The Ones of the ’10s: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” (feat. Wanz)

In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.

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Macklemore & Ryan Lewis- “Thrift Shop” (feat. Wanz)

HIT #1: February 2, 2013

STAYED AT #1: 6 weeks

No matter how much we try to celebrate artists for bucking the record label and getting big with the music they want to make, they are still beholden to their label one way or another. Very rarely do artists get big on their own terms without some form of label support. It’s just a part of the system and a necessary one at that since oftentimes an artist has to get the financial and promotional backing from their label that’s important in getting their name out there with the music listening public. 

On that note, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis might just be the ultimate grassroots success story in music. The Seattle based rapper/producer duo had built up a loyal hometown following for a few years without releasing a proper album and being signed to a major label. Even when they finally released their debut album, 2012’s The Heist, and began scoring major hits worldwide, the duo were still an independent entity doing everything on their own term. 

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ rise to fame would end spectacularly in an infamous fashion but for a hot minute in 2013, they were it scoring four major hits from The Heist. That includes two #1s that including Billboard’s #1 single for 2013 which is all about how Macklemore loves buying used products from a thrift store and how it’s so fucking awesome. 

Macklemore was pushing 30 when he first hit #1 but had been making music for well over a decade by that point. Born Ben Haggerty, Macklemore spent his early life growing up in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood taking a liking to hip-hop at a very young age. (The #1 single on the Hot 100 when Macklemore was born was Irene Cara’s “Flashdance…What A Feeling.”) During high school, Macklemore set his sights on a rap career adopting the stage name Professor Macklemore named after a superhero he created for an art project. After several musical projects, Macklemore released music of his own with his debut mixtape Open Yours Eyes in 2000 but it wasn’t until 2005 when he released his debut album The Language of My World released under his now shortened stage name Macklemore. I can’t find much information on it but it helped to create buzz for Macklemore online and in the Seattle community. 

In 2006, Macklemore met a rising DJ/producer/photographer Ryan Lewis on MySpace and quickly joined forces. Lewis, like Macklemore, is another Washington state native growing up in Spokane where he played in various rock bands as a teen before shifting his focus towards production work eventually moving to Seattle. (The #1 single on the Hot 100 when Ryan Lewis was born was Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.”) For their first three years, Lewis largely worked as Macklemore’s promotional photographer as Macklemore went into rehab for drug and alcohol addiction before graduating with a bachelor’s degree from The Evergreen State College.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis officially made their debut as a duo with the 2009 mixtape The VS. EP and followed it quickly with another mixtape, 2010’s VS. Redux EP, which netted a local hit with the Red Hot Chili Peppers sampling “Otherside.” Again, can’t find much information on these projects in terms of chart success and reception though The VS. EP reached #7 on iTunes’ hip-hop chart.

In any case, the duo became the type of rising act that becomes a sensation in their hometown but little outside it performing at major festivals including Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza and even selling out music venues in Seattle. As with many rap acts, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis proudly repped for their hometown releasing “My Oh My” a tribute to the recently deceased Dave Niehaus, the longtime announcer for the Seattle Mariners baseball team, and performed it during the Mariners’ 2011 Opening Day to a sold-out audience.

All this attention certainly helped to grow the duo’s buzz but early on they made no impact on the pop charts. Their first four singles got buzz both locally and online but failed to chart on the Hot 100 though a couple of those singles eventually made their chart impact after the duo’s breakthrough including one that will eventually appear in this column. All of the attention each single got helped to build up hype for the duo’s first album, The Heist. Released in October 2012, the album managed to debut and peak at #2 on the album charts behind Mumford & Sons’ eventual Album of the Year winning Babel

“Thrift Shop” wound up being the fourth single from the album as the previous three singles wound up on The Heist though the song could easily be seen as the lead-off single since it was released a couple of months before the album’s release. There’s no big story behind “Thrift Shop.” Talking to MTV News, Macklemore described “Thrift Shop” as the complete opposite of what rappers normally talk about,

“Rappers talk about, oh I buy this and I buy that, and I spend this much money and I make it rain, and this type of champagne and painting the club, and this is the kind of record that’s the exact opposite. It’s the polar opposite of it. It’s kind of standing for like let’s save some money, let’s keep some money away, let’s spend as little as possible and look as fresh as possible at the same time.”

Because of the song’s unusual lyrical nature, both Macklemore & Ryan Lewis didn’t think “Thrift Shop” would be much of a hit. Lewis almost gave away the song’s beat feeling that he couldn’t get a melody goofy enough for the song. Macklemore had this to say to Rolling Stone,

“I wouldn’t have anticipated that a song about used clothes would be #1. I thought it was a niche song with some pop appeal – never thought it would get played on the radio, much less get where it is now.”

You can easily see why they would think this way. This was an act that had become local stars with celebratory songs as well as songs that were socially conscious. A goofy song about shopping at a thrift store wasn’t exactly what they were known for. 

Course what helped in the song’s appeal was its catchy chorus and outro sung by local Seattle artist and musician Wanz. More than two decades older than Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Wanz grew up in Seattle singing in church and school before studying jazz at Central Washington University. (The #1 single on the Hot 100 when Wanz was born was Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road Jack.”) During his 20s and 30s, Wanz played in several local bands but none of them were big and soon wound up making money by singing and writing hooks for local artists becoming known as he said “the Nate Dogg of the North End of Seattle.”

But by the time of “Thrift Shop,” Wanz had long given up on a music career where aside from a few engagements he was making money as a full-time software engineer for companies like Microsoft, Adapt, and Volt. (It’s weird to think that the guy who sang the chorus on a #1 single was working as a software engineer.) Wanz was still well known in the Seattle music scene though that the head of his label calls him about working with Macklemore who wanted a Nate Dogg style singer on the “Thrift Shop” hook. Having heard of Macklemore but not his music, Wanz quickly went to the studio to meet with Macklemore and Lewis where Macklemore showed him the chorus and recorded his part in about 45 minutes. 

Lyrically, “Thrift Shop” is bragging about how awesome it is to shop at a thrift store like it’s the coolest thing in the world. Macklemore raps about all the things he buys in a confident yet goofy delivery that lets you know he’s not the least bit serious about how we may look. He brags about items like a broken keyboard, skeet blanket, velcro sneakers, zebra jammies, dookie brown leather jacket, Velour jumpsuit, etc. He’s rapping like the kid who wants to show everyone what he got. Wanz in his part adds to the confident and silly coolness of the song. As his nickname implies, Wanz is here to serve as the smooth and cool sounding hook singer and it works and I especially like his part on the outro where the synths build up next to him. And Ryan Lewis’ production brings a fun catchy quality to the song with its reporting sax riff. 

We see this style come through in the music video. The duo directed along with veteran director Jon Jon Agustavo and it’s essentially a local showcase filming at various locations around Seattle and showing various local musicians. (Macklemore had attempted to get Seattle rapper and one-time #1 artist himself, Sir Mix-A-Lot, to appear but didn’t answer back.) Macklemore appears in various outfits including a large fur coat and Batman-themed pajamas while showing off his various items and leading a group of fellow thrift shoppers. There’s also a woman lip-syncing the chorus and Wanz showing up at the end in a bright-colored suit and riding around in a fancy yacht for some reason.

Now “Thrift Shop” isn’t a fucking awesome song to me. It’s a bit too jokey sounding for my tastes. “Thrift Shop” isn’t exactly a novelty song especially compared to the next song I’ll be reviewing but the mocking tone of the sax riff, the kid noises, and sound effects in the intro add a novelty esque quality that can make it hard to get into and wears itself out after a while. There’s also an R. Kelly reference that hasn’t aged well. It’s the kind of breakout hit that could have easily led to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis being one-hit wonders.

“Thrift Shop” became the first #1 since Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You)” from 1994 to be from an independent artist. But the surprise success didn’t revitalize Wanz’s career for long. He hasn’t made the Hot 100 since and as of 2015 went back to his software job after touring with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Macklemore & Lewis meanwhile continued their dominance. They’ll be back in this column soon enough. 

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Thrift Shop” soundtracking Melissa McCarthy walking into a fast-food restaurant in 2014’s Tammy:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Macklemore performing a garbage themed version of “Thrift Shop” titled “Grouch Thrift Shop” on a 2015 episode of Sesame Street:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a version of “Thrift Shop” that Verizon used in its 2016 holiday commercial parodying much of the music video:

THE 10S OF THE ’10S: Justin Timberlake and JAY-Z’s smooth and stylish retro R&B collaboration “Suit & Tie” peaked at #3 behind “Thrift Shop.” It’s so fly and it’s an 8.