Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Push Boundaries on ‘This Unruly Mess I’ve Made’
It’s hard to mention the current state of hip-hop without bringing up Macklemore’s name. The 32-year-old Seattle native took the rap game by storm in 2012, alongside producer Ryan Lewis, with the debut LP, The Heist -- all while remaining an independent act. The jazzy horns of “Thrift Shop” or the chorus chant of “Can’t Hold Us” were inescapable soon after. Macklemore proved in a very short time that he could make hits.
The album was so well-received that it earned the duo a Grammy for Best Rap Album in 2014. While some rap fans thought they were deserving of the honor and others were hoping Kendrick Lamar went home with the win, the hip-hop duo got hit with tons of hip-hop head backlash for beating out K.Dot's debut masterpiece, good kid, m.A.Ad. city. Whether to duck the criticism or not, the duo seemed to completely disappear from rap until resurfacing with the announcement of a new album, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made.
The title of the album is incredibly fitting based on Macklemore’s experiences over the past two-and-a-half years. His rise to rap superstardom ruffled more than a few feathers. Questions of race, style and radio-friendly content seemed to turn the rap game on its head thanks to the sheer impact of The Heist. However, on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, the rapper aims to answer those questions while still driving home the hits.
“Light Tunnels,” the effort's opening track, wastes no time picking up where the MC last left, specifically at the 2014 Grammy Awards. The track walks through the specifics of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis winning the prestigious award and the uncomfortable environment big award shows create. This is a flawless example of micro-storytelling that leads to a bigger message. Macklemore has this type of song structure perfected down to a science. He starts with intricately describing a small scale event but then builds up to a conclusion, which carries a much larger and significant meaning.
The lead single, “Downtown” is clearly attempting to bring back the feeling “Thrift Shop” provided in 2012. Sure, it has a big chorus with easy-to-follow lyrics about mopeds but the jerky rhyme pattern in addition to Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz and Kool Moe Dee delivering lyrics unison and and Foxy Shazam's Eric Nally soaring vocals comes off like a track featured in a Broadway musical. The song runs for far too long without really accomplishing anything substantial. Yet the single will ultimately get more people listening to the album because of its grandiosity.
More of the same carefree, truncated bars appear on songs like “Dance Off” and “Let’s Eat," with the latter of the two being surprisingly strong. Rapping about the increasingly common struggle between eating poorly and wanting to get into shape is a feat not many rappers have tackled. Let’s be honest, how many times have you heard one of today’s most successful rappers say “I was gonna get skinny for the summer/I was gonna start doing my crunches/But looking down at my stomach/I'mma go to the beach, but I'm not taking my shirt off in public.” It’s a welcomed change to hear a light-hearted track like this in the midst of the album’s primarily heavy subject matter.
Macklemore is truly at his most comfortable on this album when he is rapping about real tangible issues at hand. He has a very forward way of articulating an issue that is clearly close to home. “Kevin” with Leon Bridges finds Macklemore breaking down the quandaries of substance abuse -- much like he did on 2010’s “Otherside.” The heaviest of all is the album’s final track, “White Privilege II.” Released earlier this year, the song received a completely polarizing reception. Some critics claimed he was just projecting white guilt while others acknowledged his honest confession. Either way, he made the right choice by placing it last on this LP because the lines are so explicit and the message is so poignant that it’s hard to listen to anything else after. Regardless of anyone’s opinion on the actual issue, it works perfectly as the conclusion to an air-clearing album.
The rapper also manages to sprinkle in some subtle flexing on a few tracks. “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” is a playful, satirical record that hypothetically boasts Macklemore as Brad Pitt’s cousin. “Every white dude in America went to the barber shop/Give me the Macklemore haircut" is the most braggadocios line he delivers. He takes it up a notch, however, on “Bolo Tie” with YG. The haunting beat and aggressive delivery are new for the rhymer but clearly serve as an opportunity to poke his chest out and remind hip-hop why he isn’t just the nice white guy from Seattle.
If there is one major takeaway from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, it’s that they aren’t just here by a fluke. For the most part, the songs are put together for a cohesive listen. His rap skills are put to the test on a variety of different beats, tones, subject matters and emotions -- all of which are executed with precision. The album isn’t necessarily a classic, or better than The Heist, but it does prove Macklemore is here to stay.
See 40 Hip-Hop Albums Turning 20 in 2016