NEW YORK — Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have managed a pretty nifty trick: They are underdogs who are leading the pack.
The Seattle hip-hop duo went from unknowns to arena-filling stars in the course of a year or so, and their No. 1 smashes “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us” made them the first duo in history to have their first two singles top the charts.
In what may be their biggest accomplishment yet, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis go into Grammy night with the best shot to take home the biggest awards. They have seven nominations overall and are the only artists with nominations in three of the top four categories — including album of the year for “The Heist,” song of the year for “Same Love” and best new artist.
“Seven is unbelievable,” Lewis told CNN after the nominations were announced. “We came here hoping for one.”
For the year, Jay Z actually tops the nominations with nine. However, he was nominated twice in two categories, making him eligible to win only seven awards, just like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Kendrick Lamar, Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams.
What makes their nominations success even more surprising is that they released “The Heist,” which went platinum last year, on their own Macklemore label. Everything about the project had an indie, do-it-yourself vibe that challenged business as usual in the music industry. And now, it seems, the music industry is ready to reward them for it over previous Grammy darlings, including Timberlake, who got shut out of the top categories even though his album “The 20/20 Experience” was his first in seven years and the biggest-selling album of 2013.
Instead of using the usual go-to hip-hop collaborators to appear on their songs — like Chris Brown, Lil Wayne or Pharrell — the duo went with lesser-known artists from the Seattle area. “Thrift Shop” features an appearance from 52-year-old soul singer Wanz. “Can’t Hold Us” has 22-year-old newcomer Ray Dalton singing the chorus. And “Same Love” includes 24-year-old singer-songwriter Mary Lambert on the hook.
The unconventional team also created some unconventional themes for hip-hop. “Thrift Shop” challenges the widely held hip-hop ideal of using expensive clothes and designer labels to convey status. “I am stuntin’ and flossin’ and savin’ my money and I’m hella happy that’s a bargain,” Macklemore declares, before questioning why anyone would pay $50 for a T-shirt.
For “Same Love,” Macklemore simply declares his support for same-sex marriage by telling his own personal stories and bringing Lambert in to sing about hers. By using hip-hop to drive his point home, Macklemore questions the genre’s ongoing use of homophobic slurs without battling over it. He just offers another rarely seen outlook. “A certificate on paper isn’t gonna solve it all, but it’s a damn good place to start,” Macklemore raps. “No law is gonna change us. We have to change us.”
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ outsider attitude even extends to their acceptance speeches for awards. At the American Music Awards, after the duo won for favorite rap/hip-hop album, Macklemore skipped the usual thank yous and referenced Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen shot and killed in 2012. “I want to acknowledge Trayvon Martin and the hundreds and hundreds of kids each year that are dying due to racial profiling and the violence that follows it,” he said. “It’s time that we look out for the youth and fight against racism and the laws that protect it.”
The duo’s conscience-raising actions and their unorthodox approach, as well as their unquestionable commercial success, should gain them plenty of votes from the Recording Academy, which likes to recognize all of those qualities.
Of course, there could be some spoilers. New Zealand teen Lorde has several of the same qualities going for her with her smash “Royals,” which is up for record of the year and song of the year, as is Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven.”
And the hip-hop establishment hasn’t been completely supportive of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, which will actually make it tougher for them to win in the rap categories — voted on only by those working in the rap field — than in the general categories, which are voted on by all members of the Recording Academy.
“Up until a year, a year and a half ago, we were an underground rap group that only a small percentage of the population knew about,” Macklemore told MTV News after the nominations were announced. “I never thought that our music would affect this many people and be heard by this many people. It’s the highest honor. It’s the peak of what you strive for in terms of being recognized for the music that you make.