Just a year ago, the hip-hop community and beyond saw headlines reading “Mac Miller dead at 26.”
The Pittsburgh-born rapper and producer was an ever-changing artist within the hip-hop community. For fans who followed him over the course of his 11- year career, we saw his career transform from frat-rap with singles like “Donald Trump” to albums riddled with prolific, sometimes somber lyricism and jazz-heavy influences. (See “Brand Name” or “God Is Fair, Sexy Nasty” to understand his artistic metamorphosis.)
Beyond his lyrical and production style, what made Miller a unique figure in the genre, what gives reason to a sold-out celebration of life and what explains J.Cole almost coming to tears during a tribute to the late rapper was the way he, a white rapper, lyrically navigated a genre that wasn’t made for him.
When thinking about Mac’s place in hip-hop, there’s one tweet, written by the legend Jay-Z himself, that stands out: “Too many .. Fab, black people really magic. Mac Miller nice too though.” As HOVA riddled a list of rappers that inspired him back in 2017, Mac, along with Eminem, was the only non-Black rapper.
Without question, there’s something special about Jay-Z, arguably the current apex of hip-hop, singling out Miller in celebration of a genre created for and by Black people. And when I think about the ways in which other non-Black rappers and artists have engaged with the genre, what stands out about Miller was his commitment to authenticity.
I look to 2010, when his breakout mixtape K.I.D.S. (Kickin’ Incredibly Dope Shit) dropped, where Miller presented himself as a genuine storyteller. He didn’t have to finagle his way into hip-hop with false hardships, gimmicks or by mimicking a certain persona. 18-year-old Mac rapped about skipping school and smoking weed — the teenage experience.
The tape’s opening lines: “When you’re young, not much matters. When you find something that you care about, then that’s all you got,” were automatically relatable. Lyrics like these were predecessors to later lyrical grapples with fame, addiction, love and recovery; where Mac spoke his truth.
They speak to the ways in which he used hip-hop — with honesty and vulnerability. We saw Mac grow with each project and he grew without trying to be someone he wasn’t.
Describing the ways in which the late rapper used the pen authentically may be deemed basic criteria to laud a white rapper, but it juxtaposes the ways in which we typically see non-Black people occupy space in hip-hop.
Outside of Miller, when thinking about contemporary non-Black rappers and artists in hip-hop culture, my face sours. There’s Rich Brian, who gained notoriety in the game through his former name Rich Chigga — a play on a racial slur.
There are the Little Dickys and earlier counterpart Riff Raff who make outrageously silly songs to sell records. There’s Australian-born Iggy Azalea who called herself a “runaway slave master” and mimics a southern accent while rapping; and there’s Tekashi 6ix9ine, whose music is saturated with the n-word, along with a host of others who intend to profit off of shock value.
Although these few don’t represent the breadth of diversity in the genre, we often see non-Black rappers and artists engage in hip-hop by cherry-picking elements of Black culture that aid them in rising to fame, rather than a focus on true lyricism, creativity and authenticity.
There’s no doubt that there’s space in the genre for non-lyrical rap or gimmicks, we see Black rappers in both arenas. But I often question if Rich Brian would even have a following if his name wasn’t originally Rich Chigga.
I worry whether non-Blackness coupled with cultural appropriation, shock value antics and racial insensitivity have become key to entering the culture — but rappers like Mac and the legacy he left calm nerves.
Beyond his lyrics, you can Google Mac Miller beside phrases like “the n-word” or “cultural appropriation,” looking to find a flaw but your search will run dry. And over the course of his career, the rapper who shied away from racial discourse became more and more aware of the way his whiteness existed in the genre.
In a 2016 documentary from “The Fader, Stopped Making Excuses,” Mac laid his privilege on the floor.
“I think I got a benefit from being white,” Miller said. “I think that was a huge boost for me and a guilty thing when I was coming up, like ‘Ah fuck, am I only here because I’m white? Is that the only reason?’”
Mac Miller’s ability to have a successful hip-hop career without offending anybody shouldn’t necessarily be celebrated nor should his acknowledgment of privilege.
We also shouldn’t celebrate the genre for its acceptance of him, especially with the issues hip-hop has with accepting and respecting the voices of women and the LGBTQ community. But his self-awareness lyrically and racially should serve as a blueprint for those who want to enter the culture from the outside.
Miller’s career shows us that quality rap music is quality rap. He didn’t have to be anyone but Malcolm, no matter how raw and unpretty that man was, to move people and sell records.
And that’s why “Mac Miller nice too though.”
Ellice Ellis is a senior writing about the music industry and social justice. Her column “Everything but the Song” runs every other Tuesday.