The Number Ones

May 18, 2013

The Number Ones: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us” (Feat. Ray Dalton)

Stayed at #1:

5 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.

The Macklemore moment was weird, especially when it seemed like it might keep going. If it was just “Thrift Shop,” that would be one thing. That song was huge, but goofy little novelties have gotten huge before, and plenty more will get huge in the future. But it wasn’t just “Thrift Shop,” and Macklemore wasn’t just a meme. For about a year, this antsy white guy from Seattle threatened to become the biggest rapper on the face of the earth. It was unsettling, as if the whole world had decided to act like a joke was a real thing.

This was not Macklemore’s fault, but his success came within a larger cultural context. In 2013, the year that Macklemore took over, no Black artists reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was the first year in Hot 100 history when that happened. On many of the songs that did reach #1, including Macklemore’s two chart-toppers, Black artists were featured guests. 2013 was also a year of changing metrics. Songs stuck around at #1 for longer, which meant that there simply weren’t that many chart-topping hits. Still, the all-white trend was troubling, especially when you consider that many of those artists, Macklemore very much included, were working in historically Black genres.

There have been so many rap Elvises. Vanilla Ice was a rap Elvis. So was Eminem, and he even rapped about it. These days, maybe Jack Harlow is a rap Elvis. (Harlow will eventually appear in this column.) The rap Elvis is a specter that’s been hanging over the genre since it first became a dominant pop-cultural force. Every other massively popular Black genre throughout history had eventually been subsumed into the white establishment, and plenty in the rap world still worry that it’ll happen again — that white artists and audiences will take over the genre and turn it into their own thing. It still hasn’t happened, but you can see why people would be touchy about it. You could argue that nobody is touchier than white rappers and fans. Feuds among white rappers beefs are plentiful, and they’re often bitter. Nobody wants to be rap Elvis.

Macklemore rapped about white privilege, on a song called “White Privilege,” before he was even famous, so he was extremely self-conscious about the idea of becoming rap Elvis. In his moment, though, Macklemore took off running, and who could blame him? He’d amassed a cult following and made a series of smart business moves, and now he was suddenly and shockingly in a position to become insanely rich and famous. Why would he turn that down? The Macklemore moment probably peaked when “Can’t Hold Us,” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ follow-up to their gigantic smash “Thrift Shop,” became every bit as big as “Thrift Shop.” You could write “Thrift Shop” off as a meme-driven joke. You couldn’t do the same for the hard-sprinting motivational anthem “Can’t Hold Us.” That song was sincere. It wasn’t good, but it was sincere. If that song was connecting, then maybe something larger was happening.

“Can’t Hold Us” had a long road to #1. In a 2011 interview, Macklemore said that his production partner Ryan Lewis made the track’s jittery, thudding instrumental in 2007 or 2008: “I was always kind of intimidated to write to it because it sounded like it was, like, a soccer anthem — like it would be some European sports team’s anthem. Finally, he was like, ‘Dude, you have to write to it, you have to write to it,’ and I finally listened to him.” You could understand Macklemore’s hesitance. He was a culty indie-rapper, and culty indie-rappers don’t make anthems for European sports teams.

Macklemore wrote his “Can’t Hold Us” verses while touring, but he didn’t have a hook for the track. Ryan Lewis had been working with Ray Dalton, a young Seattle gospel and soul musician who was working as a tennis instructor. (When Ray Dalton was born, Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” was the #1 song in America.) Lewis heard Dalton singing on another artist’s track — probably “Kingdom Come,” a 2010 song from the live Seattle hip-hop band Dyno Jamz — and invited Dalton to work with him. In 2012, Lewis produced the Ray Dalton solo song “So Emotional,” but by that time, “Can’t Hold Us” was already out.

When Ray Dalton heard the “Can’t Hold Us” instrumental, he hummed a melody. Macklemore wrote words for that melody, and Dalton sang them. Then Ryan Lewis brought in more local musicians to play on the track, building it into something that sounded even bigger. He added strings and horns, and he kept the track changing, never letting it work as a static groove. Suddenly, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis had a pump-up anthem suitable for a European soccer team. Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and Ray Dalton shared songwriting credit. They released the track in August 2011, as they were ramping up to the release of their album The Heist. At first, it was just another buzzy single from an independent rap duo with a regional following, a charged-up track that worked well at live shows. Then “Thrift Shop” happened.

When “Thrift Shop” started to take off, Macklemore hired the promotional team from a Warner Bros. subsidiary to work The Heist to radio. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were still independent artists, but their music was now getting a major label-style push. “Can’t Hold Us” broke its way onto the Hot 100 in February 2013, a couple of weeks after “Thrift Shop” started its run at #1. A month later, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were musical guests on SNL, and “Can’t Hold Us” broke into the top 10 a week after that. That’s when Macklemore and Lewis unveiled their grand-scale “Can’t Hold Us” music video.

The “Can’t Hold Us” video stretches the song out to seven minutes, though some of that is the inexplicably silent end credits. The duo filmed it in Seattle, Southern California, and Cathedral Cove in New Zealand. Ryan Lewis co-directed the clip with “Thrift Shop” director Jon Jon Augustavo and longtime collaborator Jason Koenig. (Koenig’s videos will appear in this column again.) Macklemore and Lewis might’ve made the video with their friends, but the images are blockbuster-sized: a dogsled running across frozen tundra, a party on an Revolutionary War sloop, a camel walking through deserts and city streets, a marching band on a shut-down overpass with the Seattle skyline looming behind it. In the final shots, Macklemore parachutes onto the Space Needle and raises a monochromatic American flag that says The Heist. It looks a bit like the thin blue line flag that cops and pro-cop freaks put on their pickup trucks these days, but again, that’s not Macklemore’s fault.

The video looks cool. It would look cooler if I liked the song. There’s some jump-around silliness in the “Can’t Hold Us” video, but it’s not presented as a goof, the way “Thrift Shop” was. Instead, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis found ways to frame the song as a stadium-rap anthem, and that’s what it became. I wonder what I would’ve thought of “Can’t Hold Us” if I’d heard it when it first came out as an indie-rap buzz single. By the time the song blew up, though, it sounded inevitable. People love stadium-rap singalongs, even if they come from unlikely sources. As I write this, the #1 song in America is another stadium-rap singalong from a post-disgrace Kanye West — Kanye’s first chart-topper as lead artist since “Stronger,” nearly 17 years ago. Come to think of it, “Stronger” is a stadium-rap singalong, too. People love those things.

I guess this is where I have to talk about “Can’t Hold Us” as a piece of music. I’ve been dreading that. If you’ve been paying attention to underground rap for long enough, especially if you were around during the peak Rhymesayers years in the ’00s, then you’ve heard plenty of rappers doing the excitable rat-tat-tat thing that Macklemore does on “Can’t Hold Us.” He raps fast without actually saying much of anything. It’s the athletic-motormouth Mac Lethal approach that can be technically impressive and weirdly uncomfortable at the same time. Plenty of the mostly-white rappers who adapt that style never learn how to put any personality into it. That’s not Macklemore’s issue. Macklemore’s issue is that he assumes that you’re already his buddy, or that you’re already on his side.

As I understand it, “Can’t Hold Us” is on lots of people’s workout playlists, and I get that. It’s fast, upbeat, motivational. It keeps changing — throwing up distractions like pianos and horns and EDM synths and echoed-out backup vocals. There is absolutely zero syncopation to it; every beat lands exactly where it’s expected. Macklemore goes into his fast-rap zone, talking about trying to stay motivated and off the internet. (You’re reading this, so you’re already going against his advice.) He shouts out Bob Barker, Wu-Tang, Rocky, Cosby sweaters. (This was pre-disgrace Cosby.) He also shouts out “Posse On Broadway,” the local-pride anthem from former Number Ones artist Sir Mix-A-Lot, who was the biggest rapper in Seattle history before Macklemore came along. Macklemore raps the whole thing with maximum effort, practically letting you hear the sweat droplets hitting the microphone.

But “Can’t Hold Us” doesn’t really sound like rap music, at least as I understand the term. The relentless jitter-thump and whoa-oh-oh melodies make me think of the Mumford-style arena-folk that was hugely popular at the time, and of the EDM tracks that did everything in their power to hijack the Mumford-style arena-folk aesthetics. (Some of those EDM tracks did that aesthetic pretty well — like Avicii’s “Wake Me Up,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 7.) Ray Dalton’s hook is big and simple and memorable, and it could absolutely work on one of arena-folk those tracks. You can practically hear the banjo and the four-four beat underneath it. I might prefer the banjo and the four-four beat to everything that Ryan Lewis throws at the track.

When “Can’t Hold Us” went diamond in 2022, Macklemore told Billboard that he and Ryan Lewis played the track for major-label executives, and those execs told them that the song was too busy to get radio play. Those execs were obviously wrong, since the song got a ton of radio play, but I understand their viewpoint. The track’s constant onslaught — the handclaps and tuba-farts and quasi-gospel backing vocals — is too fucking much. I find it actively unpleasant. In any case, those execs’ reactions gave Macklemore something to push back against — the kind of nobody-believed-in-us narrative that every underdog needs. On the song itself, Macklemore says, “Labels out here, now they can’t tell me nothin’/ We give it to the people, spread it across the country.” That’s a clumsy-ass rap line, and Macklemore is not capable of delivering the words “nothin'” and “country” so that they sound like they rhyme, but he’s still so proud of that lyric that he runs it back.

“Can’t Hold Us” just makes me itchy. There’s no swagger, no confidence, no swing, no bounce. The song doesn’t play. Instead, it thunders forward with a teeth-gritted determination that fully repels me. It’s only a locker-room pump-up song if you’re already in the locker room. If you’re skeptical of this Macklemore guy, it’s straight-up grating. There’s nothing outright wrong with “Can’t Hold Us,” and I get why people like it, but it bugs the shit out of me. In my mind, rappers are supposed to be the coolest larger-than-life figures on the landscape. They’re supposed to be icy and magnetic, whether we’re dealing with DIY backpackers or diamond-plated megastars. Macklemore’s eager-to-please energy simply does not work on me. It makes me want to lie down.

“Can’t Hold Us” pretty much bypassed the traditionally Black rap audience. It got virtually no airplay on rap or R&B stations. Instead, the song went straight into the pop mainstream, and it become an absolute blockbuster. The Seahawks made “Can’t Hold Us” their touchdown song, and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis performed it at the NFC Championship halftime show in 2014. It still plays at T-Mobile Park whenever the Mariners hit a home run. Maybe some European soccer teams adapted it, too. It played in tons of ads and movie trailers. “Can’t Hold Us” was the most-played track on Spotify for all of 2013. The video has more than a billion views. As I said above, the single went diamond, which means Macklemore now has two of those. It’s also the last top-10 hit for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, though they’ve got a few songs that came close to that level.

The success of “Can’t Hold Us” gave Ray Dalton at least a bit of a music career. He never made the Hot 100 again, but he continues to crank out singles, and some of them do pretty well in Europe. Judging by his chart numbers, he’s a full-on star in Poland. “Can’t Hold Us” also built a whole lot more momentum for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Their follow-up single was their attempt at a grand statement. Two years before the Supreme Court enshrined same-sex marriage as a legal right, their song “Same Love” made an awkwardly sincere case for changes in the law. (Originally, the song was intended to work as part of a successful campaign to legalize gay marriage in Washington.) The intentions are so noble, and the song, with its Mary Lambert hook, is sometimes pretty. But it sounded clumsy and forced at the time, and it’s only become more so since.

At the 2014 Grammys, Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and Mary Lambert performed “Same Love” while Queen Latifah presided over a mass wedding of 33 mostly-queer couples. (Latifah’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “U.N.I.T.Y.,” peaked at #23.) At the end, Madonna showed up and sang a little bit of “Open Your Heart.” It was difficult to watch, and I would love to hear where those 33 couples are now. Maybe the world needed spectacles like this to help push gay marriage through, but this kind of self-congratulatory display goes way beyond self-parody, into the realm of secondhand humiliation. Today, “Same Love” is probably best-remembered as the inspiration for the Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping showstopper “Equal Rights (Not Gay).”

With that mass wedding at the Grammys, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were practically begging for a backlash, and they got one, but it wasn’t for that performance. Instead, the real Macklemore backlash came when the awards were handed out. On the televised portion of the evening, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won Best New Artist, beating James Blake and future Number Ones artists Kendrick Lamar, Kacey Musgraves, and Ed Sheeran. Macklemore and Lewis also swept the rap awards. In the Best Rap Album category, The Heist defeated Drake, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and, most egregiously, Kendrick Lamar’s breakout Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, a genuine instant rap classic. Plenty of people were not happy about this. One of those people was Macklemore.

After winning Best Rap Album, Mackemore sent a text to Kendrick Lamar, and he essentially apologized for his victory: “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you.” We know this because Macklemore posted a screenshot of that text on Instagram. Macklemore’s victory rankled, and his performative humility only made it worse. A few years later, Macklemore told The New York Times, “I think that I reacted out of a place of fear. Being able to see the machine for what it is and then still benefiting that from that machine. Knowing who makes up committees, who the program directors are, who the intended audience is, mainstream success, white America: When you look at all these things and how they add up, I felt conflicted about the win. As much as I still probably believe what that sentiment was, doing that in a public space was a mistake.” He’s not wrong. The text went viral in all the worst ways.

Backlash or not, The Heist was a full-on smash, going platinum five times over. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis went on an arena tour, and they took along underground rappers Talib Kweli and Big K.R.I.T. as their openers. “Same Love” peaked at #11, and “White Walls,” another single from the album, made it to #15. That last one is a collaboration with Kendrick Lamar’s old comrade ScHoolboy Q, and the difference between the two rappers’ approaches is both immediately obvious and hard to describe. ScHoolboy Q doesn’t sound like he’s trying to stay on topic, and he’s definitely not worried about how people will take what he’s saying. Both rappers cuss, but only one of them sounds profane. It’s a difference. (ScHoolboy Q’s highest-charting lead-artist single, the 2014 BJ The Chicago Kid collab “Studio,” peaked at #38.)

It took nearly four years for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis to return with another album, partly because Macklemore suffered a brief relapse. “Downtown,” the lead single from 2016’s This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, was Macklemore and Lewis’ attempt at their own Seattle-pride anthem, but it sounded like it was built for a different city’s Broadway. The track featured a big hook from Foxy Shazam singer Eric Nally, as well as a sort of Greek chorus of old-school legends Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Caz. The song was a big swing, and it didn’t fully connect, at least not on the level of the singles from The Heist. “Downtown” peaked at #15, and then Macklemore and Ryan Lewis never made the Hot 100 together again.

One of the other advance singles from This Unruly Mess I’ve Made was a nine-minute exegesis called “White Privilege II” — an act of full-on self-conscious career seppuku that I must vaguely respect, even if I’ll never listen to the song again. The album also has “Spoons,” which is a song about spooning. At the time, I wrote that it was the worst song that had ever been recorded, and I’m not about to fact-check myself by going back and listening again. Neither song was remotely popular. In that Times interview, Macklemore said, “Maybe that’s the best thing for our careers, to not have a hit right now.” Sure. Maybe. In any case, Elvis status averted.

To be clear: I do not hate Macklemore. In every interview, he seems like a very decent human being. During the 2016 elections, he jumped on a remix of the YG anthem “FDT” — as in, “Fuck Donald Trump.” His verse is not good, but recording it was the right thing to do. More recently, Macklemore spoke out at a massive rally in solidarity with Palestinian people, and he became one of the first mainstream celebrities to say that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. I like the guy. I just cannot handle his music.

This Unruly Mess I’ve Made bricked, and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis went on hiatus in 2017. Lewis co-wrote and produced “Praying,” the emotive comeback single from Kesha, an artist who’s been in this column a couple of times. (“Praying” peaked at #22.) Since then, Lewis has worked with groups like Panic! At The Disco, Fitz And The Tantrums, and Dan + Shay, which seems about right. Macklemore also worked with Kesha, another artist who has existed at weird places on the pop/rap divide. The two of them went out on a co-headlining tour in 2017, and their collaboration “Good Old Days” is Macklemore’s highest-charting single since he and Ryan Lewis broke up. (It peaked at #48.)

After his 2017 solo album Gemini, Macklemore disappeared for a while. During the pandemic, he relapsed again; he’s since recovered. Last year, Macklemore returned with another solo album called Ben. It was mostly produced by longtime collaborator Budo, but Ryan Lewis worked on a couple of tracks. Touring behind Ben, Macklemore mostly played smaller venues, but he did two sold-out nights at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle. He’s still the man there. Good for him. It must be great to be a local hero in your own town. I wish Macklemore well, even if I never want to listen to his music again.

GRADE: 3/10

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BONUS BEATS: Even after losing the Best New Artist Grammy to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, future Number Ones artist Ed Sheeran showed up on “Growing Up (Sloane’s Song),” a track from This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. Last August, Sheeran played Seattle’s Lumen Field. During his set, Sheeran brought out Macklemore, and the two of them did “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us” together. Here’s fan footage of “Can’t Hold Us”:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Justin Timberlake’s swooning, rippling mega-ballad “Mirrors” peaked at #2 behind “Can’t Hold Us.” It’s an 8.

THE 10S: Icona Pop and Charli XCX’s joyously bratty electroclash trash attack “I Love It” peaked at #7 behind “Can’t Hold Us.” I! Don’t! Care! I love it! It’s a 10!

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Non-Hachette publishers out here, now they can’t tell me nothin’. Buy the book here.

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