Can the the duo who ruled 2013 match the success of their debut?
One of the most talked-about independent acts in recent history, Macklemore and his producer Ryan Lewis took the world by storm 4 years ago with the release of their debut album ‘The Heist‘. The likes of ‘Thrift Shop’ and ‘Can’t Hold Us‘ were incessantly played on what seemed like every radio in the world, with their accessible pop-rap style attracting a lot of attention both critically and commercially. Now, the face the challenge of not falling into the abyss of the one-album-wonders with the release of their sophomore album; ‘This Unruly Mess I’ve Made‘.
With the rise of Seattle-born rapper Macklemore being something I’ve witnessed over the years, as he was one of the first hip-hop artists I ever got into, it’s been an extremely peculiar ride to see him and Ryan Lewis grow into superstars almost overnight. Their most successful single, the track celebrating the art of buying second-hand clothes, sky-rocketed in sales after receiving millions of YouTube views, closely followed up by the party anthem ‘Can’t Hold Us‘ (Spotify’s most streamed song of 2013). They were thrown head first into the eyes of the mainstream, their radio-friendly hip-hop seemingly appearing to satisfy not just suburban America, but the world. Then came the 2014 Grammy Awards. Hip-hop heads everywhere groaned and were left bitter as the duo beat Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city‘, what most people thought was the surefire winner of best rap album that year. This was the real catalyst in Macklemore & Ryan Lewis becoming an ‘issue’ in the rap game, something that would effect their reputation to this day. It’s only fitting then that on the opening track of their sophomore album they address this very issue.
‘Light Tunnels‘ is an almost 7-minute track where Mack explains in detail the events of that very night, describing every feeling and view he can recollect. He doesn’t exactly fight for his cause in terms of defending his win, he just reinforces the fact that he believed he shouldn’t have been there. He explains what it’s actually like to be at one of these award shows, to be at a congregation of self-obsessed artists draped in the finest clothes so the that when the paparazzi snap them it’ll reflect their success, while he and Ryan feel like outcasts having hit the mainstream so quickly. The production can only be described here as colossal, with what sounds like whole orchestra and choir setting the scene before a rolling drum beat accompanies Macklemore himself. It has a similar structure to that of the final track of the album; ‘White Privilege II‘, with the instrumentals switching up with every verse in correlation to his changing sub-topics. The final verse addresses his disappointment at becoming famous, saying that he “Wanted to throw up the Roc, wanted to be Hova, wanted to be Wayne with the accent from the ‘Nolia” but the persona he’s been forced to don as a friendly pop-rap artist has caused him to lose himself.
This seems to be the overall aim of this album, to rectify the misconceptions that people may have about him and to shed the name of ‘that thrift shop rapper-guy‘. Whereas ‘The Heist‘ was partly made for the radio to get the duo noticed, this one attempts to go back to the MC’s roots of 80’s/90’s hip-hop and bring those sounds in the mix with those that Ryan Lewis implements. ‘Buckshot‘ and ‘Bolo Tie‘ are the clear examples of this, with their production full of simple drum loops and clean melodies inspired by boom-bap and gangsta-rap (I think a feature from YG grants this). Even the charming anti-diet track ‘Let’s Eat‘ has soulful piano loop that sounds like a cut from an old Scarface or Jurassic 5 tune, with Mack exploring one of society’s leading first-world problems; keeping in shape. ‘Buckshot‘ in particular reflects this endeavor of bringing back the ‘old Macklemore’, with features from legendary names like KRS-One and DJ Premier appearing. Even the subject matter encompasses that of the golden age of rap; “Sixteen with Adidas on, I’m too speedy for police I’m chiefin’ through these streets, I’m gone” with the song partly being an ode to Seattle’s graffiti culture, and partly one to the East Coast rapper of the song’s name. The track oozes 90’s culture, and it’s one of the standout tracks that manages to blend the fun-factor and attitude this project tries or balance, and when I say ‘try’ I’m referring to it’s lack of overall success.
‘This Unruly Mess I’ve Made‘ is (ironically) making a mess of itself while trying to clean up the one created by the wavered buzz of the last LP. At one point it wants to be this introspective, self-concious piece that focuses on Mack’s own lyricism, while at another it wants to be a care-free fun time for the party audience. The exemplary offender of this is of course ‘Downtown‘, the hugely popular single release months before the album. Eric Nally’s grand hook carried on a thunder of horns that break into the song after the smooth bass guitar of the verses doesn’t detract from the album overall and Ryan Lewis’ signature sound, but let’s be honest; it’s a poor man’s ‘Thrift Shop‘. It feels like they’re trying to grasp the last ounces of hipster-culture and (literally) make a half-enjoyable-song-and-dance about it. Except no one likes mopeds.
The pursuit of fun becomes even more painfully average with the song ‘Brad Pitt’s Cousin‘, which again has a cool ‘banger’ beat mixed with a sprightly piano, but has some truly cringe-worthy bars which Macklemore tries to pass off as comedic. He even goes so far as to give one of the internet’s worst memes ‘deez nuts‘ a referral; “Shoutout to the homie D, who’s D? Deez nuts” … christ . It occurs on the completely other end of the spectrum too as well, where on the song’St. Ides‘ we’re forced to listen to the MC pitifully drone about reflecting on life while driving round his hometown through a mundane drum loop and a guitar hook pulled straight out of the soundtrack of an 80’s film (although props to the nice outro). ‘The Train‘ is pretty much the same story, where Ryan Lewis’ production talent is given a backseat in order to front his partner’s uninteresting lyrics about detachment.
There are a couple of times the two seem to nail their trademark sound that speak on sensitive subjects however, showing they still have prowess in this respect. ‘Kevin‘ is a well produced track about Macklemore’s late friend who passed away from the same drug the MC himself attended rehab for. It’s personal, almost uncomfortably so, but with Ryan Lewis’ beautiful instrumental and a fantastic hook from Leon Bridges it works to connect with the listener on level that album spends most of its time failing to find. The second half of the tracklist is all but saved by the highlight of the album ‘Need To Know‘, a soul-filled track built of a slow piano melody and jolting horns, with simple-but-effective percussion. Macklemore reminisces about being underground and his abuse of oxycodone in that time, claiming that now he has money all he does is spend it on material goods to show off; “Got a Louis duffel bag, I got my girl a purse, I’m tryna find God through a purchase, I’m not tryna go to church“. Chance The Rapper hops on the song for a verse, killing his second major album feature of the year as he spits about how he wishes he could go back to when he was the their support act, when the focus was entirely music and not on maintaining an image; “I remember opening for Ben, wasn’t no liquor at the show, and now the white girls call me nigga at my show“. The track hits the target in terms of what the album feels like it’s going, mixing a great instrumental with memorable lyricism, and one that will surely please both long and short term fans.
It feels like The Heist was both a blessing and a curse for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, sky-rocketing them to mainstream fame but at the same time painting them as this plain pop-rap act that don’t hold the challenging or edgy nature of hip-hop as a whole. In This Unruly Mess I’ve Made they recognise this and attempt to correct whatever false view the world may have of them. You have to commend them for the effort, but in the end they fall flat too many times in their pursuit of a that new sound; bogged down by too much focus on telling a story or being deep for the sake of it, when they should just be trying to have fun.
Highlights: Need To Know, Buckshot, Kevin, Light Tunnels