Since rap is founded on Black men dazzling listeners as they bring the opportunities and dissension of American livelihood to life, it constantly befuddles me that fans latch on to white rappers like they’re a slap-hitting shortstop. Every five years, a white rapper that wouldn’t survive on a Wu-Tang song—or on a Youngboy song, for that matter—reaches stratospheric levels of popularity. White fans are comfortable with white rappers because they’re wallpaper for expensive production, studio intuitiveness, and work ethic, not because they’re saying anything more heartbreaking or hard-hitting than the Black rappers these listeners tend to ignore. White rappers take advantage of the vulturous incentive structure of music streaming services by riding waves that their Black and more dynamic counterparts already made. Amid all the posturing and confusion as to why a grating mediocrity like Jack Harlow is now a superstar, we forget that his massive commercial success has been made possible by the look-alikes of the past, and that Harlow-type characters are a timeless feature of the grift that is American fame.
Rap fans of every color always seem to fall for people like Harlow: a guy whose whiteness makes him easy to sell to the masses and who also has good enough rap etiquette for Black people to accept him. One of his crucial forerunners was Mac Miller, the Pittsburgh emcee who tragically died of a drug overdose in 2018, at the age of 26. Since then, Miller has somehow become the subject of an upcoming biography, held an audience of 20 million monthly Spotify listeners, and released a posthumous album. It is all way too celebratory for a musician that made progressive-seeming rap for secret simpletons. In the same way Harlow is mid for the proletariat, Miller is mid for the faux-thinkers.
The continuing popularity and high critical status of Mac Miller comes from rap fandom’s lasting relationship with whiteness, the kind of whiteness that is inoffensive and cheerful. Miller is put on a pedestal for his gregariousness, not because he rapped at an especially high level. The fact he’s considered a legend goes beyond the rudimentary idea of white privilege. The catchall of “cultural appropriation” doesn’t quite explain it either. We don’t have a word for the larger phenomena of a figure like Mac Miller being lauded as if he was Tupac, but like a white supremacist I know once said, you’re seeing it more and more every day.
Early in his career, Mac Miller was known as a frat rapper. Miller rapped about his dick, drinking, and weed, in the same vein as Asher Roth, or even Ad-Rock. He made an album for the frat boys that get bullied by the more dominant frat boys. There wasn’t even a pathological American Psycho-type ethos for listeners to grapple with in Miller’s early work, which offered white male mediocrity in especially miniature form. It also wasn’t believable because it didn’t go deep enough.
Rap listeners want to hear the darkest thoughts that the well-meaning side of your brain doesn’t want you to say. At least one major white rapper has broken through that important mental and artistic barrier. The music of Eminem had its sacrifice of musicality and other pitfalls, but only Woody Allen, Kendall Roy, and Bill Clinton did white male angst as well as Mr. Mathers. Of course Woody’s male angst is more specifically Jewish than Eminem’s. Miller was Jewish too, but that’s an identity that’s more a part of Drake’s work than his. Drake has rapped about whether he went astray by not going to yeshiva and got bar mitzvahed in a hit music video. At the same time, he’s talked about Jewish kids calling him a “schvartze,” a derogatory Yiddish term for Black kids. Drake’s Blackness and Jewishness operates as a pressure cooker, or as two gravitational poles of his being. Miller generally shied away from anything as interesting as all that, and rarely rhymed about what, if anything, his Jewish background meant to him.
The suburban fantasia that both exists within and dutifully devours the works of Judd Apatow and Adam McKay can sleep well at night knowing that Blue Slide Park, Miller’s 2011 debut full-length, sold a respectable 150,000 albums in the first week after its 2011 release, good for No. 1 on the Billboard chart. Needless to say, it got some awful reviews. Pitchfork gave it a 1.0, in what amounted to a public spanking.
Miller was embarrassed. To his credit, he went to work. Moving from the hip-hop backwater of Pittsburgh to a Los Angeles scene and with rappers like Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples headlining it paid dividends. Mac took some inspiration from Earl, the Odd Future-affiliated lyrical savant, and produced several tracks with him, earning the co-sign of one of the leading artists of his generation. Miller showed he was willing to tackle more complex sounds within jazz rap, signaling to audiences that he was hip to more cutting-edge sounds, and was an active part of a thriving artistic community. He never rapped that well, and never made a project that advanced his subgenre of progressive jazz rap, but he was able to push to the next level of fame by becoming a well-known cog in a larger machine. Next came 2013’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off and the 2014 mixtape Faces. With songs like “Diablo,” Miller had become passable. Faces is now regarded as a modern classic, both for its addiction blues and its solid production, but it still wasn’t a good album, just a continuance of a ready-made style that stronger rappers had perfected.
As Miller was blowing up, something about his success struck me as inauthentic and unearned. People work harder to get better in all kinds of different fields, but they still have to be skillful as their damn selves. Despite his struggles with substance abuse, Miller owes his style to the better rappers who inspired him, not to his own personal experiences. On songs like “100 Grandkids,” he has bars that sound like the 2000s Atlanta trap icon Jeezy (“I could sell snow to a ski slope”) and others that are unremarkable weed talk. Typical of Miller, the song has no rich ideas; even its most biting parts aren’t edgy enough to risk seeming unacceptable. Meanwhile Miller could never get to the level of the superior artists he’d worked with. The shadow of Earl Sweatshirt, a rapper whose angst and sophistication widely outpaces Miller’s, was hovering over every album Miller ever made.
Now, guys like Earl and Vince wouldn’t ever complain that Miller couldn’t hang with them skillwise. Miller was their friend and collaborator. Miller paid his dues and put the two LA trailblazers in a position where they could succeed off of the former frat rapper’s growing fame. Miller’s production, the best aspect of his work, was honed through hours of studio time with those two gentlemen. This proximity explains Miller’s legitimacy in hip-hop circles better than his actual music does. In the same way that Jack Harlow has respect from noteworthy street rapper EST Gee—and might not even have reached chart-topper status if the embattled Charlotte superstar DaBaby hadn’t endorsed him—Miller is someone that rappers have respect for because of the way he carried himself around them. In a lot of ways, he is our token white emcee, someone who Jay-Z can say “he nice, too” about after listing off the Black rappers who the Brooklyn legend thinks of as influential.
Miller’s acclaim gets at this striking reality that Black rappers can make a white rapper huge, but it doesn’t resolve any of the inequities in how rappers are perceived and has made them even starker. From the Black perspective, there’s a tension between wanting hip-hop to be appreciated while not wanting the white fans to overstep. Eminem was an Elvis-like cultural earthquake, a singular talent that still used Black music to make himself a culture-dominating figure, until he mellowed into a more acceptable version of the Mountain Dew music of Kid Rock. Even the success of early career Eminem makes some listeners uneasy. In particular, Black fans can’t understand why someone loved in part because of his whiteness is so mad at the world. Eminem’s skill wouldn’t be as big a deal if he wasn’t white. He would maybe be rated as high as Redman or Method Man, who are great, but they aren’t the biggest-selling artists of their time the way Eminem was.
Post Malone, the next white hip-hop megastar after Eminem, was written off by critics, even white ones, for making statements that contributed to rockist and popist tropes about hip-hop as a genre lacking emotional awareness. Not only was this asinine view not true, it was especially rich addressed to a guy whose breakout song was called “White Iverson.” Nowadays, Malone has settled into a bland career headlining festivals and arenas. He barely says anything anymore. He learned how to be acceptable, and nothing else.
Oregon rapper Yeat, who is far less radio-friendly than Post Malone, is currently making waves for his woozy production and seeming inescapability online. But it’s a farce. Yeat is not a strong writer, nor is he particularly mysterious, no matter how hard he seems to be trying. Listen past the bells and reverb and his music is just a version of Playboi Carti and the Young Stoner Life records trap sound, except without their engaging personalities, and without their sense of caginess that often functions as its own new language. When Carti’s rapping, it’s subversive and challenging, and his use of negative space is unnerving. If Yeat sounds like a white kid that wanted to rap after hearing Whole Lotta Red or Back From the Dead, it’s because that’s exactly who he is. The Portland product is nothing more than a junkie of edgier-sounding popular tastes. He’s the cautionary tale, or the poster child, for Soundcloud rap tropes. Nothing about him is personable or inscrutable. He’s just a guy who likes music.
A generation that has to deal with death on a massive scale and cataclysmic levels of poverty deserves better. We already made the mistake of thinking Travis Scott was actually good. The mediocre rap artists that have progressive sensibilities, who use jazz production, 808 snares, or mid-tempo funk, can be just as bad as mediocre rappers who have a more shopworn sound. There are artists who really do prove the auteur theory of hip-hop—Tyler the Creator, or Playboi Carti— and then there’s whatever it is that Yeat and Travis Scott do.
Yeat and Miller are both rappers with a supposedly futuristic sound, but they do nothing remarkable with their apparent love of better, earlier music. At its worst and most cynical, their output is a corrupt comedy under the guise of prog-rap. Yeat is meant for the Soundcloud comment section—meant for the types of fans that chide Eminem for his crassness but somehow don’t bat an eye at Yeat’s questionable turban. Yeat and his trademark headwear put him closer to Malone than to Miller, but they’re all from the same ilk. They’re white rappers for whom originality isn’t the selling point.
As with Miller, white fans love this dude. On the music blog No Bells’ YouTube page, there is a video where a white fan (who suspiciously looks like Jack Harlow if the Louisville star was a fitness freak) says that Yeat is “just the GOAT. Like who else is fucking with him?” If this video wasn’t so hilarious, seeing this high school sophomore go on to express dissatisfaction at the music of Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert would make me sport a dashiki that might put Dr. Umar to shame.
At least Mac Miller eventually became a passable writer, something Yeat, Post Malone, and Harlow haven’t become and may never become. His taste led him to understand that in order to succeed, the slushy and cloudy raps of Earl Sweatshirt had to become his style too. Dropping bars about addiction, no matter how average they are, is also a personally risky move that can get you a huge amount of fans if the music connects, which it clearly did for a large number of people. Miller was trying his best to succeed, and the attempt actually does count for something.
I genuinely think most white rap fans and artists aren’t posturing and actually do care about hip-hop. Most of them aren’t trying to make a joke of the genre. To be a human being is to give people grace and patience. And to be a Black hip-hop fan is to want hip-hop to be recognized while still being wary of who will recognize it and how—and why.
White fans, who don’t come from the same background as us, are figuring it out. White fans are mostly earnestly trying to engage in a genre that occupies space in the minds and hearts of Black Americans in every place in the nation. Because of the socioeconomic prison that rappers grow up in, they understand the freedom a Black person has when they have finally achieved their dreams. In the course of gaining this freedom, the best rappers come to understand how conditional and unusual that freedom is, meaning that no matter where they go, they still aren’t totally free. Even when rappers start to turn into billionaires like Jay-Z, they discover the ravening and ironclad mentality needed to reach and stay at that level. Rap is a genre, but it’s also life, no matter if it is expressed in a high-minded protest song or in a populist street anthem like “We Paid.” When Mac Miller became big, what did it really mean? His success was almost a manifestation of the less freighted mindset of the white fan.
Miller was trying earnestly to succeed in hip-hop. People saw him working hard and paying his dues. When he tragically passed, fans were shell-shocked. He had made it: He had a feature on a DJ Premier beat. He made a song with the legendary Cam’ron. Mac was so persistent and likable that people now thought of his high status as earned. White fans want that acceptance too. They saw Mac’s acceptance and internalized it as their own, on top of however much they enjoyed listening to the lesser version of the prog rap scene in Los Angeles. Miller’s success shows that white fans still need that feeling of thinking they’ve been allowed in.
It was never only about the music with Mac. It was about how he started in hip-hop, what white fans saw in him, and how Black fans and artists are secretly drawn to white rappers that treat us with respect. He wasn’t craven or embarrassing like Post Malone or Yeat, which means Miller can be invited to a Jay-Z tweet thread of all-time greats that he had no business being in.
In a sign of real progress, Jack Harlow’s latest album, Come Home the Kids Miss You, was widely considered a flop. Critics panned it. Harlow’s careerism is hollow and cynical. The now-infamous anecdote about him wanting to be the “biggest rapper in the world” as a teenager shows the calculated self-promotion you need to become a star. That’s all Jack Harlow has. The only thing he is good at is wanting to become a star. After that burning desire wanes into actual stardom, listeners typically discover an emptiness that has doubters giving “I told you so” looks to everyone. His failures produce a lopsided sly smile that only Jessie Buckley can replicate.
Miller has been dead for years, so his own adjustment of reputation to reality might take a little longer. Mac Miller’s The Divine Feminine landed on the Rolling Stone Top 200 hip-hop albums list, outrageously enough. The centerpiece song on the album is “Dang!” where Miller raps such immortal lines as “I just eat pussy other people need food.” It doesn’t seem out of the question that Harlow will become a more working-class Mac Miller, skating by with a do-gooder sense of ethics and passable music. Mac Miller or Jack Harlow is not to be blamed for this American habit of elevating mediocrity, but they are the ones to benefit from it. The cheerful-faced alabaster rapper never adds anything. They lack the deep pain and complexity that characterized the work of less-famous Black artists.
The weird adulation for Miller makes some sense. He actually did improve and dive into some risky production. But he was never a top-tier artist. In life, he became what he was for reasons that had more to do with the economies and psychologies of his era’s hip-hop scene than they did with his actual music. The mystique that makes him appear to be anything more than what he was comes largely from the fact that he’s dead.
Jayson Buford is a New York-based writer, a lifelong Knicks fan, who loves Wu-Tang and his English bulldog, Joan. He still watches Woody Allen movies.