This season of Saturday Night Live has brought a couple of genuinely compelling performances. There was the usually bugged-out Kendrick Lamar slowing things down for “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and then smooth-jazzing “Poetic Justice;” and Justin Bieber, who is gunning for Justin Timberlake's spot, doing an acoustic version of “As Long as You Love Me,” and “Nothing Like Us” with a futuristic old-timey microphone. An artist with more cool pull doing what Bieber did would have been a big deal.
The musical highlight of this weekend's SNL was that strange Daft Punk commercial featuring a snippet of a new song that sounded straight off of Chic's C'est Chic, because the musical guests were Macklemore & Ryan Lewis who performed their massively successful "Thrift Shop" and in-quotes club banger “"Can't Hold Us." For "Thrift Shop," Macklemore sported some loafers without socks, a bright red suit with gold-tassled epaulets and a leather-maybe-pleather shirt underneath. It was also a fairly perfunctory performance of a supposedly "fun" song. Maybe even the hyper-sincere Seattle rapper is sick of his hit.
Macklemore's jokey outfit actually looked a lot like Kanye West's outfit at the MTV Video Music Awards 2010, and given Macklemore's archly ironic detachment from everybody else in hip-hop, maybe it was supposed to be some anti-materialist shade sent 'Ye's way. But for “Can't Hold Us,” Macklemore wore the same exact outfit, which kind of muddles the joke (DJ Ryan Lewis removed his giant fur coat for the second song), so perhaps Macklemore just really loves dressing like an asshole? Not that anybody else out there is thinking this hard about Macklemore, but some consistency would be nice. (See also: Stop Saying Nice Things About Macklemore's "Thrift Shop.")
Watching Macklemore's safe, clumsily message-oriented pop-rap about not buying expensive clothes, while he wears an outfit that sorta seems like a Kanye West dis, is typically annoying. He's moving the goal posts for what hip-hop should be at a moment when the genre is in transition, and at least in the mainstream, shirking off its gritty crime elements for better and worse. Mikael Wood of The Los Angeles Times' wrote, “In hip-hop, violence is taking a diminishing role" diagnosing rap as focused on "achievement” and observed that much "of the conflict in hip-hop has moved inward, its players fighting battles of ideas and emotions." Think: Kanye West, Drake, Nas on Life Is Good, Big Sean, and Kendrick Lamar's empathetic anti-gang masterpiece, good kid, m.A.A.d city.
Wood's reading of recent rap oddly turns Macklemore into a throwback. The appeal of “aspirational” rappers like Drake, even at their most navel-gazing and trollish, is a rolling sense of self and a willingness to expose their flaws. Even bemoaning fame is imminently relatable in a general, “We all got stress about something” way. Modern-day aspirational rap stands in stark contrast to the impervious “conscious” MC, which served a purpose but then got codified real quick. Macklemore is rolling rap music back to the haughtier side of that moralizing moment, even though rap radio has transcended it. Teens are listening to a complex character like Kendrick Lamar. An entire generation of rappers and rap fans are influenced by Kanye West's post-underground appreciation/apprehension of expensive things.
As “Thrift Shop” continues to top the charts, the angle persists that this is not novelty rap but some noble anti-materialist song (if so, then let's just bury conscious hip-hop for good). Meanwhile, Macklemore slowly but steadily stays selling out. A few weeks ago, Slate observed that he adjusted the lyrics to his anti-consumerism song “Wings” when it was used for the NBA All-Star Game. And his performance on SNL wandered out of a goofy live extension of the funny-to-someone-somewhere “Thrift Shop” video into just another rapper flossing, especially once he removed his coat and showed off that tanktop during “Can't Hold Us.”
There is also his backing band — a horn section dressed in loosely old-timey threads — and backing vocalists, Wanz (on “Thrift Shop”) and Ray Dalton (on “Can't Hold Us”), both black, dressed like it's the early 1960s. It added an uncomfortable racial dynamic to the performance. Here's the white rapper and white DJ/producer backed by mostly black musicians playing “real” instruments and singing. Maybe Macklemore thinks that's clever or transgressive. He probably just didn't think about it very hard. Yeah, this is just more “SMH WHITE PEOPLE” stuff, but really, no one in Macklemore's camp steps back and considers the scene they're setting? Of course, they don't need to; he's got the No. 1 song in the country and, apparently, he's saving rap from itself.