A betting man would never wager that a song about thrift shopping could create one of rap music’s most visible stars. Shockingly, Ben Haggerty did just that by donning the Macklemore handle and treating the world to three minutes and forty-nine seconds of one of the catchiest hip-hop tracks of the decade. However, the speed of Macklemore’s rise had the velocity and momentum to burn the atmosphere, and as weeks turned into months then into years, the flames of his fame threatened to burn his reputation to ash. Almost four years have passed since the release of Grammy-award winning album The Heist, with mere drops of water to satiate our Macklemore-dehydration in the form of “Arrows” and the lead singles off of This Unruly Mess I’ve Made since then. Does Macklemore’s most recent effort provide enough water to douse the flames that threaten to engulf him?
Light Tunnels (feat. Mike Slap): This track is truly incredible. Detailing the night of the 2014 Grammy Awards, we get a very candid look at Ben and Ryan Lewis at the event itself. We see them in preparation of and in the experience of the awards show, but from a very interior view. A wide variety of topics relating to the ceremony are addressed from how to behave if he doesn’t win stretching to how overwhelming it is to be on the guest list with so many celebrities. The musical acrobatics Ryan Lewis performs are swift and agile, and thankfully the beat never wavers to the tune of awkward. The instrumentation is dense with layers of organic instrumentation such as trumpets, guitars and choirs, as well as thick with drum machines and synthesizers, creating a rich, loud blend of sound. Macklemore showcases some wonderful flow, telling a compelling story while still delivering a meticulously structured performance. This unfortunately is the strongest song on the album as well as possibly the strongest song Macklemore has created, leaving the album nowhere to go but down after this.
Downtown (feat. Eric Nally, Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Caz): This track is a little awkward following “Light Tunnels.” I love “Downtown”: it’s fun, it’s bombastic, and the instrumentation is fun and reminiscent of “Uptown Funk.” I think it’s a cute song. I enjoy it a lot. I want to say as many good things as I can before I say that it’s not a very good song. It’s fun, but the chorus is just too lopsidedly “pop” for the bulk of the song’s 90s-boom-bap sensibilities. The lyrics just seem to be about anything and everything silly and random. It’s a song about mopeds, it’s a song about yelling at your neighbors, it’s a song about Eric Nally driving through Spokane… It sort of just exists to be a fun pop song. Which I really like. But unfortunately liking it is not enough, and the end result is an unfocused, unimpressive song that wants to be loved but is just too ugly, and that’s sadly the bottom line, isn’t it?
Brad Pitt’s Cousin (feat. XP): This is the meme song. “Brad Pitt’s Cousin (feat. XP)” is among the bottom tier of the songs on this album. The only thing I can discern from the lyrics is that this song is about memes, and by the end of this album, you know just how much Macklemore loves memes. The lyrics address the meme that Macklemore looks like an ugly relative of Brad Pitt’s. He says “Deez Nuts.” He brings his cat on the track. The chorus goes “All my Angelinas if you got it let me see it.” There’s a verse where he ends each line with the word “bruh.” There’s not a single joke that lands. Ryan Lewis phones it in with a C-grade trap beat. It’s terrible, throw it in the trash.
Buckshot (feat. KRS-One &DJ Premier): KRS-One was a huge asset to this track. That is the best compliment I have for this one. “Buckshot” is exciting for a few reasons, mainly for being a truly candid shot of the past-life Macklemore so frequently mentions leaving behind. Macklemore tells us of his early days, imbibing illicit drugs, riding the bus downtown and spraying some splatter art on some business walls. KRS-One’s verse has some of the most complex rhyme scheme on the album, mixing spelling with rapping to make a seamless stream of rhyme and sounds that truly represent the art they advocate. KRS-One’s presence on this song is what elevates it beyond just a fun little track; he makes it one of the most memorable moments on the album thus far. The beat is incredibly stale though. The bass hook is funky, but the bulk of the song plays over the same five notes, and there is a stereo whine that’s easy to ignore while listening through speakers, but with headphones that whine sinks the song. The song is not serviced at all by the fact that it comes right after “Brad Pitt’s Cousin.” I take this opportunity to say once again: Take the bag out, get the garbage out of your house, never listen to “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” again.
Growing Up (feat. Ed Sheeran): This was the first single off This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, and it’s a pretty good song. It’s sweet and Ed Sheeran gives a good feature. However, it’s not that spectacular; it could have just been a B-side off of The Heist, sonically. I do really love the sentiment behind making a track specifically for his daughter, and it’s adorable at a few parts. Macklemore doesn’t really create a very compelling track here, though. As an audience member I have no reason to care about anything in the song, considering it is sung directly to Sloane. Beyond that, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis don’t do anything new; it’s just a little of the same old stuff just on another song. Macklemore starts with a verse, then a chorus, then another verse, then another chorus, then another chorus… It’s easy to listen to, it’s earnest, and sadly it’s not much else. Next, please.
Kevin (feat. Leon Bridges): This is one of the strongest tracks on the album, and quite a weighty one at that. Macklemore has a penchant for including poignant, hard-hitting, and at times heavy-handed tracks on his albums. I’m pleased to say that there is no heavy-handedness on this track, merely an honest, emotional story of his friend who overdosed on prescription drugs. Macklemore doesn’t rely on any cheap tugs at the heart or overly-emotional delivery; he allows the subject matter to speak for itself and delivers a TKO at the end of the track with a tremendous slam against the big budget pharmaceuticals. Leon Bridges delivers a solid performance, and the gospel touch through the verses of the song gives chills with every listen. Definitely an essential listen for those trying to gauge what to expect from the album.
St. Ides: This is a very pretty song, with completely organic instrumentation. We get another track where Macklemore embraces the history that we’ve only gotten to see him allude to on previous albums. This song is tinged with very gorgeous sentimentality. It settles very well between “Kevin” and “Need to Know,” being the most somber of the three. Unfortunately the song sports some noticeable flaws. This is the only track on the entire album without a feature, instead substituting a catchy chorus with a Killers-esque guitar hook. The hook is nice, but repetitive, and near the end of the song it begins to sound like a placeholder where somebody else would have sang something beautiful. There’s also a moment where a chorus of background men answer “What?” at the end of each of Macklemore’s lines, which is inexcusably goofy in a song this serious. Ultimately, though, this song has a lot more good than bad to take away, and if you don’t mind turning a blind eye to the bad parts then it’s all good in the hood. You can’t turn a blind eye to “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” though.
Need To Know (feat. Chance The Rapper): After “Light Tunnels,” “Need To Know (feat. Chance the Rapper)” is absolutely the best song on the album. Both rappers mainly contemplate the reasons and effects of lying on this track, featuring both Chance’s and Ben’s most clever wordplay in a very, very long time. Chance has a moment where he references writing the song you’re listening to, and he says “I scratched this line out so many times I can’t forget it… I almost say it every time that I edit.” Before you can really comprehend what he’s said, Chance has taken off with some breezy, quick, and animated rapping that is every bit as dense as the aforementioned line. Currently, everyone is losing their collective minds over Chance’s feature on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam,” but they’re going to feel pretty foolish when they discover they’ve been sleeping on Chance’s best work since 2013’s Acid Rap. Not to say Macklemore gets outshined, but this is the first time that a feature on a Macklemore song has felt like more than just a famous artist singing between Macklemore’s raps. Chance blends seamlessly into the song, lending his spirit to every aspect. Even Ryan Lewis feels like he’s collaborating instead of propping up Macklemore, creating a beat that utilizes many instruments found on Chance’s last noteworthy project Surf. Truly, I feel as though much of the mission statement of the failed Surf album by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment is realized on this singular track. Truly fantastic production and some very incredible rapping make this the most standout track on TUMIM.
Dance Off (feat. Idris Elba & Anderson .Paak): Wow. This track is truly awful. I have no clue what happened here or why it is included on this album. “Dance Off (feat. Idris Elba & Anderson .Paak)” is uncontestably the worst song on TUMIM. As soon as the word “I” is uttered from the otherwise talented Idris Elba, you know you’re in for nothing good. The song is unpleasant to listen to, it’s insulting to my intelligence, and it has no charisma. If Macklemore’s catalogue consisted of songs like this, he would have a reason to so neurotically and consistently feel he has to prove himself. It sort of feels like a novelty rap song in the vein of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Jump On It,” except “Jump On It” brings out the inclination to dance. I would more accurately compare it to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Buttermilk Biscuits,” because both attempt to be cute, funny, clever, and danceable, and both fail just as hard. What is Anderson .Paak doing on this album? Does he remember that he was just on the new Dr. Dre album?!He’s so much better than this last-minute inclusion on this track. .Paak’s presence on this track feels like a diet-cola-rendition of Bruno Mars, which makes that second on the album after Eric Nally on “Downtown.” The worst part of this song is that it’s competent. Worse, it’s finished. There is no evidence of the song being botched in production. You can tell everyone involved is having fun, and the imagery of the song is too grotesquely specific to have been phoned in. Listening to the song and comprehending the real inspiration behind the song only makes the awful stinky crap turd that shivered from between Macklemore’s legs that much more repulsive. That’s horribly disgusting, but it’s apt. Do yourself a favor: find the bag you threw “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” into, reopen the bag, and shove “Dance Off” all the way to the bottom. Don’t waste another trash bag on this turd.
Let’s Eat (feat. XP): I should be thankful how often this album makes me say “wow,” in both the good and the bad way. “Let’s Eat (feat. XP)” has the second feature from XP on the album, and thank lord because this time XP’s contributions actually add to the song, giving one of the catchiest and feel-good choruses of the album. “Let’s Eat” is being heralded as a body-positive anthem, and it’s easy to see why; the title says it all. Macklemore is a relatively good looking dude despite looking like the ugly cousin of a certain Mr. Jolie, but in this song he admits he has a lot of trouble choosing between wanting to look good and his love for food. Many people who struggle to lose weight constantly cite the same reason for the struggle: “I want to lose weight but this food is so good.” Fear not, you are not alone. Macklemore spends an impressive amount of the song listing off the types of food he loves, which will stir up a mean case of the munchies upon the first few listens (or more). Contrasting “Dance Off”’s loudness and difficulty to listen to, “Let’s Eat” is comprised of beautifully simple piano with light sound effects to complement Macklemore’s plight of simply loving too much food. It’s such a fun song, with Macklemore actually flexing a little bit of subtlety with his rapping techniques that is much appreciated. Definitely a high point on the album.
Bolo Tie (feat. YG): Unfortunately, “Bolo Tie” is a song. It’s not terrible, and its main sufferance has more to do with it being forgettable. It starts okay, sort of interesting, but about thirty seconds into the song the beat sort of stagnates. I have absolutely zero clue how the “bolo tie” fits into this song thematically because from what I can discern this song is about making music. On that note, it’s also confusing that in both Macklemore and YG’s recitation of the hook, they say “make good music.” I feel as though this thought is supposed to be profound, but the song gives no context as to whose perspective that’s being said from. YG’s feature here is awkward, where he talks about how when he got shot they used his name for headlines, but YG is hardly a big-draw name for headlines. Besides that, the whole world has already forgotten Lamar Odom’s recent hospital visit, I doubt anyone even heard about YG. Of the bad songs on the album, this one is only beat by “Downtown,” but this is the lowest acceptable quality before it becomes “Brad Pitt’s Cousin.”
The Train (feat. Carla Morrison): “The Train (feat. Carla Morrison)” is the most pure song on the album. Almost completely instrumented with piano, the only other musical accompaniment is the sounds of train wheels and light use of strings. Very bare, very moving, this is Macklemore’s most successful and honest attempt to explain the duality of his fame. The song discusses being away from home and family, and the fear of losing a life never given a chance to live. It’s so gentle and heartbreaking, with Carla Morrison singing a beautiful hook and riding alongside the main melody with haunting, pained singing with Spanish lyrics. I’m proud to say Macklemore really hits it out of the park with this song’s use of minimalism, and honestly I think this song has no flaws.
White Privilege II (feat. Jamila Woods): In another forum or article I would love to really dig my fingers into the meat of this nearly 9-minute track. However, I want to be succinct, so I will try my best to keep this completely musical: This is one of the strongest songs on the album. The structure is complex and challenging, Ryan Lewis and Macklemore are in full adaptability-mode on this song. The two work together like master swordsmen, choreographing and building off of each other, only attempting a move trusting that the other partner can complete it. There are several vignettes through the song of different characters and situations as Macklemore tries to create a song about the Black Lives Matter movement completely from a white perspective. On this front, Macklemore gets the job done. Macklemore never tries to represent the BLM movement, he never claims to be the face of it, or even tries to champion it. Macklemore just shows his thoughts as a white person in the movement and why he feels it’s necessary to speak up. However, in an effort to give context, Macklemore has many interludes in the song that feature no music but instead “candid” sound bites of people discussing the subject of the song. These interludes are sort of the root of the problem with the song, as they are a little awkward and clunky, necessary for context for Macklemore’s rapping, but with some serious mistiming and little to no grace. The variety of soundscapes and perspectives Macklemore and Ryan Lewis attempt to take on are astounding and well-done in almost every case, but there seems to be no perfect solution as to how to transition between all of them, and we’re left with the result of such. The song unravels near the end as Macklemore ties up this incredibly powerful song with the weakest verse in the song and then Jamila Woods finishes it with the most embarrassing contribution. I enjoy the sentiment of “Your silence is a luxury/Hip-hop is not a luxury,” but it’s delivered with no nuance, no subtlety; it is the equivalent of training and running a marathon only to trip and break your leg with the finish line in sight.
Thus concludes This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. With four years since The Heist, it’s truly a breath of fresh air to hear that on every single track Ryan and Ben seem to be stretching themselves as artists. Macklemore delivers some fantastic flow and shares with us parts of his life I didn’t even know he had yet to share, which is a stellar compliment for any artist. He gives unique vantage into his life and showcases a more clear-cut personality than he had to boast on The Heist. Ryan Lewis is the one who transcends all expectations, though. The true highlight of the album is the production. The sheer amount of real instruments in the album tied with synthetic elements and creativity of samples has finally created a sound that is not only iconic and unique for Macklemore, but also creates a more optimistic and talented backdrop for what white hip-hop could sound like. The high points on TUMIM prove that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis had more than just one fantastic album left in them. Unfortunately, the low points on the album, of which there are many, drag the album way below the bar it set for itself. While the expansion of talent is always nice to hear, sonically there’s no sense of cohesion in the album, making the missteps feel that much clumsier and out of place. Passable songs like “Buckshot” become tandem-skips when passing over “Brad Pitt’s Cousin,” and much of the album seems to be divided into chunks of either good songs or bad songs. The whole thing just feels very messy, most powerfully evidenced by having “White Privilege II” close out the track listing. “The Train” is, for all intents and purposes, the perfect place to close the album. The production is the exact opposite of “Light Tunnels,” and lyrically “The Train” ties up all of the themes mentioned in the opening track. I feel as though “White Privilege II” was meant to be the album’s expression of a “mic-drop,” but in trying to capture that moment the album forgets what it was trying to say to begin with, which is what “this unruly mess I’ve made” really is. There is so much to like on this album, and it has sparked a much more urgent need for more Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. However, I am much too sensible of this album’s defects to say that it resembles anything close to perfect, and it would even be a stretch to say “great.” Check this album out, but don’t feel bad when you have to leave about half of the track list at the door.
Essential Tracks: Need to Know (feat. Chance The Rapper), Let’s Eat (feat. XP), Kevin (feat. Leon Bridges)
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