Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have been trapped in a no-win situation ever since January 27th, 2014. That was the day that Macklemore thought he was doing the right thing and reacted. He did what most rapper’s shouldn’t do, he let his guard down and attempted to be genuine by sending a text to Kendrick Lamar after The Heist beat good kid, m.A.A.d. city for the 2014 “Best Rap Album” at the Grammys.
“You got robbed,” he wrote in a text message to Lamar. “I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you. I was gonna say that during the speech then the music started playing during my speech and I froze. Anyway, you know what it is. Congrats on this year and your music. Appreciate you as an artist and as a friend. Much love.”
But what Macklemore ultimately did was succumb to the pressure of a world that said he didn’t deserve to take home the Grammy that night. Whether he did or didn’t deserve it really didn’t matter because our short term memory would have allowed us to get over it. Taylor Swift has snatched numerous awards from the fictional kung fu grip of black artists and she hasn’t once apologized. Nobody cares that much. But being the honest fellow that he is, Macklemore wanted to let Kendrick Lamar – and then the world – know that he didn’t feel he should have won the award. And the only way he felt he could prove that he wasn’t another average white man stealing accolades from an above average black man was to make his text to Kendrick public.
Bad decision—because that kind of admission, no matter how well intended it was, will only draw more criticism as being an opportunist.
He later admitted that he “betrayed” Kendrick’s trust by posting the text on Instagram but the error was opening himself up for criticism and letting the world know that they can get to him.
Once you do that, it never ends. It’s kind of like a journalist responding in the comment section. It opens Pandora’s Box and you’ll have a helluva time trying to close it as the readers have realized how easy it is to get a reaction out of you. Now you’re going to be needled more than ever.
This Unruly Mess I Made is an extension of Macklemore reacting to what the world thinks about him and apologizing for who he is. In a strange way it’s like he sees the glass half empty instead of half full despite all of the accolades he earned. It’s not uncommon to feel guilty for your success, but the shit that is heaped on top of Macklemore is unfair. Nevertheless, Macklemore’s greatest strength on This Unruly Mess I Made becomes his biggest detriment.
For starters, “Light Tunnels” quite literally sets the stage for this unruly mess that Macklemore has made by recounting the night that began this chain reaction of justifications that were completely unnecessary. He recognizes his “white privilege” and apologizes for it tirelessly. But when you’re not liked, you’re just not going to be liked. And no amount of apologizing will change that. The six-minute plus narrative that traverses Macklemore’s thoughts is well done but if you aren’t vibing with the subject matter then it was a lost cause before it ever started.
Elsewhere on the album, Macklemore accomplished what a lot of us wish our hip hop peers would do on a song like the B-Boy opera “Downtown” where the Seattle emcee grabs hip hop legends Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz and Kool Moe Dee and places them on a single that is intended for the mainstream. Most rappers wouldn’t dare risk it. But maybe it’s because Macklemore is white that he’s able to do this (and rhyme about riding a moped). Or, maybe it’s because he’s a decent rapper who respects the culture and figures that the reward outweighs the risk. He likely doesn’t even know. The manner in which he and Ryan Lewis go all Artifacts “Wrong Side Of The Tracks” meets Nas “New York State of Mind” on “Buckshot” alongside KRS-One and DJ Premier should garner him more praise than he’s been credited for.
But Macklemore & Ryan Lewis don’t simply attempt to play Doc to the Golden Era, put it in a DeLorean and bring it back to the future. He also scoops up a collection of his contemporaries and allows them to shine in environments they are familiar with.
It’s at this point that I want to take a break from Macklemore and speak about the underrated brilliance of Ryan Lewis on this project.
Listen, you can talk bad about Macklemore all you want because if it really is his voice and style that affects you like nails on a chalkboard, then that’s your axe to rightfully grind. We all have our annoyances. But you absolutely cannot front on the chameleon-like work of Ryan Lewis behind the boards. What Lewis accomplishes on This Unruly Mess I Made is downright brilliant. The production morphs on a whim and is fitting for whatever mood that is supposed to be projected. You want harrowing hood tales with twinkling keys and dark guitar plucks, “Bolo Tie” captures that and YG stomps all over it. If A Thriller-esque backdrop where Idris Elba can do his best Vincent Price impersonation as Macklemore goofs off about his inadequacies on the dance floor is what you want, Ryan Lewis gives it to you in spades on “Dance Off.” A backdrop reminiscent of Public Enemy’s “He Got Game” where Macklemore can lament about gentrification in Seattle along with his own bouts with alcoholism? Oh yeah, “St. Ides” is for you.
In all honesty, Ryan Lewis deserves a great deal of praise for this album being cohesive while harnessing many different forms of energy. He’s arguably the most talented producer that is tied to a single rapper. Perhaps he’ll find work outside of Macklemore because the world can really use more Ryan Lewis if he can churn out headrockers like “Bolo Tie” when necessary.
Interestingly enough, this very album (and, honestly, the one before it) would have been praised if Macklemore weren’t white. There’s a unique undercurrent of reverse xenophobia that exists with Macklemore.
Let’s be honest, if Kanye made “Same Love” he’d be called a genius. Or, and perhaps more importantly, if Macklemore had the same bravado for “Same Love” as Kanye did with “Jesus Walks,” he’d force us to call him a genius. And I use Kanye as an example because they display similar ability on the mic. Meaning, they aren’t the greatest lyricists around but both have a penchant for the vulnerable and emotional just as much as they do the cringe-worthy.
If you want to find somebody to compare Macklemore to, try Bernie Sanders. No, Bernie isn’t always going to get Black issues right because, well, he’s white. But he’s trying and that’s far more than what that knucklehead Ben Carson will ever do with his life in terms of tackling civil rights issues. But there are ignorant people out there that will roll with Ben because he’s Black and will find something wrong with Sanders because he’s white. Sometimes it is really that simple. Obviously, those with better comprehension on political issues can dissect the flaws with Sanders rhetoric. Because the biggest problem for Sanders has been that he expects minorities to eventually come around. However, when you aren’t speaking their language directly to them, you cannot simply expect them to align with your cause. He’s got the right idea, but the wrong plan. Same with Macklemore.
The worst part about all of this is that people treat Macklemore like he’s Iggy Azalea. He didn’t just pick up a microphone and start rhyming a few years ago. Macklemore had toiled in the underground from 2000 to 2013 and then “Thrift Shop” took off and never came down. The inevitable backlash from bursting on the scene as a white rapper soon followed and Macklemore didn’t want to be swept up in the same dustpan as other white rappers in the mainstream who don’t recognize their own white privilege once they get past the initial salvo of being white and trying to rap.
Look, if Macklemore’s music isn’t for you as a minority, that’s fine. Maybe the things he talks about simply don’t fit into your daily narrative. But to despise the man for talking about what he knows is kind of bizarre. Would it be any better if he rapped about growing up in the “hood” with one of those stories where he was the cool white dude amongst black friends? Or, would you appreciate him more if he had a video leak out where he dropped the N-bomb? Admittedly, I wasn’t a fan of Friends because I didn’t see enough black faces on the show. I simply couldn’t relate. However, I didn’t hate it. It just wasn’t for me. But it seems that people go out of their way to hate Macklemore. And that’s simply an unfair assessment.
Which leads me to “White Privilege II” and where every emotion that has been invoked within Macklemore manifests itself. It’s less a song and more of something that should be performed on Broadway by spoken word poets seeking to spread the message about white guilt as their theatrical work comes to a close.
In the end, This Unruly Mess I Made only struggles to find its footing when its more reactive than proactive. “Let’s Eat” is simply a fun song that some will find corny but its all Macklemore. Arguably the best song on the project is the collaboration with Chance The Rapper on “Need To Know” where both artists lament about the balancing between feeling what’s authentic versus doing what’s politically correct. It’s almost a microcosm of the album when Chance’s hook proclaims “I’ma tell you what you need to know, I’ma tell you what you need to hear, ‘cause the truth would be too much.” That hook resonates because, for Macklemore, it’s all too real.
I can think of a lot of rappers who deserve more criticism than Macklemore has received since his rise to stardom. No, this album isn’t a classic. But it’s also not as bad as some of the disparagement it has received (check USA Today’s review). There is no blindsiding moment like “Thrift Shop” or a feel-good chest thumper like “Can’t Hold Us” but there are some moments of insightful revelation that finds Macklemore adjusting to the fame in the most honest way he can.
And if you can hate on that, I’m not sure what to tell you.
Honestly, the best thing that can happen to Macklemore is how this album has performed thus far (50k sold first week). It allows him to drift out of the limelight and take the fans who have stuck around with him. And with the heat of the spotlight off of his neck, he can clean up the unruly mess he thinks he’s responsible for.