Every rapper, no matter their background, has a unique story to tell. Yet, most choose to disclose little, if anything, that directly displays their individuality. Macklemore does the opposite. Sure, chunks of his story, within itself, deviate from what hip-hop is used to; the tale of a White kid from the Pacific Northwest who has battled addiction is new to the music in and of itself. But it’s his willingness to illuminate those very tales and characteristics that makes The Heist, his new album with producer Ryan Lewis, such a refreshing effort.
Macklemore attacks an array of subjects that ultimately fit smoothly together thanks to their authenticity and Lewis’ intricate, tone-setting production throughout. On “Wings,” the MC contrasts his love for Air Jordans with the pitfalls of a culture of materialism, over a gloomy, horn and key-driven slow-building beat from Lewis, anchored with a hook from a chorus of children. With “Same Love,” Lewis provides bright and uplifting instrumentation to perfectly reflect Macklemore’s forward-thinking analysis of hip-hop and society’s take on homosexuality and same sex marriage. “Thrift Shop” is a funky homage to the 2012 XXL Freshman’s preferred place of shopping. The Ab-Soul-assisted “Jimmy Iovine” is a futuristic-sounding fictional tale of pulling a heist to secure a major-label deal, before realizing it’s not all it’s cracked up to be (“Rather be a starving artist than succeed at getting fucked,” he concludes).
These are topics that, generally, have not been touched upon in rap music in these ways. This trend is typified on the deeply moving “Starting Over,” the finest moment on an album full of highlights. Much of the singularity of Macklemore’s narrative within the scope of hip-hop has been his openness about struggling with addiction and ultimately finding sobriety. Where a celebration of party-ready substances is the genre’s norm, the Seattle rapper has managed to speak to those on the otherside. With this Ben Bridwell-assisted track, though, he reveals that he relapsed, and all that came with it: letting down his parents, bringing his girl to tears, facing fans who thanked him for being a role model, but feeling like he was deceiving and disappointing them. Lewis’ sobering melody guides the reflection. “I’m just a flawed man/Man, I fucked up,” Macklemore raps with a passionate cadence. It’s a feeling anyone can cling to.
Much how Talib Kweli feels that he’s a Prisoner of Conscious, Macklemore bucks some of the confines within which he’s been placed since his recent rise. “I’m not more or less conscious/Than rappers rappin’ ’bout them strippers up on the pole, copping/These interviews are obnoxious/Saying that, ‘It’s poetry, it’s so well spoken’—stop it,” he pleads on “A Wake.” Here’s the problem, with that, though. He continues with these very next lines to close the song:
“I grew up during Reaganomics/When Ice T was out there on his killing cop shit/Or Rodney King was getting beat on/And they let off every single officer/And Los Angeles went and lost it/Now every month there is a new Rodney on YouTube/It’s just something our generation is used to/And neighborhoods where you never see a news crew/Unless they’re gentrifying, White people don’t even cruise through/And my subconscious tellin’ me stop it/This is an issue that you shouldn’t get involved in/Don’t even tweet, ‘R.I.P Trayvon Martin’/Don’t wanna be that White dude, Million Man Marchin’/Fighting for a freedom that my people stole/Don’t wanna make all my White fans uncomfortable/’But you don’t even have a fuckin’ song for radio/Why you out here talkin’ race, tryin’ to save the fuckin’ globe?’/Don’t get involved with the causes in mind/White privilege, White guilt, at the same damn time/So we just party like it’s 1999/Celebrate the ignorance while these kids keep dying”
It’s these sort of astute observations on the human condition and keen self-awareness that set this effort apart. That reality, coupled with Ryan Lewis’ vast, daring and layered production, makes The Heist a truly beautiful album that challenges musical boundaries. —Adam Fleischer (@AdamXXL)