Macklemore & Ryan Lewis This Unruly Mess I’ve Made

[Macklemore LLC; 2016]

Styles: pop, rap, “hip-hop”
Others: Drake, college, think pieces, Urban Outfitters

Ben Haggerty, a.k.a. Macklemore, is the jock in your high school who spent the next four years trying his best to convince you that he’s not like those popular kids. He’s already spent much of his music career being a disruptive voice in hip-hop — most memorably shitting on its wealth signifiers while illustrating his interest in secondhand clothing — and turning would-be think pieces on same-sex marriage or alternative rap’s imperative return into Top 40 hits, practically soundtracking every exam-crammed college dorm across the land. Sure, Macklemore might’ve earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from a liberal arts college, but don’t be fooled, because he also holds a PhD in “parental advisory”-labeled hip-hop music. This bifurcation of two seemingly disparate cultures and social norms, which at one time plainly existed within the realm of popular culture, has since been upended by Macklemore, helping him go from local anomaly to the poster boy for post-regional, post-cultural globalized hip-hop. Today, he’s an instantly recognizable celebrity, the proud homeowner of a seven-figure mansion, a four-time Grammy-winning recording artist, and his Wikipedia page even has a section designated for “impact and legacy.” Not too shabby for a white guy from the Pacific Northwest trying to make it as an independent rapper.

But rather than choosing to mask his own corniness on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, he and producer Ryan Lewis’s sophomore album and follow-up to 2012’s The Heist, Macklemore for once finds comfort in it — at times even proudly reveling in it. When he’s not writing self-deprecating rhymes about resembling actor Brad Pitt, he’s penning chintzy jingles on the topic of health and wellness, all the way down to the unintentionally hilarious refrain of “My girl shaped like a bottle of Coke/ Me? I’m shaped like a bottle of nope.” “Let’s Eat,” in turn, registers more as a posi after-school special than a contemporary rap song. And in all fairness, if you thought Mack couldn’t possibly get any cornier on This Unruly Mess, he does. Even when he attempts to explore somewhat interesting, thoughtful topics, like that of the album’s curtain-raiser “Light Tunnels” — a song that painstakingly details the night he and Lewis took home the Grammy for Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city — it ultimately just reeks of pretense, cloaked in a shroud of bashful self-absorption. Perhaps worst of all isn’t the album’s glaring lack of imagination and excitement for its topics, but in Macklemore’s rapping, which this time around is just a notch above Lil Dicky on the comedy rap scale: “Thinking such and such is bold, look at such and such’s gold/ Damn, such and such in real life looks really fuckin’ old,” he raps, surveying his peers at the Staples Center, before suddenly reducing the song to a cliché PowerPoint presentation on America’s worst obsessions and insecurities.

Naturally, of course, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made wouldn’t be possible without Macklemore exploring some pretty weighty social issues. After all, a Mack and Lewis effort must first meet its quota of at least a half dozen or so ripped-from-the-headlines moments. And with a title worth its weight in think pieces, “White Privilege II” is the album’s most prominent piece of political grandstanding, a rambling nine-minute talking point on a range of subjects like police brutality, cultural appropriation, and institutionalized racism. Here, he attempts to probe many social inequalities that plague our nation while also framing himself within the context of the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter movement and black culture at large. It’s all very real, very messy, and very Macklemore. Elsewhere on the album, he takes issue with pharmaceutical companies, which finds Macklemore desperately pleading “America, is it really worth it?” He routinely uses hip-hop as his own personal podium to politicize whatever he sees fit, and This Unruly Mess is, in turn, insufferable because of its cultural misreadings.

It’s not that Macklemore is all bad. In fact, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made hits a rare stride when he’s finally able to sidestep his social justice, bigger-fish-to-fry mantras; “St. Ides,” a tender number about Macklemore’s bouts of alcoholism, is surprisingly affecting and relatable on a genuine human level, something that’s largely missing from the album’s hour-long expanse and a component that’s certainly crucial for anyone listening to popular music in 2016. It’s here where Macklemore reflects not only on his writ large internal conflict, but also on the world, a place that he sees as changing at an ever-increasing pace. “Parents finally left, moved away, and they sold the house/ It’s really hard to ignore it now/ Wish that we could sort it out/ Last couple sips, pour it out,” he confesses with a sizable frog in his throat while simultaneously reaching for the nearest elixir to ease the pain. For an album with as many lyrical and musical howlers as there are tracks, this moment of clarity is surprisingly sober and refreshing from both Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. The album additionally boasts an impressive, far-reaching features list, including hip-hop veterans Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Caz, English actor Idris Elba, and young rappers of the future Chance the Rapper and YG, each securing a spotlight-stealing appearance on the album in “Need to Know” and “Bolo Tie,” respectively.

The thing is, many of This Unruly Mess I’ve Made’s flaws could’ve very well been forgotten, or at least temporarily swept under the rug, had the actual music been good. Where fair-weather hip-hop heads will often scoff at a rapper’s personality or lyrical content, they’re usually rewarded with a bevy of quality — if not occasionally forward-thinking — production and exciting flows. But unfortunately neither of these elements on the album are things you’d actually want to write home about. The album’s production, handled entirely by the 27-year-old photographer-cum-producer Ryan Lewis, isn’t even somewhat passable here; dramatic string sweeps, cheesy grand piano ditties, and flat, tuneless drums all serve to just basically clutter the composition, meant to evoke feeling rather than to accompany it. Not to mention the fact that Lewis pulls from the same bag of tricks as he did on The Heist four years earlier, altering very little and therefore making for an utterly fruitless album. Instead, This Unruly Mess is an album that would’ve worked best had it been released in an alternate universe, perhaps a place where Kanye never formally dropped out of college, backpacks were still all the rage, FL Studio didn’t exist, and Drake wasn’t the Rap Game manifestation of Seth Cohen. Call it The College Valedictorian.

Links: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - Macklemore LLC

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