Album Review: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, ‘This Unruly Mess I’ve Made’

By Angelo Gingerelli

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Haggerty (aka Macklemore)

There are few more polarizing figures in pop culture than Macklemore. Since bursting into the national consciousness with 2012’s “Thrift Shop” the man formerly known as Ben Haggerty has been both praised and vilified, commercially successful and critically bashed, loved by soccer moms and hated by Hip-Hop Heads, given the crown as music’s most socially conscious artist and accused of making topical songs to capitalize on the current zeitgeist.

Let’s take a look at perception vs. reality in the case of The People v. Macklemore

Perception: Macklemore is the sorriest rapper of all time and has publicly apologized for the following: Liking sneakers made in sweatshops (“Wings”), thinking he might be homosexual (“Same Love”), not actually being homosexual (“Same Love” again), wanting gold teeth because he grew up a Wu-Tang Clan fan (“Can’t Hold Us”), winning a Grammy over Kendrick Lamar and most recently being a white rapper (“White Privilege Part 2”). Many of his critics argue that this kind of constant apologizing has no place in Hip-Hop’s decidedly macho landscape.

Reality: Yes, the guy says “I’m Sorry” more than Justin Bieber right now. But, in reality isn’t this kind of refreshing? Very few rappers reach this level of self-awareness and openly acknowledge that they occupy an odd space in the culture. Not every MC should be this vulnerable, but it’s kind of cool that somebody is doing it.

Perception: Macklemore makes blatant pop songs to appeal to the lowest common denominator of fans.

Reality: Sure, he’s your Step Mom’s Favorite Rapper, but his singles do address some issues ignored by most of his peers. His three biggest hits addressed materialism (“Thrift Shop”), work ethic (“Can’t Hold Us”) and homophobia (“Same Love”). The first single from his second album sounded more like show tunes than Showbiz & AG, but it featured Hip-Hop pioneers Grandmaster Caz, Kool Moe Dee and Melle Mel. Isn’t exposing these old school artists to a new generation of fans (and presumably compensating them) better than rappers like Kanye West only collaborating with the newest flavors of the month to remain relevant?

Perception: Macklemore isn’t Hip-Hop because he didn’t pay his dues

Reality: No, he didn’t do mixtapes, guest appearances, freestyles, etc. like most MC’s on their rise to prominence, but he’s from a part of the country that hasn’t produced a nationally known rapper since Sir Mix-A-Lot was “long, strong and down to get the friction on.” Instead of waiting for another artist to put him on he attacked the game like an indie rock band by independently releasing music and extensive touring for a decade making one fan at a time. While this is an unorthodox path for a rapper, the idea that he came out of nowhere with Thrift Shop is completely false.

Perception: Macklemore is an average rapper that makes “socially conscious” songs tailor made for today’s politically correct youth that are released just in time to capitalize on the hot button issue of the moment

Reality: Yes, his messages hit fans over the head with overly obvious ideas that don’t really challenge the status quo. However, in a climate where most commercial Hip-Hop doesn’t address a whole lot, Macklemore is fairly competent at bringing issues to radio, video outlets and mass media publications. While songs like “Same Love” and “White Privilege II” come off like well-timed pandering, it’s hard to argue they don’t start interesting conversations. Also, as soon as he became popular enough to headline a tour he brought Talib Kweli and Big KRIT as opening acts and exposed his fans to two “socially conscious” rappers with catalogs beyond reproach.

Verdict: For the last several years Macklemore has been the rapper you love to hate, but maybe you shouldn’t.

This Unruly Mess I’ve Made

Macklemore has perfectly titled his second album as most of the project addresses the “mess” made when an unorthodox indie rapper becomes a massive pop star. This has been done before on albums like Kanye West’s Late Registration, Drake’s Take Care and Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP but where Eminem went on the all-out offensive on tracks like “The Way I Am” and “Who Knew?” Macklemore is nowhere near as confident in his place in the game and this insecurity makes for some of the best moments on the project. The album opens with “Light Tunnels” and details Macklemore’s trip to an awards show and not really knowing where he fits in that world, the track showcases the rarely seen vulnerable side of the artists we see on the red carpet.

The theme continues on tracks like “Bolo Tie” featuring a great guest verse from YG and “The Train” that inexplicably has a Spanish chorus, but a few quality verses comparing fame to a moving train and not getting off when you get a shot to ride that train regardless of how it effects the rest of your life.

When he’s not contemplating how his life has changed since becoming a pop star and whether or not he belongs with the “US Weekly” crowd, the songs fall into two categories: fun, party records and songs that address current social issues. The party songs range from radio friendly hits like the first single Downtown to the just plain silly Dance Off and Brad Pitt’s Cousin. The most interesting of these is Buckshot featuring scratches by DJ Premier and Macklemore and KRS-ONE trading verses about graffiti writing. It’s arguably the most Hip-Hop thing to happen this year.

Similar to The Heist, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made features Macklemore addressing some of the issues currently effecting the world including drinking (“St. Ides”), prescription pill abuse (“Kevin”), nutrition/fitness (the humorous “Let’s Eat”, which would hit harder if Macklemore was actually overweight) and the perils of capitalism (“Need to Know”). All of these songs are pretty solid attempts at “Socially Conscious” music and while they don’t necessarily hold up to the standard of groups like Public Enemy, they are certainly welcome in an era where most commercial MC’s are reluctant to take a stand on any issue.

The album ends with the epic (almost 9 minutes long) “White Privilege II” where Macklemore addresses his place in Hip-Hop, how much the color of his skin has facilitated his success and if he has a responsibility to speak up about issues effecting African Americans being an artist in a traditionally African American art form. Sonically, the song has too many elements (beat changes, choruses, spoken word samples, etc.) to be cohesive enough to warrant repeated listening. Lyrically, Macklemore brings up some interesting points often ignored by his contemporaries, but these points have all been brought up before, most notably on Eminem’s “White America” and Murs’ “And This is For…” While Macklemore’s version doesn’t bring much new to the table, he should be given credit for daring to address these issues in such an epic format, at the end of the day it might be a swing-and-a-miss, but at least he was swinging for the fences.

This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is better than a lot of people will want to admit, it features quality beats by Ryan Lewis, several solid guest appearances (Leon Bridges and Chance the Rapper shine particularly bright) and an MC trying to honestly examine himself and the world around him. Can you really hate that?

Best Songs: Light Tunnels, Buckshot, The Train

Perfect for: Headphones…so you don’t have to explain to anybody that Macklemore isn’t that bad

Rating 7.5 out of 10

Angelo Gingerelli has been contributing to The Pop Break since 2015 and writing about pop culture since 2009. A Jersey shore native, Gingerelli is a writer, stand-up comic, hip-hop head, sneaker enthusiast, comic book fan, husband, father and supporter of the local arts scene. He likes debating the best rappers of all time, hates discussing why things were better in the “Good Ol’ Days” and loves beating The Pop Break staff at fantasy football. You can catch up with Angelo on Twitter/IG at @Mr5thRound, at his website www.FifthRoundMovement.com or interviewing rising stars in NJ’s Hip-Hop scene on “The A&R Podcast” (iTunes/SoundCloud).