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Number Ones: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis 'Thrift Shop'

A recurring feature where we analyse the latest number one single so you don't have to.

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'Thrift Shop'
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (ft. Wanz)
(Independent/Warner)

The new #1 single this week, 'Thrift Shop', is by Seattle-based duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, featuring Wanz.

Unusually, for a #1 single, it is an independent release, meaning that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis somehow managed to get 35 million views on YouTube and a #1 single in Australia (and NZ) without being signed to a label (though I gather that Warner are distributing it in Australia, at least). Macklemore is the rapper and Ryan Lewis is the producer, in a DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince kind of way, and the song is self-produced and written. It's Macklemore & Ryan Lewis's first single in the Australian charts. Last week's entirely forgettable X-Factor winner #1 single, Samantha Jade's 'What You've Done To Me', this week falls to #2 in the charts.

'Thrift Shop' is about three-quarters a comedy song. It could pretty easily be the work of Kiwi musical comedy geniuses Flight of the Conchords. Like the Flight of the Conchords' signature rap tune 'Hippopopotamus vs Rhymenocerous', the humour in 'Thrift Shop' comes from the juxtaposition between hip-hop posturing and more prosaic reality. The culture of hip-hop is traditionally one where honour and status are vitally important. Rappers always took great pains to establish their sense of honour, their sense of authenticity. This is why 'diss tracks' are taken relatively seriously, and why rappers famously have freestyle battles where they try to entertainingly and brilliantly put down the other rapper (the most famous public showing of which appears in Eminem's 8-Mile).

From the late 1980s, with the rise of cheap crack cocaine and drug culture, along with the general decline in quality of life in the African-American community that resulted (as chronicled in, for example, The Wire), the culture of hip-hop got increasingly violent. Ice Cube, in NWA's 'Straight Outta Compton', started talking about 'gats' and 'murder records' and 'AK-47s'; a lot of rappers found began to portray themselves as hustlers and pimps -- as being at the top of the ghetto food chain, especially once the music started being targeted at white male teenagers in the early-mid 1990s who found it glamorous (and who therefore bought it, making it more successful). When asked why they had to have such violent lyrics, the likes of Ice Cube or Ice T— who more or less the inventors of gangsta rap; certainly popularised it— would mouth platitudes about how the music had to 'reflect reality'. 

Of course, I'm probably not telling you anything new in that last paragraph; if you find 'Hiphopopotamus vs Rhymenocerous' or 'Thrift Shop' funny, it's because you already basically know the rituals of hip-hop. In 'Hiphopopotamus vs Rhymenocerous', the humour is derived from Bret and Jemaine's Kiwi incompetence at the art of hip-hop, such as when Jemaine raps, "they call me the hiphopopotamus, my lyrics are bottomless...[silence] [muffled cough]". Later in the song, the humour comes from the juxtaposition of hip-hop posturing and topics that hip-hop is too cool for. After a passage in which Bret and Jemaine complain about being dissed, Bret raps, 'why? Because I rap about reality? Like me and my grandma drinking a cup of tea? There ain't no party like my nanna's tea party, hey ho!' It's hard to imagine a rapper with a hustler/pimp image like Notorious B.I.G. drinking tea with his nanna. 'Thrift Shop' functions on this same principle; the song is funny because of the contrast between hip-hop bling culture and Macklemore finding delight in clothes bought second-hand. 

There's been a bunch of Freakonomics-y research on *why* black American culture is so focused on bling. Some of it may be historical; wearing gold was long an important symbol of status in the cultures of Western Africa where the slave traders abducted Ice Cube's ancestors. But in a 2008 article in the Atlantic, Virginia Postrel discusses economic research suggesting that, the higher up in the economic food chain you are, the less likely you are to want to conspicuously show off your wealth, whether you're black or white. Conspicuous consumption—the fancy economic term for being blinged out—usually means that though you're from a poor group, you're trying to say to the world that you're not poor.

For rappers, being blinged out is saying "just because I'm black doesn't mean I'm poor". In contrast, the rich spend large amounts of money on things that only their closest friends and family will see; personal trainers, expensive vacations, bathroom renovations, etc. The reason that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates don't wear bling, why they don't have solid gold grills, is because everybody in the world already knows that they're fucking loaded. I read an article recently about Bill Gates which mentions the issues he and Melinda were having in trying to responsibly give away all the money they wanted to give away. What a problem!

Instead of worrying about bling and Gucci t-shirts, Macklemore presents himself as a hipster. I mean, it's a song called 'Thrift Shop'. Funnily enough, hipsters have a sort of reverse bling. Essentially, a hipster is a derogatory term for a well educated young white person who is poorly concealing their attempts to impress other well educated young white people. The hipster has no real need to show off their wealth (if not actually wealthy, the hipster is parading the potential for wealth) in order to get people to pay attention to them. What they are actually parading, in a lot of ways, is their leisure time.

The hipster has the time to look through the thrift shop to find the right outfit; the time to research obscure genres of music; the time to research where the best coffee is. I think it's this implicit having-of-leisure-time that irritates many people about hipsters (especially if the irritated have the 60-hour a week high-paying high-stress jobs they need in order to put their 3 kids through school and secretly wish they had the time to complain about the difference between dubstep and brostep etc). Anybody can go and buy a gaudy, expensive-looking handbag or coat. Shops selling that stuff are easy to find. But to find a dress that fits within your aesthetic in a thrift shop is going to mean you're spending lots of time and effort (ironically there's now plenty of boutique thrift shops where other people have done that searching for you, and the exorbitant amounts of money they charge reflects the time you would otherwise spend finding it).

Within these separate contexts, Macklemore - a white male with a hipster aesthetic, however steeped in hip-hop culture he is - is telling his hip-hop compatriots that bling is a scam. You might get respect from people in the ghetto for your gold-plated grills, Macklemore is saying, but everyone else laughs at you. You might laugh at Macklemore wearing my thrift shop stuff - the 'onesies', the 'flannel zebra jammies', and the 'plaid button up shirt' of the song; but that this stuff is cooler than bling -- if you're from somewhere that's not the ghetto.

The other quarter of the song, where Macklemore's not playing at being Flight of the Conchords, is this section: 

"They be like “Oh that Gucci, that’s hella tight”
I’m like “Yo, that’s fifty dollars for a t-shirt”
Limited edition, let’s do some simple addition
Fifty dollars for a t-shirt, that’s just some ignorant bitch sheeit
I call that getting swindled and pimped, sheeeeit
I call that getting tricked by business, that shirt’s hella dough
And having the same one as six other people in this club is a hella don’t"

This is—unusually for chart pop—getting into the anti-branding territory of Naomi Klein's No Logo. I mean, Taio Cruz's 'Dynamite' (which I reviewed for TheVine here) prominently featured the lines 'wearing all my favourite brands brands brands brands', while companies pay rappers to mention their products in their songs. Elsewhere rappers and pop stars flaunt their designer clothing lines and perfume lines (despite being basically inarticulate, 50 Cent is a successful entrepreneur these days, with branded energy drinks and headphones for example). For Klein, the argument is that t-shirts are very cheap to make in sweatshops in China under exploitative conditions. The $50 you spend on the t-shirt is going to Gucci's bottom line, and the status that you're paying for is illusory, a product of marketing techniques rather than anything 'real'. And if everyone in the club where you're trying to impress is doing the same as you - buying the expensive t-shirts - you're going to come off as some schmo rather than the rich dude you want to pretend to be.

Musically, 'Thrift Shop' has a—dare I say it—thrift shop approach to sounds. The song starts off echoing in the mid-1980s hip-hop of the likes of Run-DMC ('Sucker MCs'), in the way they would rap over drum machine beats, with very little musical accompaniment. When the prominent, catchy, horn sample comes in, it's reminiscent of stuff like 'Lovesick' by Gang Starr, 'Rump Shaker' by Wreckx-N-Effect, 'Let Me Clear My Throat' by DJ Kool - party rap that prominently sample sax parts from 1960s R&B (even 'Informer' by Snow has a prominent sax part). Vocally, Macklemore resembles Everlast in his House of Pain days ('Jump Around') in terms of the rhythm of his rapping and the way he drawls. It's pretty appropriate that a song about thrift shopping has nicked its best sounds from 20-30 years ago.

Of course, there's a definite 2012-ness to 'Thrift Shop' all the same, in the way it all comes together, in the fact that there's a hipster-hop song at #1 in Australia. The deep-voiced vocals by Wanz in the chorus - "I'm gonna pop some tags..." - belong to that world of neo-soul along the lines of Aloe Blacc or Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings; Wanz's voice sounds like the kind of thing Moby would have sampled in the 1990s, except that nobody Moby sampled would have sung "this is fucking awesome". 

From a lyrical perspective, 'Thrift Shop' is sort of like a sketch comedy TV show -- pretty hit and miss. There are some great lines, but others fall flat. For example, the song has a great comedic opening line, "Walk into the club like what up? I got a big cock/ Nah, I'm just pumped, I got some shit from the thrift shop". In contrast, "probably shoulda washed this, smells like R. Kelly sheets" is actually a pretty good line. But having the beat drop out just so someone can whisper "piss" with a comedic 'boing' sound effect? It kills the R. Kelly joke. It's  like the way memes get killed when they get featured on TV breakfast shows -- if you have to explain it, Macklemore, it's not funny. 

Still, it's interesting to see a song that's more triple j fodder (it's currently their album of the week) than chart pop fodder at the top of the charts -- it's almost certainly a good bet for the upper reaches of the triple j Hottest 100. But from the Number Ones perspective, it's a reminder of the different populations who make up singles buyers. There's a lot of different aesthetics smooshed onto the charts. Anyone can buy a single on iTunes, and anyone does. I mean, AC/DC have two singles in the top 50 this week ('Thunderstruck' at #39, and 'You Shook Me All Night Long' at #49). Five to ten years ago, the charts seemed more homogenous, full of Max Martin-esque dance pop. But these days, there isn't really 'chart-pop' per se; it's really just a bunch of separate niches.

In the last couple of months the top of the charts have gone from Gangnam style to Grandpa style; there's K-Pop ( 'Gangnam Style'), commercial progressive house ('Don't You Worry Child'), X-Factor boredom ('What You've Done To Me') and self-released hip-hop (this one). This may just be a transitional period before a new 'pop consensus' emerges, but the transitional periods, where nobody really knows what works and what doesn't, are often the most interesting times in music.

Tim Byron

profile of TimByron

3 comments so far..

  • jseidler's avatar
    Commenter
    jseidler
    Date and time
    Wednesday 05 Dec 2012 - 1:53 PM
    This song is now my ringtone and I have absolutely no problem with it. I'm amazed it hit # 1 though, it seems like such a niche aural aesthetic. I hope Warner are paying Kingsmill in solid gold bars.
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  • pavementfrippery's avatar
    Commenter
    pavementfrippery
    Date and time
    Sunday 09 Dec 2012 - 10:36 PM
    @AlyxGorman Preach. It should have been "Balmain" and "$3000".
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  • Hack2010's avatar
    Commenter
    Hack2010
    Date and time
    Thursday 13 Dec 2012 - 11:10 AM
    I am 'anti hipster' which isn't a broad brush discount of anything 'retro' rather the preciousness and latent competitiveness which goes along with feeding into such a disparate movement, where 19th century time piece enthusiasts are lumped in a strange race with cordeauroy lovers.

    Just setting that straight...

    I loathe 'low brow' toilet humour, but the R Kelly 'piss' isn't meaningless novelty which you seem to have insinuated in your tangential article (touching on golden age hip hop obsession with artists being blinged out). Despite this track being 'anti logo' as you noted (well not entirely, the sneakers are a cheapo brand of Nike airs kinda like Dunlop volleys are cheap but in some circles considered as cool as a pair of chucks) it is still as materialistic as nelly's 'grillz' coveting items bought from the thrift shop, whether they are kitsch or cheap is irrelevant it's still a fundamental want for stuff and as such isn't that greater departure from non-parody hip hop tunes, except for the fact it inverts the principles which are seen as cool (being thrifty with a calculator rather than spendthrift throwing bills to the sky). Back to the r Kelly line, the reason for the sound effect, as many of your readership would know r Kelly is notorious for bedding underage girls. What is implied in that line is r Kelly having girls so young they still piss the bed (probably r Kelly scares the piss out if them also with his soppy by numbers ballads he churns out)

    There is also the double 'waste' meaning with the word 'sheets'. Either it stinks because of r kelly or the girls r kelly has had in his bed. Either way... Itis quite clever and I get a kick, laugh having to think. It isn't all that sophisticated anyway.

    I thought wanz sounded more like Nate dogg but aloe blacc did cross my mind while listening to it.

    I am typing from the only apple device I own an iPad so apologies for the poor grammar and punctuation. It would be much better written on a proper Microsoft word processor. I have little sleep and have no idea what compelled me to respond to a week old article.
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