Sounding Board

An Honest Attempt At A Fair Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Review

I leave the panel I just attended. I walk through the New York streets. I get to the 6 train. I transfer to the 4 train. I take it to the last stop. I exit the station. I walk three minutes to my building. I open the door to my building. I take the elevator to the fourth floor. I take my keys out of my pocket. I put the key in the keyhole and turn it to open the door. I hang up my coat. I take out my computer. I sit down at my desk to write a review of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. I bump the album loud through my Rokit 6 monitors. What you will read below is the result.

How many fucks did you give about the paragraph you just read? Probably zero. Well, that’s exactly how Macklemore chose to open his sophomore album, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, via the song “Light Tunnels.” After Mike Slap’s hook, Macklemore spends a good 50 seconds giving an uninteresting, tedious play-by-play of his trip from his hotel to the 2014 Grammy Awards at Staples Center in Los Angeles. He then offers a few quick bars of commentary on how superficial and mundane the Grammys are, and then it’s back to celebrity minutiae. A full two minutes into the album and we have a catchy, generic hook sung twice and a vaguely revelatory account of the lead-up to Macklemore’s seating arrangement at an awards show. Ryan Lewis’ dramatic beat full of classical string flourishes, subdued military drums, and sampled opera vocals don’t quite do the heavy lifting needed to elevate the narrative to something mildly entertaining. The dramatic irony of the listener presumably knowing what’s going to happen later on that night is not enough to build any suspense, and the commentary isn’t insightful or artful enough to provoke much thought. This goes on for another four and half minutes, and ends in Macklemore’s head, which is exactly where it started.

This Unruly Mess is plagued with the recurring empty, awkward, meta reflections of the opener and closer “White Privilege II.” But thankfully, Macklemore isn’t using Ryan Lewis’ soundscapes like a therapist’s couch for the entire album, and they have plenty of help to create some better-than-decent moments.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are at their best when their music is fun. The Heist’s “Thrift Shop” actually isn’t a bad bit of pop-hop. It found a way to subvert the materialism of mainstream rap while still keeping some level of unorthodox swag despite being mad goofy. It was amusing and infectious, and the rhymes didn’t need any gravity because the song wasn’t trying to be anything more than what it was. The appeal of “Thrift Shop” is approached on This Unruly Mess, but it’s never quite reached.

“Brad Pitt’s Cousin” has some clever, doofy braggadocio like “Made an Instagram for my cat/ And my cat doesn’t even rap/ It got more followers than you.” There’s another catchy hook from XP, because no Macklemore & Ryan Lewis song would be complete without one, but the magic of “Thrift Shop” isn’t there. Boastful raps just don’t fit well on Macklemore. It registers as smarmy, because there could be some faint introspection or cringe-worthy inwardness in the next bar. Pair that with Lewis’ frantic piano-banging beat that doesn’t come with the undeniable grab of the sax on “Thrift Shop” and it fails at becoming something bigger. “Dance Off” is similar, fizzling despite bright spots from Idris Elba on the hook (thankfully not as Driis), sounding like Vincent Price on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Anderson .Paak is rendered ineffective because his funky rasp doesn’t have time to settle in eight quick bars. “Downtown” fails in the same vein, despite being a weird and quirky song about freaking mopeds, accompanied by three artists who are considered by some to be the Holy Trinity of rap pioneers: Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz, and Kool Moe Dee.

The Heist also had a joy and resilience that made the album redeemable, but the elation and heart of two friends enjoying creating independently together is gone. Those qualities have been replaced with a jaded and defensive disposition as the guys that “made it,” helplessly spinning on the target while knives are thrown at them.

The zealous Heist anthem “Can’t Hold Us” doesn’t have a counterpart on the new album; it’s replaced with reactive defenses. On the Chance The Rapper-assisted “Need To Know,” Macklemore and Lil Chano from 79th lament one after the other: “I wish I could open twice/ Sit down at the open mic/ Go back to the day before I became famous overnight.” From Chance, the wish seems genuine, partly because his verse is better over Lewis’ beat that borrows from Chance’s gospel-leaning sensibilities, but mostly because he’s expressed similar sentiments on plenty of prior occasions. On Acid Rap’s “Acid Rain,” Chance sincerely spits, “Making all of this money hoping I don’t get rich.” On his otherworldly “Ultralight Beam” verse he emphatically expresses his disinterest in Grammys or money with the lines, “I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy/ Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard/ That it ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet.” He’s also stuck close to home through acts supporting and defending his community in Chicago. But if you were to extract the verses about fame and how Macklemore has coped with it or enjoyed it or regretted it, you would remove at least half the album’s lyrics. He clearly loves it.

On the YG-assisted “Bolo Tie,” Macklemore delivers the seething hook: “Motherfucker, you ain’t my accountant/ You don’t know what I’m doing/ Focusing on what I’m giving back/ Man, make better music/ Fuck preaching on top of the mountain/ People can see through it/ Keeping my name in your mouth, just don’t bite/ Your tongue while you chew it.” He’s well aware of his detractors, and his verses come off much more authentic with references to his struggle with drug addiction and his complaints of phony people he mistook for friends envying the success he’s enjoyed. But like Chance, YG bests Macklemore, spitting an evocative 16 about how he’s wrongfully judged by his past, how he gives back to foster children in shelters, and how the media overlooks the good he does in favor of the bad and sensational. In the moments where Macklemore could shine from honest introspection, his presence is muffled by a better featured artist.

This Unruly Mess is only utterly insufferable in the moments where Macklemore fumbles through attempts at social consciousness. That mainly occurs on the opener “Light Tunnels” and the closer “White Privilege II.” No need to rehash the aforementioned “Light Tunnels,” and before delving deep into the nearly nine-minute anxiety attack that is “White Privilege II,” there is a social critique Macklemore should be lauded for.

With the help of the soulful Leon Bridges, “Kevin” is a funk-tinged, vivid, scathing condemnation of the over-prescription of drugs. As previously mentioned, Macklemore has struggled with drugs in the past and is completely sober now. He even makes references to not drinking alcohol a few times on the album. His previous songs on earlier mixtapes addressing addiction and the systems that keep creating addicts have actually been harrowing, and this latest iteration is no different. Lewis’ flair for the dramatic fits with the song’s potent message, and everything ultimately comes together to result in a good song.

The most egregious offering on This Unruly Mess is clearly “White Privilege II” on many different levels. Before getting into why it’s so deeply problematic, I’d like to point out what’s good about it. The first is Macklemore’s intentions. The courage it takes to endure the criticism and derision that was sure to come when recording this song should be commended to a certain extent. I think he also gets props for actually attending a rally. The fact that he initially approached speaking on racism and police violence with the utmost respect by seeking the approval of Black Lives Matter before making the song was very thoughtful. The song also may create discourse in a demographic that could otherwise easily ignore the issues the Black Lives Matter movement is fighting against, forcing them to look inwardly to a certain degree and interact with problems that are not their own.

With that said, I believe the song has more negative implications than positive. Intent and execution are two different things. Macklemore thoroughly bungled the making of this song. It’s already hard to make politically charged music, because it will alienate certain people, and it’s extremely difficult to strike the balance needed to not bog people down in the messages and keep them entertained without diluting too much. Macklemore is not a skilled enough artist to pull that off — few artists are. His tendency for meta ramblings detracts from the real issues at hand for far too long before he “addresses” them. The song is also nine minutes long and impossible to edit for the radio without cutting a crucial part of his intended message. How many people are truly going to engage with this unruly mess (pun intended) on a meaningful level?

It’s also not easily discernible if Macklemore’s intentions are entirely pure. I recall Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic, because just like the Black Panthers style and culture was adopted by the upper echelon of the NYC social scene in the ’60s, it is very much en vogue to be politically conscious now. Many visitors to this site were upset by my initial remarks on “White Privilege II” because they thought when I pointed out the conflation of his intent that I was mainly citing his skin color as the reason to question it. I have since similarly questioned Beyoncé’s intent behind her performance of “Formation” at the Superbowl, launching a world tour in tandem with the biggest political statement of her career. I believe Kendrick Lamar also deserves a bit of a harsher look because he was wearing his signature Reebok Classics while dressed as an inmate in shackles for his Grammy performance. They all should be commended for being brazen enough to make such powerful statements on huge platforms, but that does not mean they should be beyond questioning. Being unapologetically black or a “woke” ally to radical blackness as an artist has become subject to commodity now more than it has in any other generation. Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and Ella Fitzgerald, just to name a few, were not tied to corporations and didn’t have the hopes of selling millions of records and concert tickets for taking a stand. If anything, their careers and personal lives suffered for it. It seems to be the opposite today.

Macklemore presents himself as an ally in the Black Lives Matter movement, and though they have written in support of the song with a few caveats, they have gone against their own principles in sanctioning it. At the rallies, marches, die-ins, and other events I have attended, the organizers ask that non-black supporters never take the microphone, bullhorn, PA, or any amplifier away from leaders of the event or other black people. Macklemore violated that rule. Some may ask how anyone, no matter their color, speaking up in support of Black Lives Matter can be a bad thing. By taking the mic away from the artists that can aptly express the pain, anger, fear, and anguish that black people live with everyday based solely on the color of their skin is a disservice to the movement. Macklemore’s listeners instead receive a nice, conveniently packaged white male perspective on his trouble interacting with such a movement and have their character questioned by someone “safe.” The Underground Railroad needed safe houses owned by white allies to operate. The Civil Rights movement needed white allies to gain momentum as well. But this latest movement will be less effective if people aren’t confronted with the visceral emotions that have been boiling up for generations within black people when they examine themselves at the spurring of a white person. It is a great start, but I believe you have to be challenged with black feelings directly for true change to begin.

Before listening to this album, I had disdain for Macklemore, but he’s just a human being trying to clean up the unruly mess he’s made. He may talk about his thought process on how to accomplish that goal too frequently and boringly, but it does mean something that he is thinking about these things at all. Most mainstream rappers can’t say they do as much.