When I say that I don’t like Macklemore, it’s not because he’s white, or because of some belief that he’s “stealing black culture.” Rap as a musical genre and art form should not be barred by race, just as nothing ever should. No one would say that Eminem or the Beastie Boys “stole black culture,” because they’ve proven themselves as rappers. And not just as white rappers, but as studied innovators of the genre. Even though Macklemore might be the epitome of white bread incarnate, the problem with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis isn’t that it’s white rap. The problem with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis is that they seem to not understand how hard it is for white rappers to be respected. Their blatant disregard of that fact, as well as their apparent need to be as douchey about it as possible, is the cause of their sophomore album’s downfall.
Unless you’ve replaced the internet with a rock, you probably know the controversy that was the 2014 Grammy Awards. Up against Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Kanye West’s Yeezus, Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, and Jay-Z’s Magna Carta… Holy Grail, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ debut album The Heist swept the rap category. Thus, the internet freaked out, as it normally does about everything, complaining that Kendrick Lamar should have won. While I agree that Kendrick should have won best rap album that year, no one can deny how successful The Heist was, with singles like “Thrift Shop,” “Can’t Hold Us,” and “Same Love.” Nonetheless, I was never a Macklemore fan. If I’m going to give them anything, I’d say I was at the very least a Ryan Lewis fan. What would “Thrift Shop” or “Can’t Hold Us” even be without Ryan Lewis’ production? It’s definitely not Macklemore that makes those tracks.
So, the not even funny, ironically named This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, picks up right after that 2014 Grammy win. What was meant to stand for his wish to “fix his reputation” as a pop-rap star and get back to hip-hop, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made seems to actually do more damage than good. Looking at recent rap successes (Freddie Gibbs’ Shadow of a Doubt, Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06, Joey Bada$$’ B4.Da.$$, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly), the narrative of rap has become very raw, honest, powerful, and full of purpose. The idea of having a “narrative,” and making an “album” has returned after the early 2000’s digital revolution, and hearing something that’s human and meaningful has carried more weight.
Album opener “Light Tunnels” is 100% truthful and honest, but the Grammy bashing track doesn’t have the same effect as say, Chance the Rapper from “Ultralight Beam.” In just three lines, Chance describes his situation as a widely successful DIY artist vs. the Grammy Awards system: “I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard / That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet.”
Macklemore complains about the system, how awkward it feels to be there, to win the award for rap album of the year, how fake it all feels, and how trapped everyone is to the system, but it’s almost as if he’s forgotten his entire business model for The Heist. Named for their DIY takeover or “theft” of the success and airplay of pop radio from major record labels, The Heist being granted the award for rap album of the year should have been the icing on the cake. Instead, he calls it all This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, apologizes for forgetting “what the art’s for,” conforms to the “big business production” of the Grammy’s and celebrity culture because he feels it’s the only way to stay relevant, fears that no one cares about “who he is when the lights go down,” decides that this album is going to be about fixing his reputation and returning to the roots of hip-hop, and then follows up “Light Tunnels” with a song that tries to replicate the themes and success of “Thrift Shop” called “Downtown” that’s about buying a Moped scooter.
To me, it’s funny that their DIY model, which they champion that they’ve been so successful while doing it all without the help of a major record label, is blind to a whole concept behind DIY. DIY doesn’t just mean “do it yourself” but follow the same model as everyone else. Chance the Rapper is a DIY artist too, but he doesn’t view the industry the same way that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis do. Chance has released all of his music for free, making money off of touring and featured verses, and instead of feeling the need to “conform” to a system he doesn’t believe in, Chance says on “Ultralight Beam” that he wants to make his next album “so free and the bars so hard” that it would be a sin for him not to be nominated for an award just because he doesn’t sell his music.
Even more ironic than including Chance on a track on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, or saying that your album is about changing your ways and then writing “Downtown,” a.k.a. “Thrift Shop 2: Moped Boogaloo,” is fighting your “reputation” as a pop-rapper who wants to prove himself as a grass roots white hip-hop “I’m not stealing black culture” artist, solely by including famous rappers like KRS-One, Grandmaster Caz, Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, and DJ Premier, while simultaneously writing songs that sound like their pre-The Heist satire-rap, “And We Danced” phase.
It’s “Macklemore & Ry Guy’s I Made A Big Mess”, as The Needledrop would call it. But Macklemore’s “I don’t want to be pop-rap” but does pop-rap anyway confusion doesn’t even need to exist. Like The Needledrop said, it’s not like we’re 2000’s era rap purists complaining about pop-rap because we can’t act like we’re not all listening to artists like Drake and Future anyway. What is essentially, “the Macklemore we already know turned up to eleven,” This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is often cringe-worthy, as his “self-awareness” and joke-rap lyrics come off more douchey-frat boy/borderline Lonely Island than “it’s hip-hop and I’m just having fun with it.”As Dan Weiss of SPIN put it, “it’s the sort of disconnect that makes him actually uncool,” and one “Hi hungry, I’m Dad!” joke away from being unbearable.
Weiss continues, comparing Macklemore to “Google Maps: programmed to believe he possesses the ability to mark the straightest line from A to B,” though “actually makes mistakes all along the way due to his poor calculus of city interference.” He knows what he wants, he just doesn’t know how to get there. Macklemore means well, he’s just trapped in one of those roundabouts, circling around, not knowing how to be where he should be. Instead of still getting you to your destination, Macklemore to me is more early beta phase Apple Maps than Google Maps. While Google Maps might “make mistakes along the way” but still get you to where you’re going, early beta phase Apple Maps told everyone that the closest Dunkin’ Donuts was in Iceland; and like a GPS telling you to cross an ocean to get to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts, it just doesn’t seem right.