‘This Unruly Mess I’ve Made’, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ full-length follow-up to 2012’s ‘The Heist’, begins with ‘Light Tunnels’, a flashback to the 2014 Grammys when the pair scooped four trophies - including Best Rap Album, a decision that raised more than a few eyebrows given Kendrick Lamar’s formidable ‘good kid, m.A.A.d. city’ was also in the running.
At various points in the song, we find Macklemore running late for the ceremony, caught in traffic, being rushed through make-up and then, later, clamming up on stage as he prepares to accept his award. Though the behind-the-scenes attention to detail is solid if unremarkable stuff, in the hands of a more skilful writer it could have formed the basis for an altogether more satirical, subversive swipe at the entertainment industry as a whole, and the painfully out-of-touch Grammys in particular.
But instead of fully fleshing out Public Enemy’s celebrated “Who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy?” taunt, Macklemore opts for a few fairly harmless jabs at celebrity culture before dragging the song into the tedious pressures-of-fame territory - music’s worst subject: “I don’t like who I am in this environment / I forgot what this art’s for”. Later on, in ‘Bolo Tie’, he returns to the theme, bristling: “I remember laughing and cracking beers / Now I climb the ladder and you’re mad I’m here...”.
Ultimately, it points to the album’s broader problems. Macklemore (who in a previous life grafted hard on Seattle’s underground hip-hop circuit in the mid-2000s) is at best an average emcee now making songs seemingly primed for price comparison website commercials, but someone who still feels the need to sporadically crowbar in declarations of his credentials.
To wit: ‘Downtown’, last year’s horrific train-wreck of a single which clumsily sought to Xerox the spirit of Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk’, drafted in old school emcees Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz and Kool Moe Dee, who also appeared in the video. A song about mopeds ostensibly modelled as a heartfelt tribute to ‘80s rappers (Jay-Z’s line from ‘Izzo (H.O.V.A.)’ - “I’m overcharging ni**as for what they did to the Cold Crush” - put into practical effect, if you like), it instead feels as if Macklemore’s trying to awkwardly bolt on some much-needed credibility to what he knows is insipid mainstream pap.
This move is repeated on ‘Buckshot’, a salute to graffiti culture featuring KRS-One on vocals with cuts by DJ Premier. Macklemore’s verse name-checks Bootcamp Clik tapes and Krylon cans, as snippets of Eric B & Rakim are scratched into the mix. Yet the actual execution lacks any kind of subtlety and finesse, with Macklemore ramming home what comes off as an empty, cynical defence against the post-‘Thrift Shop’ criticism.
He’s now undeniably operating on a much broader pop level beyond the confines of a single genre. But, possibly stung by the barbs thrown at him after pipping Kendrick to the Grammy post, Macklemore seems uncomfortable with his status as a successful white rapper, in a predominantly black genre, who is neither blessed with the pure rapping ability of Eminem, nor holds the status of a bona fide old school mainstay such as, say, the Beastie Boys or MC Serch.
To be fair to Macklemore, he’s conceded this very point in previous interviews, and revisits the issue on ‘White Privilege II’, a complicated song set against the backdrop of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Black Lives Matter movement. The album’s strongest track, it is designed, according to Macklemore himself, as a play set to jazz, and raises tough questions for his white audience. But ‘White Privilege II’ sits awkwardly next to the earlier goofiness, such as the daft ‘Let’s Eat’ (which is hamstrung by Macklemore’s glaring lyrical deficiencies: “I never knew what a carbohydrate was/Turns out that it’s all the snacks I love”), its potency ultimately diluted in the mix.
(It’s not the first time he’s examined identity in his music: 2009’s ‘Irish Celebration’ was a shamrock ’n’ shillelagh-heavy ode to his tenuous emerald heritage which even the ’92 model top-o-the-mornin’-to-ya House Of Pain would have baulked at.)
All of which speaks to the increasingly uncertain notion of authenticity in hip-hop in 2016. When the rap world appears to side with a middle-class Toronto native who started out as a teen actor in Degrassi: The Next Generation over a Philly street hard-rock who reportedly brought guns to his early rap battles, and when a former Florida correctional officer can shift millions of records rapping - with a completely straight face – about shipping near-industrial quantities of the ol’ Notting Hill nose candy, it’s clear the concept of authenticity doesn’t quite carry the same weight in hip-hop as perhaps it once did.
Yet it’s something that seems to loom large over ‘This Unruly Mess’, usually to its detriment. As the album lurches unsteadily from throwaway pop numbers to sober, often po-faced, polemics (Ryan Lewis’ fairly indifferent production hardly helping matters), Macklemore remains unsure of himself throughout, lacking the rapping skills and natural charisma needed to get things onto a surer footing. In the end, it’s a sadly fitting album title.
Words: Hugh Leask (@HughSnoozeULose)
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