The only thing stranger than Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' new album is the mindset that the duo must've had when making it.
Besides Kanye West and Iggy Azalea, Macklemore has become one of the most controversial rappers in modern hip-hop. Ever since The Heist bested Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City at the 2014 Grammy’s, his actions only make him more divisive in the public eye. His first controversy began only hours after winning a Grammy for Best Rap Album, when he sent out an awkward apology to the Compton emcee that felt forced and awkward. After that, Macklemore seemed to dip into the shadows, only rearing his head to protest alongside the equally contentious Black Lives Matter movement. However, in late 2015, he and Ryan Lewis got back to music, releasing “Downtown”, “White Privilege II”, and “Spoons”, all of which made it onto the album (although “Spoons” became a bonus track).
This background is necessary in order to fully comprehend all that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis serve up on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. Take the opener “Light Tunnels”, where Macklemore discusses his Grammy wins, his conflicted thoughts on his newfound fame, and the superficiality that comes with being a celebrity. Though this song is one of the best on the album, highlights Macklemore’s weaknesses as an artist. He recalls holding up his award and feeling narcissistic, yet he also made an entire song about his experience and sentiments on fame, music, and success two years after he stole the show at the Grammys. Introspection and thoughtfulness make great artists, but the Seattle rapper embraces them so heavily that his music crosses the line between being humble to being filled with self-pity.
In a way, Macklemore is the perfect antithesis to Kanye West. Unlike the latter, who is unapologetic for his rash and rude behavior towards others, Macklemore is remorseful for actions that he hasn’t even done. “White Privilege II”, one of the songs that dropped before this album’s release, is the most obvious example of this. In an awkward eight-minute ballad, the independent rapper compares himself to Elvis for “stealing” African-American culture, and talks about how his suburban white fan base, among other things. While these are important topics of discussion, he speaks as if he’s to blame for wanting to make hip-hop music and having a largely white fan base. These are things that are out of his control, and he should not take them as much to heart as he does. Again, the good intentions are evident, but he’s unable to translate them into well-written and sophisticated songs.
If there’s one thing that the Seattle native can’t be criticized for, it’s being personal, comical, and self-aware. When all three come together on the same song, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis hit a homerun. “Downtown”, while it has a lame funk instrumental and some cringe worthy lines, is one of those, with a playful atmosphere that makes it this album’s equivalent of “Thrift Shop”. On “Growing Up”, a beautiful ballad with Ed Sheeran, Macklemore embraces his newfound fatherhood, while “Buckshot”, with KRS-One and its boom-bap production, harkens back to the Seattle rapper’s graffiti painting days. Though all three of these tracks have corny lines that’ll make anyone wince, they are passionate and heartfelt without being weighed down by the self-pity and over-analysis that usually ruins a Macklemore and Ryan Lewis song.
Again, though, the hip-hop duo can take their humorous shtick too far, and the result is terrible. The track “Dance Off”, a continuation of the song “And We Danced” from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ last EP, is only funny because it is such an unbearable song. “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” continues down this road of low-grade slapstick comedy, with Macklemore pretending to be Brad Pitt’s cousin and making a slew of references to Angelina Jolie, cats, and Instragram. And, although “Let’s Eat” is supposed to be somewhat topical because it discusses body image, it also loses the listener with lines like “I wanna be like Hugh Jackman, you know jacked man." How these songs managed to get onto the album, the world may never know.
Though This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is decent, its biggest failing lies in its quality control. For every good song, there are two mediocre and/or forgettable ones next to them. Unlike The Heist, which at least attempted to maintain a level of cohesion, this new album is as jumbled and confused as Kanye’s The Life of Pablo. However, while Kanye has the narcissism, critical acclaim, and enormous fan base to pull it off, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are too self-conscious and uncomfortable to stick the landing. Nevertheless, although this album does live up to the “mess” that is implied in its title, gems can be found in the clutter, so long as people are willing to slog through Macklemore’s dirty laundry in the process.