Seattle should be proud of its hip hop scene. A roll call of contemporary notables would summon names like Blue Scholars, Grieves, Sadistik — ‘conscious’ and experimental hip hop artists who proudly wear the city’s gray skies on their records, delivering heartfelt lyricism and evocative instrumentals tinged with hallmark poignancy.
In 2012, I think Macklemore would’ve shown up for that roll call, too.
2005’s The Language of My World and 2010’s The Unplanned Mixtape and The Vs. EP (2009) are all succinctly tagged on Bandcamp under ‘hip-hop,’ ‘indie,’ and ‘Seattle’ — descriptors that history (pre-label Shabazz Palaces, Grayskul) has shown to mesh smoothly. More than being solid records on their own, however, they showcase Macklemore’s chronological growth as an artist: the plaintive, recognizable Seattle sound audibly fades away each record as he explores new kinds of vibes, subject matter, and production. The process culminates with the The Vs. EP’s introduction of Ryan Lewis — at the time, a fresh, young producer with a limited portfolio.
As it would turn out, there is no one else on the face of this planet who could have so perfectly matched and amplified Macklemore’s style. On Vs., Lewis’ unique and complex style of production impeccably compliments Mack’s flow, cadence, and storytelling, whether it be on atmospheric, cough syrup laments like “Otherside” or ironic electropop oddities like “And We Danced.” Hardly two years later, marriage equality anthem “Same Love” and hipster-banger messiah “Thrift Shop” hit YouTube, raking in tens of millions of views and setting the stage for 2012’s The Heist to be one of the most successful independently released rap albums of all time. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis — the team to keep an eye on in the Pacific northwest.
In 2016, Macklemore isn’t looking so interesting anymore.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ This Unruly Mess I’ve Made follows several years of acclaim, mainstream play, and backlash — the latter received for the duo’s poppy sound and acquisition of a Grammy over artists like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. As a result, part of the project’s subject matter comes across as a reflection on celebrity status and Mack’s position as a mainstream (white) rapper. From the start of intro track “Light Tunnels,” Macklemore makes it clear he realizes the superficiality of award shows and fame, and with a not-so-subtle reference to an award he perhaps didn’t deserve, states that it’s “time to explain this unruly mess I’ve made.”
Instead, Macklemore opts to avoid the subject for another twelve tracks. This Unruly Mess clumsily plods along with no sense of consistency as it awkwardly transitions from Mack’s moped-acquisition-adventures (“Downtown”) to incredibly lazy attempts to repeat the comedic viral success of “And We Danced” (“Dance Off”) to weak efforts at reviving Seattle nostalgia (“St. Ides”). You may as well put the record on shuffle to gain a better sense of continuity — no attempt was made at organizing this album, save for keeping nine-minute absurdity “White Privilege II” for last. The primary issue brought about by this severe inconsistency is what it does to each track individually: with nothing to frame each additional song, any sense of atmosphere or immersion is constantly interrupted, making just about every track an unpleasant surprise.
The thematic material of This Unruly Mess never seems to follow a certain path, nor is any kind of agenda established. There’s a sense of Eminem circa The Eminem Show influence, where a balance of silliness, self-deprecation, and somber reflection come together, but Macklemore ultimately fails to imitate it. At best, Mack is hesitant — unsure whether to spout low camp comedy like in “Let’s Eat,” “Brad Pitt’s Cousin,” and “Dance Off” (the triple threat of unnecessary album filler) or speak out on au courant social issues like in “Kevin” and “White Privilege II.” Whatever sense of purpose and direction he has falls apart on himself, too — on “White Privilege II,” Macklemore seems to genuinely ponder the ideas of his place in a culture and a sound that doesn’t belong to him, but seems to forget piggybacking YG’s braggadocio on “Bolo Tie” three tracks before it, or his passionate ode to graffiti in “Buckshot.” It’s not that imitating West Coast gangster rap or speaking about involvement in black culture should be any sort of taboo for an artist just because they’re white — it’s that Macklemore decides to abhor interlopers on the exact same album, effectively contradicting himself. Macklemore doesn’t know what he wants This Unruly Mess to be — the fluid marriage of light-heartedness and conviction The Heist was, this is not.
At the end of the day, Macklemore is unable to make This Unruly Mess worth listening to. Good intentions and ostensible passion can’t save a project marred by high school class clown space filler, apprehensive social justice outcry and lyrics tainted by Hopsin-tier corniness. Frankly, the entire record is an effective waste of ink – save for a phenomenal Chance the Rapper verse and too-short Jamila Woods & Carla Morrison hooks, Macklemore takes features by old school demigods like Kool Moe Dee and KRS-One and throws them in the trash. Ten seconds of DJ Premier scratching a record cannot, in fact, make up for a nauseating Ed Sheeran feature or an ill-accented Idris Elba trying to be hip. What keeps This Unruly Mess afloat is far and away from lyrical or vocal ingenuity, and somewhere on the rain-stricken sidewalks of Spokane, Washington, Ryan Lewis is smiling.
Yes, you, Ryan Lewis, aka The Guy Who Makes Macklemore’s Hot-Sick-Nasty Beats. The man’s voice may be absent, but his production — as has been the case for The Heist and The Vs. EP — sings proud and bombastic, pensive and sincere. The instrumental arrangement on tracks like “Light Tunnels” and “Downtown” is near cinematic in their complexity, with Lewis’ fondness for horns, keys, and basslines coming out in full force. Even the bare-bones production on minimalistic synth-and-keys tracks like “The Train” and the boom-bap influenced “Buckshot” is exceptional in its simplicity: whatever mood Macklemore wants to set with each track, Lewis captures it with exemplary precision. Yet this admirable spread of quality instrumentals is not a saving grace, but a grudging acknowledgement that at least 50% of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis performed well.
And so, this is the Macklemore we get in 2016. Still unafraid to have fun, still determined to open the eyes of the ignorant — but his aim is off center, and This Unruly Mess carries poignancy equal to that of a G.I. Joe PSA. Ryan Lewis performs as well as he can in accordance with what Mack wants to deliver, but no “Thrift Shop” or “Wing$” comes into fruition, and what we get instead doesn’t feel like a fluent joint effort like The Heist did. If anything, This Unruly Mess tries to replicate and magnify it, and the end result is an obnoxious, overblown hotbox of dick jokes and confused social commentary.
Article by Adil Siddiqee