Review: Macklemore – This Unruly Mess I’ve Made

Other than literally bumping into Kendrick Lamar as he was being escorted out of the Key Arena on the Yeezus Tour’s opening night, Macklemore is probably the most famous person I’ve ever interacted with. Of course, when I met Macklemore, it was in 2006 after his first time playing Bumbershoot, where he performed songs off of The Language of My World at the festival’s smallest venue. Obviously, this was well-before “Thrift Shop,” but this was also before he got sober, and before even Ryan Lewis was in the picture. He was eager, humble, and seemed legitimately happy to sign some autographs for a couple annoying 15-year-olds who got a kick out of “The Penis Song.” All in all, he seemed legitimately happy just to be there in the first place.

It’s 2016, and Macklemore still seems happy just to be here, but not in the same way he did 11 years ago. While white rappers are far from an anomaly at this point, it’s clear Mack still feels—perhaps not fully guilty, but the same way you might feel if you got a promotion over your coworker who’s been at the company longer than you because your boss likes you. Except, instead of bringing it up to his coworker in private to curb any potential awkwardness, he decided to make sure that awkwardness got ramped up to 1000 by posting a screenshot of his apology on Instagram for the whole company to see. He still feels the need to validate his position as a white artist in a predominately-black genre whose debut album won a Grammy for Best Rap Album over a black artist’s album that is not only considered to be one of the best rap albums of the decade so far, but one of the greatest rap albums of all time. And honestly, who can blame him?

Deep down, Macklemore probably is sincere, but he’s so sincere and apologetic that it becomes melodramatic, and that melodrama sometimes becomes self-serving. He’s like the guy at a party who wants to make sure he knows what Latin American country a Latino person is from before talking to them so as to be culturally aware, when in actuality this person who happens to be Latino was born in Virginia and doesn’t want to talk about their cultural heritage and just be treated like a human being. On paper, he might have the right idea, but his execution ranges from to “well, he tried” to “absolutely abysmal.”

The Mack is at his best when he’s speaking on topics that are entirely personal to him (especially when coupled with Ryan Lewis’s phenomenal production). This is why songs like “Kevin” and “St. Ides” work, because, well, these are things that actually happened to him. He doesn’t need to vehemently validate these experiences to make sure we know that, while these aren’t things that directly affect him or his culture, he thinks they’re very important and he’s sorry if he’s stepping on anyone’s toes because oh god he’s just trying to help. Songs like “Light Tunnels,” or “White Privilege II” (and even 2012’s “Same Love”) certainly have to do with relevant social and political issues, but due to the way he poses them, they end up feeling more like songs about himself. It’s true “Light Tunnels” deals with how problematic of an institution the Grammys are, but in the end it really just serves as yet-another long-winded apology to Kendrick Lamar (who, at this point, has already lost Album of the Year to Taylor Swift’s 1989 at the 2016 Grammys).

And of course, a Macklemore album wouldn’t be complete without an unconscious attempt at neutering his own messages. He credits Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun to Langston Hughes (though to be fair, the play’s title was based on a line in Hughes’s poem “Harlem”), mixing up two black authors in what’s probably the biggest lyrical gaffe that could have been fact-checked by Wikipedia since Kanye West kept it 300 (like the Romans).

Likewise, interspersed between the more “serious” songs are “fun” songs like “Downtown” and “Dance Off,” the latter of which involves Macklemore rapping things like (“Your grandma, that’s a bad mama jama/She doing the banana, grabbing my trunk like a hammock”) while Idris Elba (yes, that Idris Elba) lays down a “Monster Mash”-esque hook that almost taints his portrayal of Stringer Bell forever. “Downtown” (feat. All the Ancient Rappers) would be a nice nod to rap’s pioneers if it wasn’t hinged on being “Thrift Shop Pt. II” (while we’re on the subject, this also seems like a missed opportunity to enlist Sir-Mix-A-Lot for what feels like somewhat of a spiritual successor to “My Posse’s On Broadway”). Paired with “Buckshot” (a KRS-One-assisted song about graffiti), “Downtown” and “Dance Off” feel like a way of letting us know that he knows and respects hip-hop’s roots. Once again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that on paper, but when the entire album is hinged on a nine-minute closing track called “White Privilege II,” it starts to feel more transparent and a little bit try-hard.

Macklemore wants to be White Guilt Slug and Politically Correct Lil Dicky at the same time, two things that one would be hard-pressed to believe could succeed musically on their own, let alone coexist on the same album. Though it’s true his heart is probably in the right place in terms of the former, it gets harder and harder to commend someone for trying when what they preach oftentimes ends up working against the very thing they’re fighting for. Though perhaps that’s where This Unruly Mess I’ve Made‘s title comes from in the first place.

Review: Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside doubles as both an apt description of its content and directions for the listener—this concise, introspective trip through Earl Sweatshirt‘s mind should be listened to in solitude with a nice pair of headphones. To hear the album any other way wouldn’t really be worth the experience, as I Don’t Like Shit becomes more rewarding the deeper you are able to thrust yourself into Earl’s state of mind.

Though I Don’t Like Shit is nearly as short as his debut, Earl has changed drastically since his self-titled album dropped in 2010. Containing more personal tracks like “Chum,” Doris marked the beginning of a transition away from Odd Future’s shock value lyrical style that originally birthed him. However, as Tyler, the Creator put it on the introduction to “Woah,” bits of “that old fucking 2010 shit,” still seeped through the cracks, making Doris more of a gestation period between Earl leaving the conformities of Odd Future and embracing a style that’s wholly his own. Tracks like “Woah” or “epaR” are non-existent on I Don’t Like Shit. As he recently said in an interview with NPR:

“I feel like this is my first album. This is the first thing that I’ve said that I fully stand behind, like the good and the bad of it. Because it’s just — I’ve never been this transparent with myself or with music. I’ve never been behind myself this much.”

Other than a single Left Brain-produced track (Earl impressively produced the rest of the album himself under production pseudonym RandomBlackDude), the rest of Odd Future is nowhere to be found. It makes sense that, in the process of carving his own niche, Earl would want to distance himself from his original crew. Earl was young when he blew up (even by Odd Future standards), and teenagers are impressionable. It’s very possible that in the process of seeking acceptance from his peers, he conformed to the style Odd Future was pushing, rather than moving forward with the type of music he wanted to make (which is somewhat ironic considering how anti-conformist and anti-authority Odd Future’s early music was). The only member of Earl’s crew left from the EARL days is Vince Staples, who, funnily enough, at one point was apparently not much liked by OF frontman Tyler, the Creator (Vince has since denied the beef). Instead, Earl sports a gaggle of new friends, including Wiki of alternative hip-hop group Ratking and A$AP Mob affiliate, Da$H, going so far as to allude to the crumbling relationships with his OF brethren:

“Name getting bigger than the difference between us
Niggas is fake, I limit the features I give ’em”

Thankfully, one thing that hasn’t changed on I Don’t Like Shit is Earl’s ability as a writer. Whether he’s rapping about murdering cops or missing his father, Earl has always been deft with a pen. Rather than venting his frustrations through violent, drug-fueled fantasies, he expresses himself through brutal honesty and tangible, personal narratives. Drug use is still frequently referenced, but this time around, it’s clear that these are true instances of self medication, rather than over-the-top, cartoonish falsehoods. His “bitch say the spliff take the soul from [him].” He “spent the day drinking and missing [his] grandmother” and is “scrambling for Xanax out the canister to pop.” He’s “surrounded with a gaggle of 100 fucking thousand kids” who he “can’t get mad at when they want a pound or pic.” For the first time in Earl’s career, his emotions feel frantic and immediate across the entire project. If you’re not paying attention, it’s hard to tell when one track ends and another starts—it’s short and cohesive to the point that he almost could have released it as a single, 30-minute MP3.

Though the Odd Future era may have come to a close, it’s hard to deny that their influence is still sprinkled throughout the project, especially regarding Earl’s production. The carnival-esque “Huey” is reminiscent of EARL‘s “Stapleton,” and the drums that occur right after the end of Earl’s verse scream Tyler, the Creator. Regardless of how he feels now, Earl’s work with OF was important for his growth as an artist. Still, at this point in his career, one can’t help but think he might be better off without them in the long run—it’s given him the space to develop his own sound. As fun as Odd Future may be at times, their absence isn’t for naught, as I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is Earl’s first project that feels truly his own. The departure may feel jarring to long-time fans, but if you’re still feeling lost, take some listening advice from Earl himself:

Review: Big Sean – Dark Sky Paradise

Beyond artists like Pusha T & Q-Tip, who had already established their careers prior to signing to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint, it’s sometimes hard to understand why West signs who he signs. For as focused as he is at fine-tuning each-and-every aspect of each-and-every album he has a hand in, you wouldn’t think seemingly one-trick ponies like Big Sean or Kid Cudi would be in his wheelhouse.

On a lot of levels, Big Sean seems like a rapper who would be more at home among some of the lesser-Young Money artists. While he has a knack for putting out catchy singles and is likely the most-featured guest artist this side of 2 Chainz, he’s never really been the type of rapper you would think could hold your attention for a full-length album. However, considering Big Sean first made contact with West in 2005 and was subsequently signed in 2007 after being brought along the road during the recording of Graduation (yes, you read correctly: Big Sean has been on G.O.O.D. since “Stronger” and before Kid Cudi), it’s clear West saw untapped potential in him.

Unlike Cudder, who established his signature sound and quickly stumbled into semi-obscurity through awful side-projects, Sean seems to be only recently figuring out how to best utilize his style in constructing an album. Though he’s been in the mainstream for nearly five years at this point, we have to remember that he’s still young: at 26-years old, Sean is around the same age that Jay Z, Eminem, and Yeezy himself were when they put out their debut albums (big ups to Nas for creating the quintessential rap album before he was old enough to vote, but not everyone crafts their Illmatic at age 17).

While the general subject matter is fairly similar to that of Big Sean’s previous two albums (lacking fame and attention from women; gaining aforementioned fame and attention from women), Dark Sky Paradise feels like his first legitimate attempt at constructing a singular piece of work, rather than just a collection of songs. Even the bonus tracks fit the overall mood and aesthetic of the album—“Platinum and Wood” ends with the same quote that the album begins with, (“Sean, it’s good to be home, isn’t it?”) implying they’re possibly intended to be a sort of epilogue. As questionable of a title as Dark Sky Paradise might be (let’s not forget that Kanye West’s magnum opus is called My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), the name really does ring true to the album’s atmosphere. For as much fun as Sean is having throughout, it’s evident that he’s been wrestling with a lot of stress. While his demons of fame might not be of the same caliber as Eminem or Kanye or even Drake, Dark Sky Paradise marks the first time in Big Sean’s discography where he’s successful in making you give a damn about what he has to say. Perhaps the most poignant description of Sean’s state of mind throughout the album comes early on in the record, in the opening lines of “Blessed”:

“Fuck a vacay I feel better at work”

Regardless of what you think of Big Sean’s music, he’s an undeniably hard worker, which is likely something that West respected about him in the first place. It’s easy to tell that Sean put a lot of thought into every facet of Dark Sky Paradise, including improving upon aspects that he usually isn’t reveled for, such as his technical ability. From the pyrotechnics of the second verse of “Paradise” to his best E-40 imitation on “I Don’t Fuck With You,” he demonstrates a previously-absent versatility in the flow department. Considering Sean’s track record of dropping verses that sound like they were recorded over the wrong instrumental, his success in this regard is a welcomed addition.

Dark Sky Paradise is feature-heavy, but it’s much more Sir Lucious Left Foot than it is Jesus Piece. That is, for the most part, the featured guests serve an actual purpose in accentuating the song and crafting the album’s overall sound, rather than just taking up space and putting the quality of the album on other people’s shoulders. Features seem to be picked carefully, likely in an effort to keep the album from becoming too bloated. Considering how bogged down with filler Hall of Fame was, it seems Sean went to great lengths in keeping the album as succinct as possible.

Unfortunately, a few misfires keep the record from reaching its full potential. The Chris Brown & Ty Dolla $ign-assisted “Play No Games” (why anyone continues to work with a human as deplorable as Chris Brown remains a mystery) serves as an extraneous epilogue to “I Don’t Fuck With You,” where Sean takes notes from Drake and raps about how he always responds to his girl’s texts. The juxtaposition with “I Don’t Fuck With You” might have worked if the song was any good, but as it stands, its only purpose is to interrupt the flow of the mostly great four track run that opens the album. In a similar fashion, “Win Some, Lose Some” unnecessarily shoves the album’s thesis in the listener’s face, which is especially insulting considering the album’s narrow subject matter.

Despite two mediocre songs crippling the flow of an otherwise enjoyable album, Dark Sky Paradise is Big Sean’s most competent and concise release to date. Though it may not be remembered as a classic, here’s to hoping it marks a turning point for the better in his career. If the amount of sheer joy and confidence that radiates throughout the album’s outro is any indication, there’s a good chance that Sean will continue to impress.

Review: TUT – Preacher’s Son

As the boom from new-age Atlanta hip-hop radiates throughout the country, an entirely different breed of southern rap is quietly evolving elsewhere. Chattanooga, Tennessee, just 120 miles to the north of Atlanta, is home to TUT, a wildly talented up-and-coming rapper who runs in the same crew (“The House”) as Top Dog Entertainment’s very own Isaiah Rashad. While artists like A$AP Rocky work to dissolve the concept of rap-regionalism in the internet age, Chattanooga hip-hop serves as a reminder that pinpointed, grassroots movements are still prominent.

It could be argued that artists like Tut and Rashad are to 90’s southern rap what Joey Bada$$ is to 90’s New York rap: their sound feels familiar enough to resonate with 90’s diehards, but differs enough that it deserves to be in its own category. While one would be hard-pressed to call Preacher’s Son “90’s revival,” it is certainly reminiscent of a time when, if someone asked you if you’ve “seen their friend Molly” at a hip-hop show, you could reasonably assume that this “Molly” was a real human being, and that said friend “Molly” was actually missing.

Preacher’s Son strays entirely away from contemporary southern trends, aiming for a more nostalgic, bluesy, and soulful sound (touches of gospel are evident as well, which should be no surprise, considering the title). It’s southern, but not country; slow, but not screwed (other than some well-placed deepened vocals at the end of “Highs & Lows”). While Preacher’s Son is slightly more “Outkast” than it is “UGK,” songs like “Corner Stories 2” are so evocative of the latter that you can’t help but be half-surprised when Bun B’s verse never comes (especially considering how littered the tape is with references to sipping lean and other southern tropes).

“Two, three niggas gettin’ high in a cadillac/Ride ’till I Die playin’ softly in the back”

Though Preacher’s Son exists in the same soundscape as Cilvia Demo, calling it a knockoff would be both woefully inaccurate and a poor reading of both albums. While the drive behind Cilvia stems from present anger and Rashad’s lack of direction, Preacher’s Son is more of a recollection of the past, keeping score objectively and without judgement as Tut toes the line between following in the footsteps of his uncle (a drug dealer) and father (a preacher). The last track on the album (“Sunday Service”) fades out with a series of chords that are eerily similar to those that open the album, hinting that history might be set to repeat itself. Regardless of Tut’s future actions, one thing is for certain: as with most supposed opposites in life, the difference between a preacher and a drug dealer might not be so black and white.

You can stream or purchase Preacher’s Son here.

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