Released February 26, 2016
57 min, 39 sec
The sophomore album is a tall prospect, particularly if an artist’s first album was an immediate commercial success. Really, any album that immediately follows a smash hit is one of the hardest to make, because there’s a balance to be maintained – the elements that made the first album a hit can often run contrary to an artist’s intentions, and the end result can either be just as big, a bit of a drop-off, or a complete disaster, depending on how proficient the artist is at balancing those disparate elements.
Massively successful debut albums can bring a great deal of relief, but they can also become an unbearable weight. You have forever to make your first album – the second one, not so much. So how do you follow up a multi-platinum album? Do you hit those same mega bullet points? Do you go with what your heart says? What if your heart says “hit those fuckin’ bullet points?” What will the critics say? Will you give a fuck either way?
It’s a delicate, delicate balancing act. It’s one that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis faced together for the first time in the wake of the unexpected success of The Heist, held up as the pinnacle of independent music, while also enduring a firestorm of controversy, criticism, and general discussion regarding the realities of Macklemore being a white man in the very black realm of hip-hop. His success was undoubtably attributable to his real, undeniable talents as a rapper, and Ryan Lewis’s fantastic grasp on the art of production. But it was also undoubtable that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are both palatable to the general populace. And no, it’s not because of Macklemore’s hairdo.
But Macklemore is aware of this. He’s always been, going back to his own debut album, 2005’s The Language of My World. That album led off with the track “White Privilege,” a blunt, powerfully introspective track about the truths of being a white man in hip-hop. I’m pretty sure about five people listened to that album, but even now, eleven years later, Macklemore struggles with his position in music, perhaps even moreso than when he was a random hipster in the heart of Seattle’s underground scene. Now, that struggle is in front of millions of people who, for one reason or another, found themselves drawn to The Heist, be it through “Same Love,” “Neon Cathedral,” or “My Oh My.” The balance of fun, hip-hop criticism, analysis of white privilege, and struggles with drugs and alcohol formed a powerful balance on The Heist, with Macklemore weaving between the themes earnestly, if not as smartly or subtly as one might hope. These themes return on the sequel, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, with the added lens of Macklemore now being a mainstream superstar.
Many artists have turned inwards after enduring a wave of commercial success. Green Day’s Dookie resulted in Insomniac, angrier, grittier, and stranger than its predecessor. Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and the legal issues that followed was channeled into the immensely stark, desolate Darkness on the Edge of Town. Even Weezer responded to The Blue Album’s success with the odd, charismatic Pinkerton. Macklemore’s version of this is less extreme – This Unruly Mess I’ve Made sounds very much like a logical follow-up to The Heist, the Meteora to Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory. But there are several moments of introspection and self-awareness that would not exist without The Heist being a commercial success, and it’s clear that fame has begun to weigh on Macklemore, much as even minor success in music had done to him a decade prior. There’s a reason he dropped off the face of the Earth for five years after his original debut album, after all.
That reason was alcohol, if it wasn’t clear.
Four years have changed the duo. Album opener “Light Tunnels” gets right to the point, placing Macklemore at the Grammys, running through his thought process as he’s thrown into the very heart of mainstream music. He gets his shots in, talks up independence and the importance of integrity in the music industry, but also seems overwhelmed by the attention, his thoughts and rhymes scattered as his name is called and he goes to accept the award. Curiously, no mention is made of the fact that he (not personally, obviously) robbed Kendrick Lamar in every single category, and that everyone knows very, very well why he won instead of Kendrick. Fame weighs on him just as much in “Need to Know,” where both he and guest Chance the Rapper wish they could return to the days of being underground saviors, far away from the fame and the weight of expectations. On The Heist, Macklemore anticipated and hoped for fame to reach him; on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, he’s gotten his taste of it, and he’s not too much of a fan.
Introspection features in a different way on the first track premiered from This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, over six months before the album’s release, “Growing Up.” Initially released for free on Macklemore’s website, the song, previously subtitled “Sloane’s Song,” is an ode to Macklemore’s recently born daughter Sloane, giving her advice and reassurance that he’ll always be there for her, even if he’s halfway across the world on tour. With a simple beat and the high-soaring voice of Ed Sheeran, the song is a sweet, lovely tribute to fatherhood and the relationship between parent and child, and demonstrates that Macklemore has his priorities straight.
Addiction rears its head in two distinct ways – “Kevin” tells the story of a close friend lost to prescription drug abuse, featuring the gorgeous, full-throated croon of Leon Bridges, while “St. Ides” immediately after addresses Macklemore’s drinking problems, something that threatened to return as a result of the stress of touring behind The Heist. “St. Ides,” tellingly, is the only song without a guest on the album. The song features Macklemore, alone with his thoughts and his voice, without even a vocal chorus to anchor the song, choosing instead to fill the void with a quiet, twangy guitar riff. “Kevin,” though beautifully composed and arranged, suffers from a common theme with Macklemore, that of his ham-fisted addressing of issues that he’s passionate about. I think it’s less fair to criticize “Kevin” as opposed to “Same Love,” even though they suffer from the same deficiency, because Macklemore is much closer to the issues of drug addiction than he is to gay marriage. But he goes too hard, coming off as wholly anti-prescription entirely, which lacks a lot of the nuance that I would like to hear from Macklemore. It’s a matter of moderation and being properly diagnosed instead of any sense of being over-prescribed.
Of course, heavy themes of fame and addiction may anchor the album, but are spread out and alleviated by a fair share of lighthearted, satirical songs in the vein of megahit “Thrift Shop.” “Downtown” is the closest analogue to that song, released as a single six months before the album’s release, and satirizing obsession with fancy cars by replacing them with mopeds. The video in particular is a gem, as ridiculous as it may be. Other songs anchored in humor and brevity include “Dance-Off,” rather uncomfortably sexual and featuring a bizarre Idris Elba hook (yes, the actor), alongside what basically amounts to a cameo by an under-appreciated Anderson .Paak. “Let’s Eat” is a tribute to laziness and a love of food, which really resonates with me on a personal level. Because I’m unhealthy. “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” tackles fame in a far different way – embracing it, reveling in it. As Macklemore says, his cat’s more famous than I ever will be. I decided against hitting up the barber shop for the Macklemore haircut, though.
“Downtown” also plays into another theme, that of Macklemore’s love of classic hip-hop. The trio of Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Caz was bizarre but sincere, even as you hear them declaring their love for mopeds. “Buckshot” is a little more reverent, delving into graffiti tagging and bringing in DJ Premier to really drive the concept home. Macklemore has always been aware of his debt to classic hip-hop, particularly as he exists in an era that rewards him far more than his contemporaries. Every step Macklemore takes is in the shadow of the greats, and even though he may not have brought in his true favorites, he does his best to pay tribute.
Pre-release press, however, is dominated by the album’s closer, a song that overshadows nearly the entire back half of the album, from “Dance-Off” on. “White Privilege II” is a sequel to the song of the same name from The Language of My World, and incorporates eleven years of experience and nuance to create a fascinating sprawl of a song. Disjointed and stretched in several different directions, Macklemore delivers a biting indictment of white artists that co-opt hip-hop for their own gain with no regard for the traditions and history entrenched in the genre, making sure to frequently turn the lens on himself, the album’s theme of self-awareness coming to a head here. Macklemore alternates between shredding Iggy Azaela, and white fans who adore his “safe” brand of hip-hop, and looking at himself and his own work, trying his damnedest to figure out just how much he’s contributed to the problem.
This song made waves when it dropped a month before the album. Some appreciated the message, even as Macklemore brought his trademark flashes of tone-deafness to it, though it is far better at addressing a sensitive issue than, say, “Same Love” four years prior. Some found it to be too much of a mess to really make an impact. Some mocked Macklemore for even trying, which, I guess, is fine, even if it seems a little unfair. Pitchfork went so far as to accuse Macklemore of making black issues about him, which is psychotic and par for the course for Pitchfork. (Hilariously, they used Macklemore’s very own line about that exact thought – “isn’t this all about you, Mack?”, essentially – to declare that they were right on the money. Beautiful.) And there are a lot of ways to interpret the song and Macklemore’s intention behind it. But when it dropped, the video had no ads, was available to download for free, and was attached to a larger website designed to aid people in raising their own knowledge and awareness of black issues and the Black Lives Matter movement. Call it white savior complex, call it an empty gesture, call it corny and pandering. But this song wasn’t designed to be commercial, it wasn’t designed to be sold, it wasn’t designed to get Macklemore his points with the black community. Like most everything Macklemore does, it’s sincere in its clumsiness and ugliness, and the message behind it is powerful and on-point. And I truly do believe that, once Macklemore and & Ryan Lewis emerge for the promotional tsunami, “White Privilege II” and its central message will be one of their major focus points.
There are a few songs I didn’t touch on, but as a whole, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made feels less even and a little too front-loaded compared to The Heist. The back half of The Heist was held up by “Wing$,” “A Wake,” “Starting Over,” and bonus tracks “My Oh My” and “Victory Lap.” By contrast, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made takes a pretty big dip in quality after “Need to Know,” losing the thematic balance of the first half, right until the nine-minute opus of an album closer in “White Privilege II.” That’s not to speak of the abomination of a bonus track in “Spoons,” as well as whatever the other bonus track is (I haven’t received my deluxe copy yet). It’s a little unfortunate – I feel like “Kevin” could have easily been slotted in between “Bolo Tie” and “The Train” to shore up the back half, or “Let’s Eat” could have been moved forward to adjust the halves. The front half blows a lot of The Heist out of the water – the second half feels a lot like The VS, which isn’t necessarily a compliment. Taken as a whole, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is a strong second act, avoiding the sophomore slump that artists can fall into, without quite soaring back to the heights of The Heist.