I was rooting for you, Macklemore. When you won Best Rap Album at the Grammys over Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, Kanye West’s Yeezus and Jay-Z’s Magna Carta, I thought, “Hey! It’s not your fault!” When you texted Kendrick telling him he should have won the Grammy, I trusted that you were sincere. When you Instagrammed a screenshot of your text to Kendrick telling him he should have won the Grammy, I trusted that you just wanted everyone to know how sincere you were. When you dropped that sprawling clusterfuck of a song “White Privilege II” I was supportive. When I found out you titled your new album This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, I thought, “Wow. Here’s a guy so self-aware, so mindful of his awkward and possibly undeserved position in pop culture, he actually named his career’s most anticipated album after his awkward and possibly undeserved position in pop culture.”
But then I listened to the album.
Just to clarify: is it called This Unruly Mess I’ve Made because you’re cognizant of the racial, social, political, and economic discrepancies between your success and the genre on which you built it? Or is it called This Unruly Mess I’ve Made because the album is, without a doubt, an unruly mess, in the purest sense of the phrase? If it’s the latter, props to you for coming up with such an unabashedly self-referential title.
“Downtown,” when I first heard it, was kind of like when I watched Gossip Girl for the first time. I knew it was poorly written, corny, and ultimately about as smooth as I imagine the feeling of your “scrotum dragging up on the concrete” would be, as you describe so vividly in your song. But it was a guilty pleasure, and it did, I admit, instill within me a nostalgic sense of youthful effervescence.
But lighthearted and eventually disposable songs like that can only get you so far — you know this. You’ve always been a pretty articulate guy, Macklemore. “Same Love” was great for obvious reasons, and your eloquent weaving of well-developed notions surrounding the topic of homosexuality was impressive. “White Privilege II” bears many of those same qualities. White privilege and the Black Lives Matter movement are hard to talk about for a white dude, and you certainly did it better than I ever could. “It seems like we’re more concerned with being called racist / Than we actually are with racism” is brilliant.
Aside from that song, though, a good chunk of the album brims with lyrical inanity, peppered at times with sanctimonious observations on the evils of pop culture — an evil that you yourself perpetuate. Sometimes your lyrics find you unusually defensive regarding your place in the hip-hop spectrum. In “Bolo Tie,” which features YG of all people, you blast anyone who tells you to make better music, while reassuring us that you really are taking this stuff seriously. “What am I gonna go and give back this year?” you ask in reference to your contributions to the rap game.
But, Macklemore, it’s sure hard to take you seriously when the previous track, called “Let’s Eat,” is one of the most banal songs I’ve heard in my life: “I woke up, threw some sweatpants on / Then I fed my cat and walked to the mini mart / And I really want a donut, shouldn’t get a donut / Bought a donut, fuck it man, it’s really hard.” These words read less like lyrics to a song and more like one of those stories a person tells on a Weight Watchers ad. Did you know that you reference food a whopping 60 times on this album? With that in mind, it’s not surprising that one of the songs on here is exclusively about your dietary qualms.
Your songs about drug abuse certainly come across as a product of someone who has lived what he raps — but too often your reflections on any given societal “problem” come across as either aggressively virtuous or vague to the point of sounding hollow. “I only think about my come up — capitalism,” is the extent of your commentary on entrepreneurship on the song “Need to Know.” And then Chance comes in to run circles around you (though, to be fair, he does that with pretty much everybody). The beat was made with Chance in mind, I imagine — a happy-go-lucky chord progression, sprightly brass part, and finger snaps provide a great canvas for him to work his magic. Anyway, Chance voices his own misgivings on various social issues with a skill that is specific and to the point: “Now the white girls call me nigga at my show,” he remarks. Take notes, Macklemore.
Speaking of Chance, the guests you have on this album are pretty badass. Anderson Paak? Grandmaster Caz?? Cool Moe Dee??? KRS-One???? The thing is, aside from Chance, none of these artists put in their best work. Anderson Paak — whose landmark album Malibu had critics raving in January — goes grossly underused on your song “Dance Off,” while you’re perfectly fine with Idris Elba repeating the same long-winded hook two, three, four times.
The DJ Premier-produced “Buckshot” has a nicely menacing piano loop, but it’s drowned out by an obnoxious drone which kind of sounds like a combination of a deflating balloon and my annoying second cousin.
Since we’re on the subject of production: Ryan Lewis really is a maximalist, isn’t he? Which would be fine, if his maximalism was tempered by any hint of subtlety or unconventionality in his beats. The cinematic “Light Tunnels,” featuring a substantial string section and ghostly vocal loops, features many musical ideas, but they’re all a bit watered-down. There are no exciting harmonic idiosyncrasies, no real moments of tension — in essence, no stamp of originality, which is kind of a bummer.
That’s not to say that none of the songs work from a musical standpoint. “St. Ides” is one of the all-around best songs on this album; the echoey rim shots and decaying guitar riff, complemented by a filtered vocal section, paint an affecting atmosphere of nostalgia and loss. So good job on that one, Ryan.
But, yeah. The ultimate downfall of This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is its utter lack of a singular, concise statement. Songs about drugs and songs about cunnilingus and songs about white privilege and songs about eating donuts are all smushed together in this abysmal sinkhole of an album, and as a listener, I was abandoned pretty early on to clamber my way out, while you, Macklemore, sped off in your moped, chasing down the next half-baked idea that popped into your head. “Time to explain this unruly mess I’ve made,” you promise on the first song. There’s a lot more explaining to do.