Lorde’s single “Royals” has been at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks — enough time for pop listeners to begin expressing their discontent at the perceived politics of the song. A common critique has been that the young New Zealand native is specifically mocking the tropes of hip-hop when she sings about rejecting “Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece / Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.” As Verónica Bayetti Flores wrote on Feministing: “What I do find problematic […] is to focus a critique of excessive consumption to a genre both created and currently dominated by Black Americans, particularly when the vast majority of excess consumption is done by White people.”
“Royals” arguably critiques popular music across genres. But its mockery of hip-hop may stand out in part because that mockery places it squarely in the middle of American pop music right now. As rock critic Chris Weingarten pointed out on Twitter, two of this year’s other long-running No. 1 hits are racially problematic in the extreme.
“Thrift Shop,” the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis song, treats shopping for used clothes as a fun treat for White people to enjoy; Macklemore raps that people who see him in his new duds call him a “cold-ass honky.” The song’s racial issues are closely conflated with class — thrift shopping is treated as an amusing hobby, and not as an economic necessity. But starting with the fact that Macklemore is a White man attempting a hip-hop career, there’s a certain element of race mockery at work here, not least because the song, as the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica wrote, aspires to be a “robust sendup of hip-hop-extravagance clichés” — a status the song itself doesn’t earn strictly on qualitative grounds (pitched at a broad audience, it’s not particularly witty).
Macklemore seems to be rebuking the almost entirely Black hip-hop world for its concern with wealth, preaching to a perceived hypermaterialist group of artists that true satisfaction can be found by rejecting pricey duds. Jay-Z and Kanye West, whose “Watch the Throne” album dealt at length with what it means to be among the wealthy in an inherently racist nation, are only two of the artists whose message is being distorted and flattened out by a mass audience laughing at how silly it is that rappers can afford and choose to buy luxury goods.
Macklemore has acknowledged that he would not be nearly as successful were he a Black artist — but the reason for that isn’t merely that, as he’s said, he’s “safe.” It’s because mocking Black artists and their music is a practice that apparently never goes out of style. He may be “the first contextually post-Black pop-star rapper,” but his first successful single is built not merely on a genre associated with Black artists but on tearing down the myths he seems to be playing into.