Monday, February 29, 2016

album review: 'this unruly mess i've made' by macklemore & ryan lewis

"You know why people hate liberals?  Because they lose. If liberals are so goddamn smart why do they lose goddamn often?"

That was a quote from a self-identified Republican from the Aaron Sorkin-penned show The Newsroom in 2012, and as we head into the upcoming trainwreck that will be the 2016 general election, I think I can see an answer to that question. It's not an answer anyone wants to hear, especially as a liberal, but where conservatives will unite despite most internal schisms, liberals will demand ideological purity and drive people away, preferring to 'win right' rather than win, which can make the losses all the more costly.

Okay, so what does any of the politics have to do with Macklemore, a good but not great independent rapper who has released his sophomore record pairing him with the perennially underrated producer Ryan Lewis? Well, the more I've seen the hype and the even greater backlash to Macklemore the more I've come to realize that his career probably be most damaged by the audience for whom you'd think would be a natural fit - the social justice community. Keep in mind this is a rapper who months before 'Thrift Shop' caught fire released a song supporting same sex marriage in the United States, and who has released music criticizing the industry and exploring his own alcoholism... and yet in the past few years I've seen Macklemore be dealt more hatred, distrust, and outright scorn from an audience on the surface you'd expect to be more receptive than rappers who you'd think would be much bigger targets who have said far worse things.

Now to be clear here, it hasn't helped that Macklemore is not particularly artful in some of his social commentary, and being entirely too earnest and corny makes him easy to mock. But of all of the criticisms leveled against him, the one that he is mercenary and 'profiting' off of the social justice movement while not truly believing it is the most ludicrous and frustrating for me, mostly because if that was true, he wouldn't nearly screw up as often and invite the tidal wave of hatred he gets. There are legitimate grievances with him - his work is clumsy and broadly sketched, he's proven too willing to be the martyr, especially in public, the tonal whiplash between goofy and preachy can be disconcerting, and at the end of the day as a rapper he has a lot more dud lines than he should - but for as hard as Macklemore is trying, it truly is frustrating to see the audience that you'd think would receive him counterattack instead of help.

So when I heard that Macklemore newest collaboration with Ryan Lewis was going to be called This Unruly Mess I've Made, it made too much sense. Here was a man who has had an exceedingly messy few years trying to make sense of it all, and given the extremely mixed critical response, I wasn't sure where this was going to land. And his list of featuring credits was even more bizarre, spanning golden age titans to Ed Sheeran, KRS-One to YG, Anderson .Paak to Idris Elba - so what sort of mess did we get here?

Well, if you can't tell from my introduction - which I normally put together before I listen through the record in full - I was hoping to like this record a lot more than I do. And the frustrating part is that it's across the board - it's not just that the album lacks cohesion in favour of tonal whiplash, it's not just that Macklemore is outshone by most of his guest stars, and it's not just the broadly sketched politics and humour that really made me cringe more than it should - it's all of it put together, plus the overwhelming feeling that Macklemore is trying so damn hard... and just isn't able to match what he put together on The Heist, pretty much across the board. And yeah, I'm also going to have to include Ryan Lewis in that, because while it's easily the most consistent element, the production didn't really grab me in the way I was hoping, and that's definitely a disappointment.

And where to even start with this... well, let's start with the underlying dichotomy that's been at the heart of Macklemore's dramatic persona: balancing the wacky, oddball, frequently corny jokester that can still occasionally have an interesting point; and the darker, more introspective MC who gets angry, political, and occasionally can make a meaningful and powerful statement. In a twisted sort of way, it's very much like the dichotomy that used to run at the core of Eminem, and while I was listening to this record, there were quite a few comparison points I didn't expect - and most of them weren't favourable. From the similarities in flow - especially on the Encore-esque delivery that came in 'Light Tunnels' - to the momentum-killing ballad about his daughter on 'Growing Up' that might as well be 'Hailee's Song Pt. 2', to the broadly sketched and overly goofy pop culture references doubling as jokes like on 'Let's Eat' and the excruciating 'Brad Pitt's Cousin' - to say nothing of all of the dick jokes than ran through 'Let's Eat' and 'Dance Off', there were a lot more explicit parallels than I expected, to the point where I was surprised Macklemore didn't make it more overt by outright mentioning Em on 'White Privilege II' beyond just flow similarities and subtext. But here's the thing: there was always a sense that through the Slim Shady alter-ego allowed Em the distance to be more daring, more confrontational, actually expose human failings in both himself, his audience, and society at large. Macklemore never creates that distance, and since he's very much aware he's under the microscope, there are points where you can tell the pressure is compromising his art. 

Want examples? Okay, let's take a look at the guest stars, nearly all of whom show up Macklemore on this record. Now in a few cases it was inevitable and the music is good enough that'll give him a pass: the golden age stars that show up on 'Downtown' might not do anything crazy for their verses, but they definitely own the stage when they do show up along with Eric Nally, to the point where Macklemore's less expressive delivery hurts him, along with some unfortunate lyrical flubs - and keep in mind I still really like that song! Go a step further and you have 'Buckshot' which is co-produced by DJ Premier and Macklemore is really on his game, even if it is a pale facsimile thematically of what B. Dolan did on 'Graffiti Busters'... and then KRS-One shows up and it's not even fair. I'd say the same for 'Need To Know' with Chance The Rapper, but honestly that song puts me in a bit of a weird spot regardless, half because the message is basically the same as what Chance already did on 'All My Friends' with Tinashe and Snakehips, and half because it's a lot more subtle than Macklemore's opener and leaves me in a bit of a weird spot. Similar case with 'Bolo Tie' with YG of all people, where Macklemore's verses feel like a more conflicted 'Real Friends' where that sort of 'mo money, mo problems' rant feels strikingly out of place, and YG pivots for a more angry, more poignant verse about gangsta stereotypes that rings stronger, but weird in contrast. And then there's Idris Elba and Anderson .Paak on 'Dance-Off', a goofy track that I honestly wish was more fun as Macklemore strings together too painful punchlines about dicks... and yet even as Idris Elba only does the hook and .Paak maybe has four bars, they're the highlights of the song!

Because here's the thing: there is content here with potential, and even some thematic resonance. I like 'Downtown' when it goes broad and silly, I liked the reflections to the past and graffiti art on 'Buckshot'... and I'll say it, I thought 'White Privilege II' had some real power to it, as it tried to get to the roots of Macklemore's internal crises surrounding his place in modern hip-hop and #BlackLivesMatter. Does it suck that more people will pay  more attention to Macklemore over black artists who have said this, absolutely - but again, it's a song intended for the hordes of white kids who have never cared, not for those who have been active in the social justice community or who are better informed. Of course, if he wanted to galvanize that audience it might have worked better if he structured the song for radio play the way 'Same Love' fit in, which ties into the themes and messaging on this album. Now I'll repeat what I've said in the past when an artist goes political: precision, populism, and power... and to his credit, Macklemore can usually get two out of three. And yet there are so many songs where the lack of nuance or the inability to take that final step really gets on my nerves. 'Let's Eat' is an easy example - it's a jokey track about poor nutrition that actually rings true because of the populism and goes down reasonably easy, but between the corny celebrity jokes and the lack of follow-through means this is no 'Thrift Shop'. When he gets serious the holes gape even further: I appreciate the broadsides leveled at the pharmaceutical industry on 'Kevin', but it never gets as visceral as when Hopsin made 'Old Friend' or when Pharoahe Monch made the entire P.T.S.D. record in 2014 - which was also more visceral. 'White Privilege II' has this problem too to a lesser extent - just 'reading an article' often isn't enough, Macklemore, to get the complete point - but the track I want to single out is the opener is 'Light Tunnels', which has the bombast and drama to land as a killer opener targeting the emptiness of show business and the Grammys. And yet when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won for The Heist, the big story wasn't about the award but Macklemore's apology to Kendrick and we don't even get an implied mention! It's a distancing choice, but it's the complete wrong one for the way the album is framed and its better content, which actually digs into the undercurrent of depression and insecurity beneath the surface. Tracks like 'St. Ides' and 'The Train' do this very well and are subsequently two of my favourites on this album, the first cutting into Macklemore's complicated past and alcoholism, now in sharper reflection as it fades away, the second really delving into the detachment from friends and family that has come with pursuit of his passions. Macklemore is subtle and eloquent enough on these tracks to make me wish the entire record had been willing to underplay, or at the very least dig deeper into Macklemore himself - hell, even despite its problems that's why 'White Privilege II' has impact.

Unfortunately, this record doesn't really go deeper, playing more for the bombast and flash and pop sensibilities... and this is where we have to talk about instrumentation and production. And look, most of this isn't Ryan Lewis' fault, he's giving Macklemore probably what he asked for with the big hooks and broad instrumental progressions with flashy horns and production - but when placed against the emotional undercurrent of this record, it can feel jarring as hell! Most of this is an issue of hooks that are just overdone and melodramatic, like on the gospel-touched 'Kevin' with Leon Bridges with a percussion beat that feels oddly too quick, or on 'Growing Up' with Ed Sheeran, but then you get 'Need To Know', and while I appreciate the soulful touches, it just feels brighter and yet clumsier than it should given the subject matter. I actually much preferred the discordant plucked strings and piano on 'St. Ides' or the windswept piano minimalism of 'The Train' or the jagged transitions on 'White Privilege II'. And then there are tonal choices that feel like outright mistakes, from the blaring tone on 'Dance Off' to the muddy and overmixed 'Brad Pitt's Cousin', complete with garish effects and samples that just grated on my nerves - and somebody tell me why nearly all of the horns before the end of 'Light Tunnels' sound completely flat? Even 'Buckshot' with DJ Premier had the tone running through the entire mix that sounded like a mosquito by your ear - it's weird to say that 'Downtown' is probably the song that holds its weird instrumentation together the best!

And look, I know what you're all going to say, that the album is supposed to be messy and scattershot, look at the title... but without underlying cohesion or solid sequencing, that's not an excuse! A lot of people said the same thing about The Life Of Pablo by Kanye West, and on some level while there are more songs I liked from here than that record, there were also a fair few more I consider outright unlistenable This Unruly Mess I've Made. And considering what a step down this is from The Heist... no, I'm not being generous here, it's a 5/10 and only a recommendation for hardcore fans. Folks, I really wanted to love this album, but there are too many wack lines, sloppy instrumental choices, and content decisions in bad taste for me to get behind. Congratulations for making a mess, Macklemore, but anyone can do that - I'd much rather see you clean it up.

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