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.