There was something refreshing about hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis back in 2012 when their debut album, “The Heist,” was independently released. Through sheer fortune, Macklemore became a household name. It was nice to hear someone on the radio be so genuine, even if he could be corny; Macklemore was mainstream hip-hop’s everyman. On “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made,” Macklemore retains that quality, but the second time around, it’s not as fresh. We saw who Ben Haggerty was four years ago: a low-key Seattle rapper with some serious demons. He needed to bring something new to the table, but unfortunately, he left it at home.
It’s not all for a lack of effort. The first track, “Light Tunnels,” is a six-minute critique of gossip journalism and celebrity worship culture. The lyrics describe Macklemore’s experience at an awards show, sitting near big stars like Taylor Swift and Jay Z, before going into a fairly generic rant about how tabloids “Want Kanye to rant and to go on longer / ‘cuz that equates to more dollars.” It’s preachy, simplistic and shows that Macklemore’s social framing needs work. Even worse, there’s judgment of the very people he discusses. His music showcases problems but neglects offering so much as crumbs of solutions.
“White Privilege II” presents the same dilemma for the rapper, as he questions his position as an ally of the Black Lives Matter movement. Should he speak up, or would his outspokenness be intrusive? Should he use his celebrity status to bring awareness to the cause, or would he just be drowning out black voices? Very little answers are provided, and the way Macklemore frames the issue around himself is very reminiscent of 2012’s “Same Love” in that it only addresses the problems facing the allies of these social movements. Perhaps Macklemore doesn’t want to speak on behalf of the these groups — and he shouldn’t — but I’m not sure allies need to have their voices heard more than they already are.
The exception here is “Kevin,” which tackles America’s drug industry and the problem of over-prescription through the story of Macklemore’s friend Kevin, who died of an opioid overdose in 2010. Macklemore’s story here actually works as a microcosm of a larger issue because he himself has been at the center of a dangerous addiction. In many ways, “Kevin” is the third part of a series of songs — beginning with “Otherside” off of their EP “The Vs. Redux” and continued with “Starting Over” from “The Heist” — that relay intimate details about how drug abuse has played a role in Macklemore’s life.
As usual though, the best songs here are the ones that shoot for the kind of fun-loving goofiness that made Macklemore a sensation in the first place. “Downtown,” released in August 2015, stands as the crowning achievement here, blending old-school hip-hop verses with a rock opera chorus sung by Eric Nally of the band Foxy Shazam. Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Caz also make appearances, and their inclusion never feels pandering, nor does KRS-One’s appearance on ode to graffiti “Buckshot.” “Dance Off” could’ve used an instrumental with more momentum, but it’s saved by a gloriously cheesy chorus by Idris Elba, of all people.
On the subject of instrumentals, Ryan Lewis employs his usual techniques here. “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made” is packed with lovely pianos, pretty strings and bombastic horns, and they all sound as if Lewis brought actual studio musicians in to record as opposed to simply synthesizing instruments on a computer himself.
“This Unruly Mess I’ve Made” is as real as you can get, there’s no question about that. What can be questioned, however, is whether or not Macklemore’s realness is even worth observing this time around. Despite a few workable tracks, he doesn’t make a strong case for himself. It’s a shame that “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made” is so aptly titled; I can only hope that Macklemore learns from this misstep, and, in the future, chooses more wisely what topics about which to write.
But who am I kidding? He’ll probably win a few more Grammys.