I’m going to be really honest with everyone for a second. When Mackemore and Ryan Lewis’ album, The Heist, was released in 2012, I bought it the night it came out. I felt it was my duty as the self-proclaimed person in my group of friends to discover Macklemore’s music, that I needed to support an artist who I honestly thought was original and good for hip-hop. Oh, how things have changed in the last three years…
Three days ago, I did not buy, but did Spotify stream Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ follow up album, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, in my car on the way to Oklahoma, and my what a journey it was. Macklemore is an interesting place in rap these days. Not necessarily because of the music he’s making, but more with the fact that it doesn’t seem as though you can get a straight answer on whether or not he’s actually objectively good at his craft.
On one hand, you have those who feel that, while he’s made strides with certain songs as “Same Love” and “Otherside” to talk about real issues, they feel as though Macklemore is nothing more than a corny wannabe who makes catchy songs (very understandable). On the other hand, you have those (like me) who see Macklemore as a frustratingly talented artist who pushes some of the boundaries of conscious hip-hop music only to find himself drawn back in to some of the same pop conventions that he seems to also be denouncing on other songs.
This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, while not only an appropriate title, is the perfect encapsulation of a rapper who is either “almost there” as an artist, or “almost unsalvageable”. The album opens with the very descriptive and honest “Light Tunnels”, which describes Mack’s night at the Grammys in which he infamously won Rap Album of the Year over the supposed favorite, Kendrick Lamar. For those on the skeptical side of Macklemore’s career, this song is a refreshingly honest song describing an artist’s way of thinking during an event that they both want to be a part of, and also want the courage to denounce.
Yet, as Macklemore giveth, Macklemore also taketh away. His hit single “Downtown” following up “Light Tunnels” is another great encapsulation of Mack’s career so far. JUST as you begin to believe that what he’s doing is something more than throwing out an endless stream of semi-annoying pop hits…he gives you another semi-annoying pop hit. Just as soon as he might write you a song about the pitfalls of fame on “Need to Know”, he will turn around and give you a song like “Dance Off”, a truly awful and catchy song that only explains further why fame has been so much harder for him to handle. It seems that, as much as he interested with a self-analysis of his own spot in hip-hop these days, he doesn’t seem to fully grasp the fact that just because you point out the fact the emperor has no clothes, doesn’t mean it is then okay to leave him disrobed.
This is not to say that this album is not much better than his first, because it undoubtedly is. He manages to give put together solid personal stories about subjects such as the beginning of alcoholism (“St. Ides”), the last three years of his life (“Bolo Tie”), and even the own racial imbalance his place in hip-hop seems to garner (“White Privilege II”). The last of those being the best example of something truly inspiring at first but, ultimately, disappointing. Although the message on “White Privilege II” is one Mack’s most thought-provoking songs to date, it still ends up a song that you wanted more from. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Macklemore is honestly a very average TECHNICAL rapper. Maybe it has to do the unevenness of the beats. Maybe, though, these are just the type of songs he was destined to make.
So, should you like or dislike Macklemore? Honestly, who fucking knows. He does just enough for both his fans and haters to continue making their cases, but yet never gives them enough ammunition to defeat the other side. To his detractors, he is the friend you hate who borrows your car and leaves you with no gas, but used the car to deliver gifts to the homeless. To his fans, he’s the friend who lets you crash at his place when you’ve had too much to drink to drive, only to wake you up the next morning so that you can look at the slam poetry he’s written while you’re hungover. He is the guy at the party who’s schooling you on the injustices of the North American Free Trade Agreement while wearing an Affliction shirt. He’s doing just enough to keep your attention either way.
It’s unclear whether an artist can sustain such a duality in the public and the critics’ eyes for much longer, but Macklemore, at least, seems aware that his shelf life may be limited. He knows how to start a story. When he really focuses, he sometimes even manages to tell that story fairly well. I just want to know how much longer that story is going to remain interesting to the rest of us.