The Number Ones

February 2, 2013

The Number Ones: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” (Feat. Wanz)

Stayed at #1:

6 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

People still rep for Macklemore in Seattle. At least, the kinds of people who show up for music-related book events in Seattle still rep for Macklemore. I learned that in 2022, a little while after my book came out. I took a dizzying whirlwind trip across the country, did a live-interview thing at Town Hall, and had a great time talking about music to the extremely nice people who showed up. Then I got about three hours of sleep and flew right back home. The whole experience is a blur, but one moment stands out. Part of the event was a music-trivia contest with the bookstore owner who interviewed me, who happens to be a former Jeopardy champ, and the guy who booked me for the event. (You already know I mercilessly bodied both of them.) One of the trivia categories was about Seattle musicians, and one of the questions was about Macklmore.

I said something snarky about Macklemore. I don’t remember what it was. I’ve said a lot of snarky things about Macklemore over the years. I will probably say many more snarky things about Macklemore in this column. But I distinctly remember seeing people’s faces fall when I said what I said. It was like I’d kicked a puppy. I don’t think anyone in that room was shocked or offended by whatever I said, but it was clear that Macklemore is still, through it all, a sentimental favorite in Seattle.

This got me thinking: If the world’s corniest rapper came from Baltimore, would Baltimore still love him? Local pride is a powerful force, but so is shameful embarrassment. Baltimore still loves former Number Ones artist Sisqó, but that’s a different thing. Sisqó is silly and flamboyant, but he isn’t corny. Macklemore’s entire existence practically defines corniness. He will live forever, at least in my head, as a living avatar of the kind of hokey sincerity that often comes along with white rap fandom. As a white rap fan, I am all too conscious of this kind of corniness, and I’m sure I’ve exhibited it countless times. That doesn’t make me feel sympathy. It makes me hate that corniness so much more.

“Thrift Shop,” the song that randomly catapulted Macklemore and his production partner Ryan Lewis to the top of the pop charts, is mostly lightweight novelty fluff, and its rise is a feelgood story about a group of underdogs who never could’ve envisioned that level of success for themselves. But “Thrift Shop” is still corny as all hell. For all its winky friskiness, “Thrift Shop” is a song that implicitly criticizes rap materialism from the outside, not from the inside. It’s a party-guy scold session, and it will always bug me, despite not actually being that bad of a song.

Before I get into the saga of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, I should take a moment to talk about rap materialism, the kind of maximal phenomenon that can sometimes work as its own self-parody. People used to complain about rap materialism all the time, and maybe they still do in some circles. That call is usually coming from outside the house, and it doesn’t really reflect the context of the thing. It looks a little different when you consider it as what happens when people who come from nothing perform the fantastical roles of wish-fulfillment success-story superheroes, often for audiences who also come from nothing. It’s also bound up with crime-life style, which has interacted with rap in all sorts of ways over the years. As someone who does not come from nothing, it took me a while to understand that. Some people never will.

“Thrift Shop” is a goofy song, but it’s a goofy song with an agenda. Macklemore is telling the world that you don’t have to have a ton of money to have personal style — that you can be creative enough to develop your look from whatever you can cobble together. That’s true, but it’s also sort of a bourgeoise conceit. Thrift-shop fetishization was nothing new in 2012. It was a big deal in ’90s alt-rock circles, as anyone who read the Thrift Score zine can tell you. I’ve spent a lot of my life in thrift shops, even though I’m NBA starting-center height and I can almost never find anything that fits me there. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the Salvation Army. But when you’re a white rapper who uses thrift shops to lambast the consumption habits endemic to your predominantly Black genre, you’re wading into some deep water.

Macklemore wasn’t a star when he made “Thrift Shop.” He was a regional indie figure. Presumably, Macklemore didn’t have much of an idea that the song would get far beyond the collegiate Pacific Northwest circles in which he’d been traveling. The vast meme-driven success of “Thrift Shop” bothered me more than the song itself, and it spoke to a moment when a huge chunk of rap’s audience could only look at the world through irony goggles. Rap can do stylistic irony just fine on its own. That’s T-Pain wearing a big-ass chain in the shape of the words “BIG ASS CHAIN.” It’s not some white guy calling you a bitch for buying a Gucci shirt. That shit bothers me, and that’s part of the baggage that I bring to “Thrift Shop” and to Macklemore in general. Macklemore always comes off as a caring, genuine person whose heart is usually in the right place, but I have a hard time with him. Let’s talk about this Macklemore guy.

Benjamin Hammond Haggerty is a Seattle native who, as far as I can tell, grew up solidly middle class. (When Macklemore was born, Irene Cara’s “Flashdance… What A Feeling” was the #1 song in America.) His mother was a social worker, and I can’t figure out what his father did, except that the man had enough money to drop more than $10,000 to send Macklemore to rehab when he developed an Oxycontin addiction later in life. Young Macklemore’s mind was blown when he first heard Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance” as a kid, and he got into rap from there. (“The Humpty Dance” peaked at #11, so it doesn’t get a number in this column, but it’s a perfect song.)

Macklemore started rapping as a teenager, and he first called himself Professor Macklemore before thankfully dropping the “Professor” thing. He was into all the backpacky alt-rap that so many ’90s kids loved, and he once had a group called Elevated Elements, which is the most backpacky rap-group name I can possibly imagine. He went off to Santa Fe for a year of college, dropped out, and eventually finished his degree at Evergreen in Olympia. In the ’00s, he started releasing his own music.

There were lots of rappers like Macklemore. Young Ben Haggerty was tapped into the indie-rap scene, which had started blowing up as a kind of college-rock alternative to the glitzy popular stuff. I hear a ton of Atmosphere in Macklemore, to the point where I’d argue that Macklemore is to Atmosphere as Owl City is to the Postal Service. The Minneapolis duo Atmosphere started way back in the ’90s, but they really took off in the ’00s. Slug, the rapping half of Atmosphere, is mixed-race, not white, but most fans just assumed he was white. (I was definitely one of those fans.) Slug’s blustery, self-deprecating, conversational style provided a blueprint for tons of awkward, self-aware white rappers, Macklemore very much included. Atmosphere toured hard, and their word-of-mouth fanbase started regional and then went national, and that’s what Macklemore did, too. It’s just that Macklemore went national in a much, much bigger way.

Macklemore self-released his debut album The Language Of My World in 2005, and its first proper song is the almost painfully self-aware “White Privilege,” so this guy was trying to interrogate his place in rap from the very beginning. But Macklemore’s first moment of viral success didn’t come from that album. In 2004, before the album was out, Macklemore recorded a track called “Welcome To MySpace,” about trying to use first-generation social media to meet girls. He sent the track to Tom Anderson, the MySpace guy, who then sent it out to all his millions of MySpace friends. That’s probably how Macklemore learned the power of pandering. It’s also how he met Ryan Lewis.

Ryan Scott Lewis comes from Spokane, and he moved to Seattle when he was in high school. (Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” was the #1 song in America when Lewis was born.) Lewis was a teenage metalcore fan when he first heard Macklemore’s “Welcome To MySpace,” and he entered Macklemore’s orbit shortly thereafter, mostly working as a photographer and videographer before he started making beats. In 2008, Lewis released a beat tape called Instrumentals. A year later, he and Macklemore became a duo, and they dropped an EP called The VS.

Before Ryan Lewis became his DJ and producer, Macklemore had mostly been rapping on standard indie-rap beats. Lewis’ style was brighter and cleaner, built around big and obvious hooks. He liked strings, bells, horns. The oldest video on Macklemore’s YouTube page is Lewis’ remix of the National’s “Fake Empire,” which is even more melodramatic than the original. Together, Macklemore and Lewis made a version of rap music that was almost twee. Macklemore went to rehab and got sober in 2009, and he put all his energy into music after that. He started rapping about his own journey toward sobriety; it’s the subject of “The Otherside,” a track from an expanded version of The VS.

Together, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis built up enough of an audience to play festivals in the Pacific Northwest, and they got more local attention with the 2011 release of “My Oh My,” a salute to the Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus, who’d died the previous year. On the strength of that extremely sentimental track, the duo performed at the Mariners’ opening day in 2011, another example of the power of pandering. In 2012, Macklemore appeared on the cover of XXL’s Freshman Class issue, alongside folks like Danny Brown, French Montana, Machine Gun Kelly, and future Number Ones artists Future and Iggy Azalea. At the time, I think Macklemore was the only person on that cover who I’d never heard of. He was also the only rapper who was trying to look serious, which makes me think he was the only one who didn’t think that he belonged there.

The Heist, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ first proper studio album, came out in October 2012. By that time, the two of them were playing music festivals all over the country and building up a real word-of-mouth audience. Most of the guests on The Heist are relative unknowns from the Seattle music scene, but by that point, Macklemore had enough pull to bring in a few nationally known names: Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Band Of Horses’ Ben Bridwell. Macklemore released The Heist on his own label, and he and Ryan Lewis built up to the album’s release by dropping early singles all year. The first single was “Wings,” a self-serious and dramatic thing about consumerism with a children’s choir on the hook. If you want to see how Macklemore wanted to present himself to the world, that’s pretty much it.

“Thrift Shop” was the fourth pre-release single from The Heist. It’s basically about the same stuff as “Wings,” but it’s far, far sillier. From where I’m sitting, the best thing about “Thrift Shop” is Ryan Lewis’ beat, built on an energetic and genuinely funky chopped-up horn loop. Lewis didn’t sample another record for “Thrift Shop,” so I don’t know where he got that horn, but it sounds great. Lewis combines that horn with handclaps, MPC hiccups, and a bit of synth-churn and DJ scratching on the hook. It’s a bright, energetic instrumental that gives the song a whole lot of forward momentum. I could never hate a song with that beat — not entirely, anyway.

As it happens, “Thrift Shop” came out at the beginning of a fun little horn-loop mini-trend. For a few years, energized brass-blasts were all over pop radio: Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty,” Ariana Grande’s “Problem,” Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It.” (“Talk Dirty” peaked at #3. It’s an 8. “Problem” got as high as #2. It’s a 9. “Worth It” only made it to #12, which seems way too low. Funnily enough, the guest-rappers on both “Problem” and “Worth It” — Iggy Azalea and Kid Ink, respectively — were part of the same XXL Freshman cypher as Macklemore.) I really like all those songs, and I miss the quick-jolt silliness of that production style. The “Thrift Shop” horn isn’t as catchy as those others, but it’s still plenty catchy.

The second-best thing about “Thrift Shop” is Wanz. Wanz is Michael Wansley, a longtime Seattle musician who was in his early fifties when he sang the “Thrift Shop” hook. (When Wanz was born, Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road Jack” was the #1 song in America.) Wanz played bass and sang in a few local Seattle rock and funk bands in the ’80s and ’90s, but they didn’t go anywhere. He knew the guys in some of the big early-’90s grunge bands, but he never caught the same breaks. By 2012, Wanz had a steady career as a software testing engineer. He’d sometimes sing hooks for local rappers, since his commanding baritone reminded a whole lot of people of omnipresent rap hook-singer Nate Dogg, who passed away in 2011 and who’s been in this column in a guest-singer capacity.

When Macklemore and Ryan Lewis wrote “Thrift Shop,” they wanted a hook-singer who sounded like Nate Dogg. They’d never heard of Wanz, and he’d never heard of them, but a mutual friend connected them. Wanz didn’t write the “Thrift Shop” hook — the song is entirely written by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis — but he just attacks it. His voice is a huge rumble, and it adds gravitas to a song that needs it badly. Wanz also sounds like he’s having more fun than Macklemore, even though Macklemore works very hard to convince you that he’s having fun. On the bridge, Wanz really shines. He doesn’t sound like he wears your grandpa’s clothes, but he does sound like he knows that he looks incredible.

On “Thrift Shop,” Macklemore hits the same points over and over: He pays low prices for ridiculous used items, and then he wears them and feels great. I’m not going to hold the unfortunate R. Kelly joke against Macklemore, since a lot of people were still making variations on that joke at that time. (Dave Chappelle did that same joke a whole lot better on Chappelle’s Show a decade earlier.) I am going to judge Macklemore for calling himself a cold-ass honky, and for selling “cold-ass honky” T-shirts once the song took off.

To me, Macklemore himself is the worst thing about “Thrift Shop.” He’s got a jumping-around look-at-me flow, and his halting, awkward cadences and constant tossed-off jokes reek of desperation. He oversells his lines and telegraphs his punches, as if he’s waiting to be congratulated for his cleverness. He raps with energy, and there’s some technical sophistication to the way he crams in syllables, but he mostly just sounds uncomfortable, and that makes me uncomfortable. In rap, way more than in other genres, the person saying the words needs to sound like the coolest person in the room. Macklemore can’t do that. He sounds like the guy at the party who traps you in a tiresome conversation that you cannot escape. It’s rough.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis shot the “Thrift Shop” video with director Jon Jon Augustavo at actual thrift shops and other locations all around Seattle. They’ve said that they made the clip for a few thousand dollars, but it doesn’t look or feel like a low-budget operation. Wanz later said that he was surprised when he arrived on the video shoot and saw professional lights and cameras everywhere, and it couldn’t have been that cheap to rent a DeLorean. The clip’s pseudo-ironic, meme-friendly Napoleon Dynamite vibe annoys the piss out of me, but the clothes mostly do look pretty good, and Macklemore’s itchy energy is visually arresting. Wanz took the afternoon off from his job to appear in the video, and if they knew how he would pop on camera, I bet they would’ve used him more. When he shows up, it’s clear that he’s a star.

“Thrift Shop” became a slow-burn hit, entering the Hot 100 in September 2012 and not reaching #1 until the following February. When the Heist album came out, it debuted at #2, surprising a whole lot of people. (I remember Schoolboy Q, one of the album’s guests, tweeting something like “Macklemore doing numbers lol.”) As the song gained steam, Macklemore hired a Warner subsidiary to promote the song to radio, and radio jumped all over that song. When “Thrift Shop” reached #1, the big news story was that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were the first unsigned artists since Lisa Loeb to score Hot 100 chart-toppers. That’s technically true, but it’s also a little deceptive, since both “Thrift Shop” and “Stay (I Missed You)” had big companies pushing them.

The success of “Thrift Shop” led to plenty of weird, uncomfortable moments. A couple of weeks after the song slipped from #1, my Stereogum colleague Chris DeVille and I went to see French Montana at the FADER Fort during SXSW. French’s set was pretty listless until he introduced his first big surprise guest: Macklemore, running out in a Western shirt and a fringed jacket, with Wanz alongside him, to perform “Thrift Shop.” It was both trippy and dispiriting to see French Montana half-heartedly dancing along to “Thrift Shop,” as if sartorial splendor wasn’t the single biggest part of his entire underdeveloped persona. Macklemore and French Montana were on the same stage, but they seemed to exist in different galaxies. (French Montana’s highest-charting single, the 2017 Swae Lee collab “Unforgettable,” peaked at #3. It’s a 5.) After the show, Chris and I went to get dinner at an outdoor food court, and the fully suited-up and instantly recognizable Wanz was eating by himself at the next table over. Nobody bothered him.

“Thrift Shop” turned Macklemore into a full-on international star. Wanz, figuring that he’d never get another opportunity like this, left his software job to tour with Macklemore, and then he went back to that job a couple of years later. As far as I know, Wanz is still doing that job today. The “Thrift Shop” single went diamond within three years, and its video is one of the most-viewed in YouTube history. We’ll see Macklemore and Ryan Lewis in this column again.

GRADE: 5/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Macklemore and Oscar The Grouch rapping a “Thrift Shop” parody on a 2013 Sesame Street episode:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s British singer-songwriters Ed Sheeran and Passenger playing an acoustic “No Diggity” cover in 2013 and throwing in a bit of “Thrift Shop” at the end:

(Passenger’s highest-charting single, 2013’s “Let Her Go,” peaked at #5. It’s a 6. Ed Sheeran will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the 2014 motion picture Tammy, “Thrift Shop” soundtracks a scene where Melissa McCarthy, filmed in ecstatic slow motion, puts a paper bag over her head and another over her hand and storms into a fast-foot joint. I have not seen this film, and I cannot possibly imagine the context for this cinematic moment. Please don’t tell me. I’d rather not know. Here’s that scene:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. It’s fucking awesome. Buy it here.

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