Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (2016)
The discussion of white people appropriating Black art is by no means new. Even before Elvis took the music industry by storm, there was a significant rift between white and black jazz. The former was viewed by true fans and critics as a hokey imitation of the latter. However, as Ellington would put it, “it makes no difference if it’s sweet or hot”; some people are just happy to enjoy music without focusing on the people creating it.
That’s not as easy a task when listening to hip-hop. The art-form begs the listeners to see the world from their perspective. While, it’s difficult to make a blanket judgement on “white rap”, white emcees are faced with the challenge of checking the privilege that may be the reason of their success. I’m not sure if Macklemore helps or hurts his case by attacking this issue head on in This Unruly Mess I’ve Made.
I guess I should start with a confession. I loved The Heist. It’s one of my favorite hip-hop albums post-Watch the Throne (which, for me, marks the end of an era). Every track exemplifies why Ryan Lewis is an equal member of this partnership. The songs weave together to build a consistency that forms one of the few albums I can listen to from start to finish. There’s no doubt that Macklemore has skills, as well. He deftly switches up his flow with lyrics that range from silly, to uplifting, to insightful.
There’s something to be admired about an artist who decides to make a name for himself instead of selling it to the highest bidder. If you don’t believe it, listen to “Jimmy Iovine” and tell me it doesn’t jam. Following their Grammy win, there were those who claimed that “Same Love” was shameless pandering to the LGBT community to gain recognition. While it’s definitely not my favorite song (with a riff that brings to mind John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change”), I disagree. Call me naive, but they come off more sincere than that, maybe even detrimentally so.
“Sincere to a fault” is also how I would characterize the release of “White Privilege II” as a single before This Unruly Mess. The internet blew up over that song in a way that would make even the less skeptical wonder if he was for real. I’ll always be the type to defend an artist’s intention (well, except for Kanye), and I can’t bring myself to see anything insidious in what he’s trying to do. Let’s not forget that this is part 2, a follow-up to a 2005 mixtape. You can say that the song is more about himself than the Black Lives Matter movement, but I think that’s the point. He’s trying to figure out, as a white person, how he can be a part of the conversation and I don’t think we should knock him for making an effort. If more people ask the question “how do I talk about it?”, we get to the point where we can actually discuss the issue. It’s sad to imagine a future where an artist is afraid to make a genuine statement because their intentions are being called into question.
Backing up the argument for good intentions is the song “Kevin”. The over-prescribing of pharmaceuticals is a big issue that Macklemore won’t get as much attention about addressing. Yet, he still felt the need to speak out about it. I got some major feels to Leon Bridges singing “give me a dose of the American dream.” The track is wisely followed by two more of their signature reflective songs: “St. Ides”, in which Macklemore raps solo about his struggle with drug addiction/alcoholism; and (my favorite song on first listen) “Need to Know”, which features a great guest performance by Chance the Rapper.
Not every song on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made has a message, though. The album title comes from a line in the opening song, “Light Tunnels”. From the very beginning you’ll remember why you love or hate Macklemore and Lewis, as he recounts their experience at the 2014 Grammy’s. Most people hate it when famous people are dejected about their fame, and I thought this song came off a little like that. I did think it was a clever way to sort of explain why it took so long for this album to come out, though.
The upside of having a hit album is getting a bunch of guest appearances on your next one. The list even includes Idris Elba (!) appearing on “Dance Off”, a club banger that’s so fun I challenge you not to be compelled to at least nod your head to the beat. Ryan Lewis has put together some great stuff here, producing a sound that elevates them from their sophomore status. The post-modern throwbacks “Downtown” and “Buckshot” get an old-school feel not just from the collaborators, but also the prominent melodic bass lines that I’ve been missing in contemporary hip-hop. Plus the silliness of a song about mopeds puts you in a great mood. They also recapture the catchiness of “Thrift Shop” with “Brad Pitt’s Cousin”. Like their first hit, I get the feeling the kids are going to really dig repeating the nonsense in this song. I mean nonsense in a good way, of course. I love stuff like “now my cat’s more famous than you ever will be.”
Speaking of kids, there’s another feel-good song aimed at youth with “Growing Up”. Ed Sheeran sings the chorus, but Macklemore pulls his weight with some rap/singing that is less grating than the usual fare. Also, reading Langston Hughes is good advice for any youngster. I’ll give an honorable mention to “Let’s Eat”. It’s a full song about trying to diet that could easily be a skit or interlude. I did laugh at “I never knew what a carbohydrate was / Turns out it’s all the snacks I love”. I hear you, man.
Overall, I thought this album was pretty good. Unlike their first album, there were 2 songs that really didn’t speak to me so I didn’t mention them. I’m all about positivity here. If you liked them before, then this is a solid album for you. I think they’ve evolved enough while still maintaining some of the hunger that got them recognized in the first place. That’s really all I want out of a hip-hop album.