Macklemore, along with Iggy Azalea, probably have bigger challenges against them that most artists of their popularity ever face. The media narratives have been set, and both of these artists’ new releases are set to be torn down before they’ve even been listened to. This is due to the backlash they’ve faced over the claims of appropriation of black culture; both these artists are huge in popularity and are riding on the back of something that they’re not a part of. Macklemore, who’s the more respectful of this issue out of the two, has made it public knowledge before that he is aware that as a massive fan of Hip-Hop culture, he is out-of-place.
Much like on their first record, The Heist (an album name that’s probably not worked in his favour since the sudden backlash) Macklemore & Ryan Lewis decide to make a record that’s essentially a hotchpotch of ideas displaying both Macklemore’s playful persona and his Mr Agreeable social issue tackling persona. The Heist gave us tracks like ‘Thrift Shop’ and ‘Can’t Hold Us’ which showcased Macklemore’s ability as a Pop rapper, taking on distinctively uncool subjects and making a trend out of them. He tackled social issues in a very conversational and polite way on songs like the gay rights anthem, ‘Same Love’ and the anti-consumerism track, ‘Wing$’. Despite the fact he’s worked hard for a long time as an independent Rapper, the actual act of becoming so big in so many White communities from being so polite and PC, made him the scapegoat for appropriation of Black culture in the mainstream.
On Macklemore’s new album, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made he is still tackling social issues through a lens of personal storytelling, and he’s still trying to act like a goofball in his spare time. The difference is that this time the expectations are high, and the issues he’s talking about are relative to events that most people know about within his life. On the opening track to the album, ‘Light Tunnels’, Macklemore recalls the infamous 2014 Grammys which he won best Rap album over Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Jay-Z and Drake. He relays his personal story of the awards show and details how he was struggling with the materialistic motives of the entire event going into the details such as the clothes and the celebrities. His grasp of getting a point across is one of his best features and it’s nearly always engaging, even if it’s over dramatic a lot of the time. This track sets up the album to be something of a My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-esque commentary on fame and excess with grand illustrious production behind it. This is of course before the second track, ‘Downtown’ comes in and squashes those ambitions.
To be fair to ‘Downtown’ it’s one of the best Poppy moments on the whole album, the instrumental is fresh with a great bounce to it, and although it’s not as sticky thematically as ‘Thrift Shop’, it’s a nice effort in replicating it. This can’t be said for a lot of the other more Pop-orientated tracks on this album though. ‘Brad Pitt’s Cousin’ is one of the most cringe-inducing songs Macklemore’s ever done, complete with lines about putting the D in ‘Deez Nuts‘ and asking where his ‘Angelinas‘ are. There’s a saving grace in the production at least which is as crisp as ever, but it’s not enough to salvage the song. On the second half of the album there are some other flaccid attempts at replicating that Pop formula that made him so compelling on his first album, but they’re extremely vapid topics such as not going on a diet because he enjoys eating (‘Let’s Eat’) or simply dancing with old people (the unbearable ‘Dance Off’). The songs are completely forgettable, uninteresting and above all, not funny. It reeks of someone struggling for many topics to cover on a ‘difficult second album’ – it’s the equivalent to what Eminem did on Encore.
The more personal tracks on the album are where Macklemore shines as someone who sounds like he’s taking the time to articulate his thoughts to make something thought-provoking in his art. ‘Kevin’ is a heartbreaking tribute to his friend who died of a legal drug overdose in 2010 after becoming addicted to them as Macklemore was himself. The duo’s flair for the dramatic is huge on this and it works with the production and delivery being so potent. This and the songs ‘Need To Know’ and ‘St Ides’ both touch on Macklemore’s (and America’s) problem with addiction and a life that teaches us that substance is what we need to be happy. He and Chance The Rapper – who gives an incredible verse on ‘Need To Know’ – also explore how they miss the feeling of not having to deal with the pressures of fame.
The final track on the album, the very controversial ‘White privilege II’ has Macklemore tackling the issue everyone has called him out for. He talks of how he’s aware that he has an upper hand in Hip-Hop and how the positive reactions from the people who see Hip-Hop as a platform for immoral law breakers makes himself more of hindrance to the culture than anything else. He also acknowledges that if he’s not using his voice to do something for the culture then there’s a right to call him out. But it’s hard to take this track seriously when a lot of the songs that have preceded this moment have stank of attempting to appeal to the masses in such a basic way. This is without even mentioning how the musicality of this song is non-existent. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis rarely frame any of the serious subjects in a way that’ll inspire so many like Same Love did.
Macklemore clearly loves the culture of Hip-Hop, and is respected by many prominent artists who also have appeared on this album such as Grandmaster Caz, Kool Moe Dee and Melle Mel on ‘Downtown’, but he has a way to go in finding his feet in the new environment that he’s been thrown into. He’s tried recreating the album that made him big in the first place with new topics, yet made a much lesser version of it. There is promise in a lot of this music in Macklemore’s ability to still be honest and Ryan Lewis’ ability to occasionally make his lyrics sore, but the duo haven’t done themselves any favours by making an album that lives up to its title so literally.