Almost overnight, Macklemore became a pop star and internet pariah. Now he tries to tear it all down.
You may find it hard to believe that Macklemore was once a ramshamble everyman. But it’s true.
Ever since he dropped his debut album The Language of My World in 2005, Macklemore has presented himself as an earnest, funny, knucklehead regular white kid from beautiful, rainy, blunt-tastic Seattle. (Full disclosure: I am also a white guy from Seattle.)
He told us about about his medium-sized dick on “Penis Song,” and his inability to spit game on “The Club” (“Shoulda stayed home/ I get more chicks on MySpace”). He told us about the moment he fell in love with hip hop on “I Said Hey,” and the plight of the caucasian rapper on “White Privilege.”
Okay, so Macklemore didn’t exactly have to juug his way from poverty to the VIP lounge. But anyone who has actually listened to his full body of work would be hard-pressed to deny the aspirational overtones and populist themes that run throughout it.
As such, The Heist, his 2012 debut album with producer Ryan Lewis, is richly cathartic. Not simply because of the success it wrought, but because of the way it redeems and and even justifies Macklemore’s lengthy drug addiction. As he purges his sins on the penultimate confessional “Starting Over,” and then bathes in “sounds of the city on Capitol Hill” on the finale “Cowboy Boots”, there is a sense of closure and contentment, that spiritual balance has been restored to the universe. Macklemore rests on his laurels, and his story feels ready to be laid to rest. The End.
But “Thrift Shop" happened. “Thrift Shop” was two things. It was 1) a catchy song about stunting on a budget, and 2) a trebuchet that single-handedly launched Macklemore into the faraway realm of fame and fortune. The irony is pretty incredible when you think about it.
On Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ sophomore album This Unruly Mess I Made, Macklemore attempts to rehash the everyman ethos he’s cultivated on previous projects, this time from the unfamiliar perch of pariah/punchline/public enemy #1/your mom’s favorite rapper. Although scattered, the album ultimately takes the form of a quest to reestablish Macklemore’s hip hop credibility, one that showcases both his immense songwriting talents and his artistic flaws.
The album kicks off with “Light Tunnels,” an epic seven-and-a-half minute retelling of Macklemore’s experience at the 2014 Grammys (a seminal moment for Macklemore haters), when The Heist won Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, arguably the best album of the last five years. Despite its length, the song conspicuously omits the part where Macklemore texted Kendrick “It's weird and sucks that I robbed you” and then posted the text to his own Instagram. Indeed, Macklemore uses “Light Tunnels” to establish several themes that he will revisit over the course of the album: namely, a desire to tell HIS side of the story as a means to appease the haters/atone for his sins, and a yearning for simpler times.
“Light Tunnels” also provides the lyric that spawned the album title “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made.” It’s a redundant title. A mess is inherently unruly.
Macklemore and Lewis switch gears next with “Downtown”, a “Thrift Shop” redux that asserts hip hop cred with its inclusion of hip hop pioneers Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz, & Kool Moe Dee. Macklemore heavy-handedly rejects traditional hip hop materialism by heading to the shitty moped store. He rhymes “leather” with “pleather" -- remarkably, not for the last time on this album.
Sonically, “Downtown” is drunk. It staggers in every direction at once. It lacks the charm of “Thrift Shop” because, as we already discussed, stunting on a budget is substantially less cool when you’re rich. The hook redeems all, however, and provides some much-needed dignity.
Track 3, “Brad Pitt’s Cousin,” is further proof that Macklemore is incapable of stunting like a normal person. The song is a celebration of success, which in theory is fine, but Macklemore sort of buries the lede here and waits until the third verse to explain that he’s celebrating because he’s still independent and owns all of his music. This is the worst song on the album.
Next, on “Buckshot,” Macklemore cleverly uses three techniques to bolster his hip hop credibility: he raps about his days as a graffiti artist, he raps about how he used to be poor (The first line of the song is “I used to work at Subway”), and he recruits two unimpeachable rap legends in KRS-One and DJ Premier.
Macklemore's sentimental instincts and knack for bad jokes cause him to go full DadCore on “Growing Up,” “Let’s Eat,” & “Brad Pitt’s Cousin”. “Growing Up," an open letter to Macklemore's infant daughter, is a well-constructed pop song, but even a standout chorus from Ed Sheeran (guest choruses are one of the strengths of This Unruly Mess) cannot save it from what Big Ghost would call “3 ply softness.” Similarly “Let’s Eat,” a self-deprecating ditty about how Macklemore is too lazy to exercise or eat properly, fails to inspire. His attempts at humor can generally be quite effective, but here they are neutered by his inability to provide any real personal perspective to the universal struggle of keeping fit.
What follows is the best three-song run on the album. On “Kevin,” Lewis’ soulful boom bap beat sets the tone for Macklemore’s scathing indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, which he presents with a clear inner arc and outer arc: a vivid memory of the overdose of a close friend, a fiery sermon about America’s addiction to prescription drugs. Though one could easily argue that “Kevin” is the best song on the album, my personal favorite is “St. Ides,” a stunning account of Macklemore’s plunge into alcoholism that he somehow manages to wrap in his nostalgia for his life before the fame. “Need to go to a place where I lose reception/ Looking at the satellites pass by, reflecting on my past life,” he raps. “Need to Know” completes the trifecta with a thoughtful meditation on consumer culture and the emptiness of wealth and a memorable verse from emerging rap supernova Chance the Rapper.
Macklemore continues to grapple with his overall life dissatisfaction on “Bolo Tie” and “The Train,” but neither of these tracks holds a candle to “Dance Off” -- a track that was doomed to fail, but somehow didn’t. Macklemore goes into his well-worn self-deprecating Freddie Mercury shtick to narrate a white version of a B-boy battle. He rattles off some questionable exposition about “your grandma tugging on my dick” and criminally underutilizes the powers of Idris Elba and Anderson .Paak, both of whom are featured on the track. By jacking up the already lofty degree of difficulty, Macklemore actually draws attention to his surprisingly nimble lyrical and technical skill. The song also serves as a measuring stick of Ryan Lewis' pop production chops, as he somehow infuses elements of Jamaican dance hall into '80s arena synth rock. “Dance Off” will go down as one of the enduring songs from This Unruly Mess, the only one with any real shot at making any noise on the radio.
Much has already been said about the album’s finale, “White Privilege II,” a 9-minute clunker about Macklemore’s struggle to find his place in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I’ll just say this -- I believe that it is possible for Macklemore to be both sincere and self-serving here. To be self-effacing would be to abdicate from his platform and surrender his influence over a section of the populace that would not otherwise be privy to #BlackLivesMatter. The problem with “White Privilege II” is not that Macklemore is operating on some ulterior motive, but that it is not a very good song.
This Unruly Mess paints a portrait of Macklemore as a man psychologically bruised from running the infinite internet gauntlet since the “Thrift Shop” video dropped three-and-a-half years ago. He makes clear his discomfort with everything he has come to represent. He strives to mitigate the hate, to free himself from his reputation as a culture vulture and reclaim hip hop’s perennial underdog narrative that defined the first several years of his career.
While he certainly wants to be seen as an underdog, an average Joe, he does not fully relinquish his position at (or near) the top of the mountain. “When you get on this train after standing in the rain, you'd be crazy to exit,” he raps, “I’mma ride this shit ‘til the wheels fall off.”
Hate it or love it, Macklemore is here to stay. The best songs on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made do not lend themselves to the radio hit parade. Macklemore fans, Macklemore detractors, and Macklemore himself should all agree that this is for the best. It means the normalization of Macklemore is nigh. He will never again be a ramshamble everyman, but perhaps he will become just another rapper.