Sunday 20 March 2016

Review of 'This Unruly Mess I've Made' by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

The Seattle rapper is done wearing your granddad’s clothes. His new obsession is mopeds. And self-doubt.

Macklemore is either extremely brave, or highly insecure. Perhaps both. Whatever the case, he’s decided to spend this album getting open about all his anxieties. Coming to terms with what he’s become, he questions his newfound celebrity status, his role as a father and his privilege as a white rapper. He even lets us know about his fitness and dieting qualms on ‘Let’s Eat’.

There are no solutions offered to his woes – he kind of just spills them out like a man visiting his shrink. This makes for an enjoyably unpreachy record. Those who like their rap songs to sound like TED talks though are welcome to dismiss it as a load of petulant whining.

Personally, I find Macklemore’s self-awareness and humble indecision relatable and refreshing. To me this dude is the anti-Kanye – the perfect counterweight to hip hop’s arrogant side.

'the anti-Kanye'

And it’s not like beneath his moaning he lacks a sense of humour. Whilst there are some wholly sombre numbers on here such as ‘Kevin’ and ‘White Privilige II’, there are an equal amount of goofy, fun songs like funky moped-anthem ‘Downtown’ and bizarre Footloose-tribute ‘Dance-Off’ to maintain balance.

It’s up for debate whether Macklemore intends to be as corny as he is. Judging from the self-awareness he displays elsewhere on the album, I’d like to think ‘there’s layers to this shit, tirimasu’ is a deliberately poor line. The 'Brad Pitt’s ugly cousin' concept doesn’t come across too well, but the quip about every white dude in America wanting his haircut makes up for it (as well as showing Macklemore has the confidence to jokily brag about himself and not just self-deprecate). Other moments, particularly those on the more sincere tracks, are less forgivable. ‘Growing Up’ starts sweetly with Macklemore coming to terms with having a daughter, but hearing him giving life advice like ‘Listen to your teachers, but cheat in calculus’ makes me want to stick my finger down my throat.

Producer and sidekick, Ryan Lewis, carries on his work from The Heist, rustling up an exciting smorgasbord of different flavoured beats. There’s a trap beat in the mix, some DJ-Premier-co-produced-boom-bap and an acoustic ballad featuring a passionate chorus from Ed Sheeran. Combined with the lyrical cocktail of comedy and seriousness, this diverse instrumentation can make the record feel a little messy. However, it’s not ‘an unruly mess’ as the title suggests. The album flows well and stays engaging, the change in tone sometimes jarring but never awkwardly so.

Arguably, the back-end of the album is where things start to slip, both Macklemore and Ryan Lewis running out of ideas. ‘Bolo Tie’ and ‘The Train’ don’t seem to carry an inspired beat or lyrical theme, settling for rambled thoughts over pretty but plain pianos. The closer ‘White Privilege II’ makes up for things somewhat by having the most daring lyrical concept on the album, Macklemore examining the way in which he and other white rappers appropriate black culture. However, the clumsily meandering soul in the background stops it from really functioning as a song (it's pretty much an essay dictated over instrumental noodling).

Even if the delivery isn’t always right though, Macklemore’s heart seems to reliably be in the right place, and Ryan Lewis’s production seems to be largely on point. Yes, Kendrick probably should have won that 2014 Grammy. And yes, dressing up as a Jewish caricature wasn’t the best idea in the world (I’d like to believe it was accidental). However, I fail to see any other legitimate reason to actively dislike this duo unless you’re blindly following the masses. Corny though he may be, there has never been a more humble and self-aware rapper than Macklemore. And whilst the quality of this album dips towards the end, there isn’t an exclusively bad track in sight. It’s time to cut the flak, and give the Mack some slack, cos he's back and he ain't wack (give me a record deal, I blatantly should be a rapper…)