The initial takeaway from This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is that Macklemore means well. After becoming enormously successful off the back of The Heist and its several hit singles, he endured an enormous amount of backlash, both for the perceived watered-down quality of his music, and for supposedly appropriating black culture through hip-hop. He seems to have found himself between something of a rock and hard place, doomed to accusations of exploiting hip-hop if he releases new music, but having to to satiate his ever-growing fan base. Macklemore’s solution is This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, an album-length apology for his own existence, that also features a roster of guests and pop hooks designed to expand it.
Opening track Light Tunnels begins the album by establishing Ryan Lewis’s production style for the album: throwing everything at the wall to see what will stick. In the opening 30 seconds, one hears several synthesizers, a string section, a choir, and the soulful vocals of Mike Slap. It sounds dramatic to the point of ridiculousness, a feeling compounded by Macklemore’s own lyrical mix of on-the-nose digs at the Grammy awards – “cause tonight we toast to our accomplishments / insecurity dressed up as confidence” – and oddly specific references to everyday minutiae – “I eat a banana and I drink a cup of Throat Coat”. His charm is in his quirkiness and swagger; self-flagellation is not a good look on him.
Much of the album focuses on Macklemore’s place in the world, and sees him questioning his own relevance. This could be a dark, dramatically-charged concept for a record, but in his hands it comes off as unfortunately clumsy. Bolo Tie sees him reflecting on the trajectory of his career, but with little subtlety or poetry – “questioning the purpose of my rap career / thinking man what the hell happened here?”. Instead of exploring or discussing a theme, he essentially just lists his thoughts verbatim, and it feels like Macklemore is trying to apologize for something in spite of not knowing what he did wrong. Brad Pitt’s Cousin is a track of braggadocio, much of which is centered around white cultural iconography – “my d**k named Ron Burgandy” – which is an interesting perspective to take on the racial backlash Macklemore has endured, but when combined with the overly busy beat, and forgettable hook from XP, it comes across as ugly and mean-spirited.
This wrong-headed approach climaxes on White Privilege II, which perfectly encapsulates the mixed feelings the album creates. The song is undeniably well intentioned, with Macklemore wanting to use his position to educate his largely white fan base about racial politics. It’s the kind of subject matter that benefits from his very blunt lyrical approach, and the verses written from the perspectives of his critics and fans, are respectively self-aware and cutting. His detractors tell him “the culture was never yours to make better / you’re Miley, you’re Elvis, you’re Iggy Azaelea”, whilst his fans try to justify systemic racism – “even the protest outside, so sad and so dumb / if a cop pulls you over, it’s your fault if you run”. Even with the song’s bloated 9 minute running time, these sequences are electrifying. It’s when the theme is filtered through Macklemore’s own perspective that it falls down. He states he is trying to start a dialogue, but suggests such baby steps – “what if I actually read an article, actually had a dialogue” – that he comes across as chasing validation. He misses the fundamental irony in a man using his white privilege to profit from a song criticizing white privilege. Macklemore so desperately wants to be on the right side that he ends up debunking his own existence, and his continuing to release songs aiming for the pop charts renders his sincerity inert.
Those aforementioned pop songs are where Macklemore’s strengths ultimately lie. The best tracks from The Heist were Thrift Shop and Can’t Hold Us, both of which were catchy and funny. The same holds up on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. Lead single Downtown, is incredibly fun, and the entirely apolitical lyrics (the song is literally just about mopeds) allow Macklemore to show off his wit and skill with a catchy couplet – “my seat is leather, alright I’m lying, it’s pleather”. Unfortunately the other pop leaning tracks fail to connect in the same way. Dance Off suffers from a wildly overproduced instrumental, with cascading samples fighting with synths and beats for attention, and Idris Elba’s bizarrely accented spoken word section feeling like a different song entirely. The guest “verse” from Anderson .Paak is so short and inconsequential that it feels like he is on the song sorely for the name value.
It’s telling that the best verse on the album doesn’t come from Macklemore himself. Chance the Rapper continues to prove himself the MVP of any song, with his excellent guest verse on Need to Know. In just under 90 seconds, he shows off the confidence and political deftness that Macklemore spends the whole record looking for – “I remember opening for Ben, wasn’t no liquor at the show / and now white girls call me n***a at my show”. Macklemore wants to make music that is catchy, politically astute, sonically dense, and somehow justifies his own existence within hip-hop, and it’s unlikely any music could accomplish all that. The political songs sit uncomfortably next to the silly ones, and the outsized confidence conflicts with the self-doubt. By failing to focus on one tone, or theme, or even sound, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have created an album that more than lives up to the title This Unruly Mess I’ve Made.