Macklemore has certainly become a surprisingly controversial musician. I say “surprisingly” because I remember a time not too long ago where people were giving him large amounts of praise for various reasons. He was an independent artist that managed to break into the mainstream with a successful independent record. He was seen as refreshing for his anti-commercial messages in his hit songs. He got respect for writing a powerful gay rights anthem that also managed to be a hit song. He got to the #1 spot of the 2013 Year-End Billboard chart with a catchy silly song about thrift shops and cheap clothing. Plus, he seemed like a nice guy with a genuine passion for what he’s doing. So where did things go wrong for Macklemore…?
Well, his album beating Kendrick Lamar’s more acclaimed record at the Grammy’s got him some backlash. His response to his album snubbing Kendrick’s album also got him some backlash. There was the infamous incident where Macklemore made a performance wearing a mask that resembled a Jewish caricature that got him some backlash. Then, there was the typical backlash that came about due to him being a white, straight artist doing hip-hop songs and talking about gay rights.
Anyhow, Macklemore has become a polarizing figure in the pop music world as of this moment. It will be interesting to see how Macklemore’s career continues as the release of his second mainstream album comes around in late 2015. But I don’t really want to talk anymore about Macklemore the person and his complicated celebrity politics bullshit. I want to talk about Macklemore the musician and see past all the hype and backlash, whether he made a good album or not. Let’s check out Macklemore’s successful debut album, The Heist… also, there’s this Ryan Lewis guy who does all the production on this album and him and Mack are credited as a duo but he is clearly showing himself to be the less-popular member of the two so there’s much to say about him but that doesn’t really matter so let’s get onto the review.
Let’s talk about the duo themselves, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Like notable rap duos of the past (Eric B. & Rakim, Gang Starr, Madvillian, DJ Jaffy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, etc.), the rap team consists of the rapper, Macklemore, and the producer, Ryan Lewis. They both do a good job of elevating each other's strengths when it comes to collaborating Macklemore’s verses with Lewis’s beats. Macklemore is a fine rapper but it’s with the help of Lewis’s bombastic production that can span multiple genres in which Macklemore’s flow and rhymes really get to shine. On the other side of the coin, Lewis’s production is incredible but as the track BomBom (the only instrumental track on the album) shows is that Lewis’s beats requires Macklemore’s attention-grabbing verses and unique flow in order to make the production more memorable.
Self-described in the opening track as “David Bowie meets Kanye” West, Macklemore is certainly a unique rapper. There have been some critiques on his style of rapping, particularly his delivery and forced uses of rhymes (sometimes he doesn’t bother rhyming at all). I can agree with these critiques to any extent. But those elements grew up me. Furthermore, while lacking in delivery and rhymes, Macklemore makes up for it with his energy, overall enthusiasm and conscious lyrics. You can tell that Macklemore’s is generally ecstatic whenever he gets on the mic and that hype-man attitude definitely gets a listener pumped. From his “alrights” in the beginning of Can’t Hold Us to the genuine enthusiasm that he has about thrift shop clothing in Thrift Shop, Macklemore has the charisma that aids in the enjoyment of his music. But it isn’t just good times that Macklemore presents on this album as he does take the time to discuss important social-political issues.
A recurring theme in The Heist is Macklemore’s general anti-commercial attitude. The scathing critique of society’s infatuation towards basketball paraphernalia, particularly athletic shoes, in Wings. The excellent storytelling of Macklemore's own experiences trying to get signed to a label in Jimmy Iovine. Even the hilarious Thrift Shop has some excellent commentary on how people oftentimes spend too much money on clothes because they think it makes them look cool or because it’s a glorified brand. This material could have easily have been hipster trite but Macklemore manages to escape those connotations by thoughtfully presenting why he believes the less expensive option is better. He justifies the styling of cheap Goodwill clothing but playing with its’ charm to make the idea of buying from Thrift Shops sound cool. Similarly in White Walls, he justifies his support for the not entirely economical nor currently trendy Cadillac by proclaiming its’ old-school, classy feel. However, Macklemore isn’t just providing alternative economic choices for mundane objects. Another recurring theme of the album is Macklemore’s alcoholism which get referenced throughout the album but gets specifically focused on the track, Starting Over, which is a great personal track with an emotional story for the second verse.
Through the album, Macklemore explores more significant issues with masterful tact. The most noteworthy example being his gay rights anthem, Same Love. But just as significant is his discussion on police brutality in A Wake and how society is perfectly willing to ignore the plight of suffering African-Americans in favor of blissful ignorance and the false belief of a post-racial society. On a second listening, I was impressed by how well he handled the topic while acknowledging how he simultaneously feels disconnected from a cause he passionately wants to support because of his own whiteness. Gold is a feel-good track about Macklemore’s vision of a perfect paradise where everyone is equal and appreciated. With these songs, Macklemore produces some thought-provoking gems from what could have been just album filler. Most notably, the final lines of Jimmy Iovine and Wings along the second verse of A Wake provide some standout moments.
But it’s not just Mac and Ryan that are the only stand-outs on the album, there is a handful of mostly obscure artists that led to their voices to the album that helps provide some memorable hooks. For instance, Wanz’s work on the Thrift Shop helps make the track in his own, “fucking awesome”. With his deep baritone and smooth delivery, Wanz manages to make lines like “I’m wear your granddad’s clothes” and “I’m gonna pop some tags” sound absolutely badass. Ray Dalton’s actual chorus is just typical inspirational prose but the guy performs it with such grace and strength that makes the words seem powerful. It really does make you want to “put your hands up like the ceiling can’t hold us”. Even more effective, though, is the bridge near the end of the song that features an almost improvisational tone to it with Dalton’s scatting and whaling along with Macklemore’s shouting of “Na-Na-Na-Na” provides more grandiose to the song’s already epic tone. It sounds like it came straight out of the climax of a summer blockbuster. Most radio versions I listen to cut this part out due to shorten the track which really does disservice to the song. Mary Lambert’s chorus on Same Love gives the number the heartwarming anthem that this kind of song requires and perfects with her gentle vocals and poetic lyrics.
Not all of the choruses are spectacular and some of them suffer from poorer lyrics or vocal delivery but each of them have a certain charm to them that makes them worth listening to. They add character to the songs they are featured in as well as to the album as a whole. Most of the featured artists here are not big-name celebrities and I suspect that some of these artists will remain obscure after this album (seriously, anyone heard of “Eighty4 Fly”). But their inclusions add to the indie flare that The Heist embodies and the idea that they are literally stealing the attention away from the mainstream world to focus on the alternate, underground ways of living.
Considering how much of a “rivalry” has come out between Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar, it is rather humorous in hindsight seeing two other Black Hippy members on this album. Ab-Soul contributes a hell of a grand chorus on Jimmy Iovine, filling the song with the raw energy and hardcore wrath that this song’s atmosphere embodies. In contrast, Schoolboy Q provides the most out-of-place feature on this album unfortunately on White Walls. I’m not the biggest fan of the song in general with its’ braggadocios vibe and car bragging theme not really working as well. But his verse just uses the typical rap cliches about pimping, drinking, and fucking hoes that really goes against some of the more sentimental elements of this track, turning White Walls into just another rap song about cars.
Ryan Lewis’s expansive production manages to embody multiple genres that feel appropriate to the specific song like the gospel tones on Neon Cathedral or the country elements on Cowboy Boots. Now, I’ll discuss more in-depth about my thoughts on some of the notable tracks in the album, like the strange closing track of the album, Cowboy Boots. I actually like this song with its strong ideas about growing old while sounding like a nostalgia-fueled dream full of mug shots and rough housing. I’ve seen plenty of country artists trying to emulate the hip-hop aesthetic but it’s certainly rare that I’ve seen a hip-hop artist emulating country. But you know Macklemore’s that kind of artist. While it’s musically unique to the album, the strangeness of this track is how it was the specifically chosen to end the album. Considering all the epic tracks that preceded it, the seldom country diddy seems like an odd note to leave the album on. But honestly, I think considering how unconventional Macklemore and Ryan Lewis been trying to make grand hip-hop jams and silly numbers, a strange mix of silly and somber song with the added element of country seems like a fitting choice. A similarly confusing moment in the track-listing was the overall placement of Thrift Shop. While I really like the song and the track turned me on to Mac and Ryan’s work, the placement of a borderline novelty song after the dynamically epic Can’t Hold Us seems like a rocky transition. Even more bizarre is the thrift shop reference in the latter song. While it could have been foreshadowing (maybe), the insertion of the thrift shop idea feels weird considering it was released as a single and directly placed in the album before Thrift Shop. So maybe the track-listing could have used some re-working but it overall doesn’t damage the quality of this album.
Overall, I feel this album has gotten undeserved backlash because of its’ win snubbing Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. The two albums are really apples and oranges; they are both high-quality albums that succeed in completely different areas. I believe that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis should be appreciated to producing an incredible album with grand production, catchy songs, incredible vocal performances, and memorable lyrics. This is quite the encouraging debut that definitely makes me excited to see their future projects. I know there are plenty of people who aren’t going to be impressed with this music and just disregard any semblance of effort or conscious rapping put forth on this album. But for me, I have to say...
I appreciate your place in music, Macklemore. (Such a corny line)
Can’t Hold Us
Make The Money
“Is that your grandma’s coat?”