Since his breakthrough in 2012, Macklemore has become a divisive artist in the hip-hop community. Along with his trusted collaborator, Ryan Lewis, Macklemore has provided teenagers everywhere with pop-friendly jams like the sing-a-long hit “Thrift Shop,” the fast-paced banger “Can’t Hold Us” and the proactive LGBTQ anthem “Same Love.” But after his and Lewis’s win for Best Rap Album at the 2013 Grammys for their studio debut The Heist, backlash seemed imminent. “Same Love” was deemed by some as disingenuous, while many believed Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.a.a.d. city should have won the award. However, the biggest surprise from the controversy came from Macklemore himself, who thought he didn’t deserve Best Rap Album either. Ultimately, Macklemore’s contradicting anxiety and pride in his music culminated into his sophomore record with Ryan Lewis, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. Instead of delivering another set of club-ready singles like in The Heist, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made finds Macklemore attempting to tackle even larger socially conscious themes on an album with an ironically apt title.
On the theatrical opener “Light Tunnels,” Macklemore contextualizes these conflicted feelings about his Rap Album win with a step-by-step description of his journey to the Grammys. And while the 32-year-old Seattle rapper makes a powerful statement about the toxicity of fame and the artifice of awards shows, he stretches the almost 7-minute song a bit too long and a bit too thin. However, what’s really charging Macklemore’s lackluster rhymes on “Light Tunnels” is Ryan Lewis’s production, which remains as engrossing and immaculate as ever. Macklemore has the right to be upset with how the media and society treats him so harshly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he should be so apologetic that he can’t just take credit for an award that he believed he didn’t deserve.
Macklemore’s internal conflict continues to be a recurring theme on the album. After he dramatically closes the first act, Macklemore enters into the bright and flashy “Downtown,” an instrumentally overblown and lyrically slipshod track that starts out as an ode to mopeds and then transforms abruptly into a Hamilton-esque anthem. Simply put, it’s a poor man’s “Thrift Shop.” It does have its moments, but most of them don’t even involve Macklemore; they come from the song’s breathtaking features, which include old-school hip-hop legends Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Caz as well as Foxy Shazam vocalist Eric Nally, whose shrieking falsetto heightens “Downtown” ’s unsteady ambition. However, the album doesn’t seem to get better from there.
The overtly silly “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” has Macklemore making absurd quips about his cat’s Instagram, his dick (he calls it “Ron Burgundy”) and even makes a Deez Nuts reference. “Buckshot” ’s hip-hop heavy production and skilled guests (Bronx rapper KRS-One and Kanye West collaborator DJ Premier) is dampered by Macklemore’s nonsensical rapping and an annoying, whiny whistle sample that buzzes in the song’s background like a crying baby on an airplane. After “Buckshot” finishes, Fun Macklemore suddenly shifts into Contemplative Macklemore with a trio of maudlin ballads, “Growing Up,” “Kevin” and “St. Ides.” Macklemore’s well-intentioned message to his baby son on “Growing Up” has a sweet center and notable pop singer Ed Sheeran delivers a soaring chorus, though the song is a note too sentimental. Leon Bridges offers some strong vocals on “Kevin” but struggles to elevate the song’s clichéd lyrics (“Doctor, please/Give me a dose of the American Dream”). “St. Ides,” the only song off the album without a feature, is in dire need of one.
Though the album struggles to maintain a balance between corny raps and mature songs, Macklemore finds some form of thematic and sonic stability on “Need to Know,” the only real highlight on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. A surprisingly poignant song, “Need to Know” is bolstered by Lewis’s piano-laden instrumental, Macklemore’s lyrics about drug addiction and an incredible guest verse from Chance the Rapper. It’s a track that reminds Macklemore fans of how positive and influential hip hop can be, especially with the right words and production.
Among the broad spectrum of white hip-hop artists — from laughable acts (Hoodie Allen, Iggy Azalea, Riff Raff) to mainstream artists (G-Eazy, Logic, Mac Miller) to rap veterans (Eminem, Action Bronson, El-P) — Macklemore is uneasily somewhere in the middle. He is, at most, a decent rapper. His charisma and tongue-in-cheek demeanor shines more than his storytelling. He and Lewis are certainly prolific in their music making, since both this record and The Heist were independently self-produced, self-recorded and self-released by the duo. But in terms of how Macklemore approaches his material, he’s a bit shaky and This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is a perfect example of that. Most of the “fun” songs aren’t very catchy and most of the “mature” songs aren’t very nuanced. Perhaps Macklemore’s difficulty in articulating his ideas can be simplified in the album’s final track “White Privilege II,” a lengthy, often confounding song in which Macklemore struggles to identify with the #BlackLivesMatter movement while being a white man in America: Macklemore definitely has the right intentions, but his execution in conveying them makes for a truly unruly mess.