The official edited version of this review is available here.
A Hip-Hop pariah if the industry has ever seen one, Macklemore has bore the brunt of relentless scrutiny, mockery, and derision following the meteoric success of he and Ryan Lewis’ collaborative debut LP The Heist, which began its takeover in the fourth quarter of 2012, culminating with a controversial sweep of the Rap categories at the 2014 Grammy’s.
While not even Macklemore himself thought it deserved Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, The Heist was an excellent pop-rap album nonetheless, one that was miles ahead of similarly categorized releases that year from the likes of B.o.B., Machine Gun Kelly, Chiddy Bang, and Kid Ink. It showcased the Seattle emcee’s ability to put together conceptually focused rhymes about a wide variety of topics, all sitting over easily digestible and occasionally memorable production from Lewis. Even the noticeable moments of corniness, or worse, droning introspection, didn’t detract from its overall merit.
The duo’s follow-up, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, will prove much more difficult to defend. In reality, criticisms regarding Macklemore’s authenticity or genuineness are misplaced– he has existed in the underground for over a decade, addressing similarly goofy and uncomfortable topics long before he became infamous for it, showcased most notably on his solo debut The Language of My World. But album number two for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis falls flat artistically, its sprawling diversity a diluent and a weakness this time rather than an asset.
In all fairness, cohesion is clearly not the aim here. Conceptually, it is nearly impossible to dream up anything more disparate than the self-aware confrontation of racial issues on “White Privilege II” and the “deez nuts” joke in “Brad Pitt’s Cousin”. If both offbeat humor and overwhelming sincerity are the two definitive sides of the Macklemore coin that is perfectly fine, and both personas have a few effective moments, but when this sharply juxtaposed, they generate a scattered inconsistency that’s ultimately distracting. Macklemore pushes the two approaches impossibly deep into their extremities, making for a frustrating listen.
Perhaps it comes down to the album’s sequencing. In “Kevin” and “St. Ides”, the listener is pelted with two consecutive intense tracks addressing substance abuse, and not long after, “Dance Off” and “Let’s Eat” occur back-to-back: two songs addressing, well, dancing and eating. The listening experience becomes akin to being smacked around in a confusing, never-ending pinball machine.
The crying shame of it all is that many of these tracks function well on their own. The Chance the Rapper-assisted “Need to Know” is the obvious standout, a little ditty about self-censorship in which Mack and the Chi-town youngster assure us that “the truth would be too much”. Macklemore’s guest outshines him with a verse that manages to slip in an off-the-wall reference to Kanye West’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” incident. The aforementioned “Kevin” is an impassioned, thought-provoking tirade against the pharmaceutical industry’s complicit role in substance abuse, save its overly melodramatic hook and some funky guitars in the production that sound misplaced amidst the weighty subject matter. The album is also bookended by the excellent “Light Tunnels” and “White Privilege II”, the former a vivid first-person narration of Macklemore’s Grammy night experience, the latter a bold examination of a white rapper’s role in the Black Lives Matter movement.
The misses occur more often on the silly songs, like the insufferable “Dance Off” and “Let’s Eat”, the latter featuring blatantly unfunny body image gags (“I want to be like Hugh Jackman/You know, Jacked, man”). The one instance where he does effectively sell playfulness is on lead single “Downtown”, in which Mack’s nimble delivery in the verses sits perfectly over Ryan Lewis’ quirky instrumentation.
But when the solemn moments come back around, Macklemore is especially tough on himself. Many of album’s serious cuts (“Light Tunnels”, “Need to Know”, “St. Ides”, “White Privilege II”) contain such an abundance of ruthless self-loathing that there ends up being very little in the way of entertainment. A majority of the time, it is utterly suffocating.
This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is a formidable challenge to the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. In the case of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ sophomore effort, its eclectic ingredients clash in truly exhausting fashion, rendering the LP’s overall message incomprehensible and convoluted.