Seattle rapper Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis are by now familiar with each other – to say the least. Having first collaborated on 2009’s “The Vs. EP,” which featured Macklemore rapping over Lewis’ alternative rock samples, the pair began gaining popularity in the Pacific Northwest. However, they remained virtually unknown elsewhere until they rocketed to global fame with the release of their breakthrough single, “Thrift Shop,” in 2012. Both have proved to be more than one-hit wonders, with their successful release of 2012’s “Same Love,” a single in support of gay marriage, as well as their more pop-friendly hits, “Can’t Hold Us” in 2011 and “White Walls” in 2013.
Despite their remarkable commercial success in such a short period of time, Macklemore lacked the respect of certain hip-hop fans who attributed his newfound fame to his poppy sound and white privilege. Perhaps this controversy is the “unruly mess” Macklemore refers to in the title of his newest project, “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made.” Macklemore and Lewis’ first full-length album, “The Heist,” won the Grammy for Best Rap Album in 2014, despite the fact that many hip-hop fans favored Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city.” Ever the gentleman, Macklemore posted a text on Instagram in which he admitted that Kendrick deserved to win.
The release of the Seattle duo’s sophomore album has the potential to both gain respect and prove that the success of “The Heist” was not a fluke. While “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made” is undoubtedly a strong album that shows Macklemore and Lewis are not going to fade away any time soon, its lack of stylistic innovation makes it unlikely that it will significantly shift hip hop fans’ opinions of Macklemore.
Similar to its predecessor, the album features a mix of fun, silly songs along with introspective social commentaries. For instance, the content ranges from “Brad Pitt’s Cousin,” a lighthearted song in which Macklemore brags about his fame and likens himself to “Brad Pitt’s ugly cousin,” to the closing “White Privilege II,” in which Macklemore touches on controversial topics such as police brutality and his advantage in the hip hop industry because of his race.
Another powerful moment is “Kevin,” in which Macklemore describes the loss of a friend to an OxyContin addiction. The song features a soulful hook by Leon Bridges, and, like many Macklemore songs, the message is sincerely heartfelt. The inclusion of both jovial and earnest tracks makes the album feel disjointed at times, but the songs are arranged in such an order as to soften the jumps.
The grandiose opener “Light Tunnels” is a standout on the album that includes horns, strings and choral arrangements that showcase Lewis’ stellar production abilities. Macklemore describes himself getting ready for the Grammys, detailing his insecurities at the event and his dislike of its manufactured and inauthentic nature. He highlights his mixed feelings about the award show, which may relate to his feelings about his newfound success as a whole: “Thinking about my career, miserable here / But wanna make sure I’m invited next year.”
“Downtown” is a fun and lighthearted song about mopeds that features groovy production reminiscent of Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk,” a hook by Eric Nally of the rock band Foxy Shazam and appearances by hip hop legends Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Caz. Macklemore’s silly raps and the funky production make the song analogous to the immortal “Thrift Shop,” though it is far less catchy.
Although its beginning and middle are strong, the end of the album is largely forgettable and disappointing. Despite the novelty of its Idris Elba feature, “Dance Off” comes off as a generic dance song and a weaker version of “And We Danced,” one of Macklemore’s most popular songs. “Let’s Eat” details Macklemore’s love of food and his trouble losing weight, but the song’s attempts at humor fail miserably.
Overall, “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made” is a respectable second full-length album from the Seattle duo. Macklemore takes risks with his wide variety of songs that deal with controversial social issues, but these are risks he has taken before. After the success of “The Heist” and the feedback the duo received, their increased access to collaborations with well-known artists could have led to significant changes in their musical direction. Sonically, the album is disappointingly similar to its predecessor. Macklemore fans are sure to enjoy this album, but those who dislike him are unlikely to change their minds.
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