On "Gemini," Macklemore avoids political commentary and embraces the pop idiom like never before, with mixed results.
Macklemore has never shied away from addressing sociopolitical ills head-on. In 2012, on The Heist, he championed same-sex marriage on “Same Love,” and critiqued consumer culture on “Wing$." Four years later, on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, he ripped into the pharmaceutical industry on “Kevin” and unpacked systemic inequality on “White Privilege II.”
After This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, he amicably split with producer Ryan Lewis and got to work on a new solo album called Gemini. Between albums, he put out two songs: Big Pharma takedown “Drug Dealer” and election hangover lament “Wednesday Morning.” These releases, coupled with a guest verse on YG’s “Fuck Donald Trump Pt. 2,” suggested that Gemini would be fundamentally political in nature. Surprisingly, it eschews political commentary almost entirely.
“I believe that music can be a form of resistance without having to hit the nail on the head in terms of subject matter,” he explained in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. “It can be something that uplifts, that makes you dance, that makes you cry, that makes you think. But I didn't feel like I needed to go super in-depth with the politics. It was just not where my heart was at.”
It is evident that Macklemore made Gemini with his live performances in mind. Despite his waning popularity in the United States, he still routinely sells out stadiums in Europe, South America, and Australia. Gemini is, more than anything, an album of sing-a-longs: legible anthems that climax in rousing choruses, which dwell on self-affirmation, soul-searching, peace, love, and nostalgia and hope above all to unite the masses in sweet kumbaya.
Several songs on Gemini follow the broad template laid out on leadoff track “Ain’t Gonna Tonight.” Organized around a head-nodding, four-chord piano stomp and littered with references to churches, stadiums, and other high-occupancy venues, it toasts to the endurance of the human spirit. Macklemore cedes the chorus to a guest vocalist, in this case Eric Nally, who seeks to bring the house down with an ear-splitting chant: “I ain't gonna die tonight, you can't kill me, not my spirit / History is ours tonight, the people are chanting, can't you hear it?”
Though Gemini embraces the pop idiom like no other Macklemore album before—five of the first six songs feature two- or four-chord progressions played on piano or guitar—its strongest songs flirt with funk and R&B. On “Levitate,” a slinky, breakbeat-driven groove recalls Macklemore’s humble underground roots and inspires him to once again extol the virtues of dancing like no one’s watching. On “Zara,” synths burst with juicy harmony and prompt a lovestruck Macklemore to extol the virtues of putting on Jodeci during foreplay.
Other songs on Gemini derive their sound from modern hip hop trends and feature guest artists native to that sound, with mixed results. “Marmalade,” a shameless “iSpy” rip-off featuring Lil Yachty, is an eye-rolling, admittedly catchy affair. Offset absolutely shreds the twisted carnival trap beat of “Willy Wonka”—perhaps he was an eccentric chocolatier in a past life—and young Seattle talents Dave B and Travis Thompson channel the nasal, melodic delivery of Chance the Rapper on “Corner Store,” a colorful late-night romp that wouldn’t have been out of place on Acid Rap.
Macklemore is an artist with genuine strengths—he is a is charismatic performer, a nimble technician, and an occasionally great songwriter— but too often on Gemini he falls victim to his perplexing blend of weaknesses: for excessive sentimentality; for discussion of his sexual exploits (he is much better at discussing sexual frustration); for unconvincingly gassing himself up with references to jewelry, cars, exotic locales, and other signifiers of wealth; for soul-crushingly bad lines like “I wanna be a feminist, but I'm still watching porno / I wanna eat healthy, but I'ma eat this DiGiornos” and “And if I was single, I’d be right there with you / But I’m committed, keep my dick in my britches.” In art, and in life, everyone needs an editor. This is particularly true of Macklemore.
“With this album I think there's an air of like ‘first thought, best thought’ that I don't think that Ryan and I really ever tapped into – just being in the booth and feeling an emotion and going with it,” Macklemore told Rolling Stone. This quote is telling. Gemini often feels too much like a first draft that might have benefitted immensely from a couple rounds of redlining, or at the very least, the guiding hand and pop insights of Ryan Lewis.