This is an election year and, as such, a painfully strange time. As they do every four years, presidential candidates are racing around the country straining to endear themselves to voters on a local level, smiling warmly in Iowa farm country, effecting a preacherly lilt for religious black audiences in South Carolina. America is won, these pageants seem to say, not by uniting the masses around a candidate’s message but by stretching the candidate’s appeal out like putty. It’s been about four years since the last Macklemore and Ryan Lewis album, too, and the unlikely pop sensations’ new album This Unruly Mess I’ve Made carries all of the pandering to jibing demographics of a campaign for political office.
In the intervening space between 2012’s The Heist and This Unruly Mess, Macklemore became a father, a husband, a millionaire, and the unwitting flashpoint for a dialogue about black erasure and white visibility in minority spaces. The multi-platinum selling “Thrift Shop,” “Same Love,” and “Can’t Hold Us” boldly aimed for and landed at pop radio, trickling down to hip-hop audiences only when they became irresistible to urban station ratings. The ubiquity of The Heist’s singles aided a roundly reviled near-sweep of the hip-hop categories at the following year’s Grammy Awards. This Unruly Mess opens “Light Tunnels” revisiting the scene of the Seattle rapper’s trip to the ceremony, illuminating both the scope and untenable reach of Macklemore 2k16 in one fell swoop. This isn't so much an album as a charm offensive for everyone with reasonable gripe about the guy and his art last time around.
“Light Tunnels” spends nearly seven minutes recounting Macklemore’s 2014 Grammy experience detail by wardrobe and makeup detail, before landing, deep down in a third verse, on the heart of its message: “I got the people’s attention, don’t wanna lose it here / Thinking about my career, miserable here / But wanna make sure I’m invited next year.” You wait for the story to come to a point only to find out that the rapper’s discomfort in his own skin is the point. Similarly, the biggest pitfall of This Unruly Mess’s much discussed closer “White Privilege II,” aside from a lack of replay value, was this sense that the artist had mistaken his acknowledgment of the awkwardness of his station in hip-hop for profundity. Macklemore makes music about Macklemore’s awareness of Macklemore’s plight as famous white rapper few seem to want to be famous. This Unruly Mess trades in the post-breakthrough “fuck you” album tradition for a marathon of caring about things.
The concern here is threefold: In addition to grappling with the quirks and racial implications of the rapper’s meteoric pop celebrity, the album seeks both to sustain popularity and to make the music more palatable to a traditional hip-hop audience. Unlike Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, which located the artist’s humanity in his dueling quests for salvation and the pleasures of the flesh, This Unruly Mess struggles to make its cross purposes pop. “Downtown” calls in old school rap legends Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz, and Kool Moe Dee for hip-hop cred, while “Buckshot” taps KRS-One. “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” and “Dance Off” are trips back to the “Thrift Shop” novelty rap well that jarringly bookend a string of thoughtful message songs like the cautionary prescription drug dependency yarn “Kevin” and the sobriety anthem “St. Ides.”
Macklemore succeeds best when he stops trying to save the world with a song and finds a balance between grand social consciousness and white guilt tinged navel gazing. It was a natural slackjawed earnestness that carried The Heist’s singles, not the heavy-handed concepts it was affixed to, and when This Unruly Mess mines that charm, it finally produces songs worth the fuss surrounding artist and album. “St. Ides” looks back on a life and city both irrevocably changed by time, letting the warmth of the reminiscence deliver the message where elsewhere he might opt to sermonize. “Bolo Tie” is the rare flash of retaliatory anger you have to imagine the rapper has been harboring for his harshest critics all these years, a welcome respite from Macklemore’s judicious even-handedness. An album of these -- or an album of the good-hearted but bumbled politics of “Kevin” or an album of the shamelessly corny crossover pop of “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” or an album of the golden era rap fan service of “Buckshot” -- would’ve been the brash move. But in chasing all these irreconcilable urges, in trying to please everyone at once, This Unruly Mess all too often lives up to its name.
It is the rare white rapper that achieves nationwide fame first and then cycles back to seek the approval of the black community. You used to have to be one of the illest alive to claim a place in hip-hop, long a predominately black and Latin inner city space. But now that the reach of the music greatly exceeds the boundaries of the neighborhoods that first created it, hip-hop is taking strange (sometimes awful) shapes and paths. The meteoric success of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis is a terrifying bookend to the rise of Eminem at Dr. Dre’s side at the end of the 20th Century in that it presents a way forward for music that doesn’t speak to or necessarily even come through the hood. This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is palatable where it is because Macklemore is so deeply aware of the machinery of race in America. However, it is not a safe assumption that whoever comes next will bother.
Craig really likes "Kevin" though. Follow him on Twitter.