focused on Macklemore coming out of the floor on a riser and "Ten Thousand Hours" blared from the two huge speakers hanging from the rafters at the front of the stage. The stage itself featured three different tiers. The top was the territory of Ryan Lewis who was not only surrounded by his D.J., tools but several drums and cymbals. The second level, from left to right, featured a string section with a cello and a violin player. On the right side was the horn/keys section where a trombonist, trumpeter and keyboardist all played. The ground tier was where Macklemore, and occasionally his trio of dancers, roamed.
The concert played out in a series of vignettes that teetered dangerously close to story time with Uncle Ben, as Macklemore would link each song to an experience, some staged, others real. An example of this pattern playing out perfectly came when two men, who had been partners for 10 years, came to the center stage. One proposed marriage to the other and naturally the other accepted. It was a televised punch that everyone saw coming, and no one gave any thought of ducking. Then Molly Lambert, in a simple black knee-length dress walked onstage and sang a refrain that we have heard covered a million different times, but only she can truly capture. The crowd sang along and the rest of the evening played out as scheduled. There was confetti blasting through the sky, crowds surfing, encores, and gratitude extended in every direction.
As Macklemore grazed out at the crowd with a smile the size of a multimillion-dollar lottery check, you could sense how surreal this moment was for the Seattle native. This moment materialized from a dream born in his parent's basement. He fought and won an important battle with substance abuse to preserve it, and then found a genius level producer, DJ and comrade on MySpace. The conversations about the interplay of race, access, and aesthetics arrived before Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and will undoubtedly continue no matter what direction their career takes. What can't be questioned is that, for at least another night, they were the kings of the castle, and they are flying their own independent flag.