After the runaway success of his debut album The Heist with partner-in-crime Ryan Lewis, one would think that Seattle-bred indie rapper Macklemore would continue to use the formula that worked for so well for him in 2012. However, the twosome is choosing to use their platform to release material that both entertains and educates listeners on their sophomore effort, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, which dropped last Friday (Feb. 26). However, the result is a conflicting collection of high-on-life, self-deprecating ditties that struggles to find a real balance.
The 13-song opus contains cameos that give some of the tracks the tabasco Macklemore, born Ben Haggarty, needed to subtly spice things up. Chance The Rapper offers “Ultralight Beam” caliber rhymes on the standout track, “Need To Know.” YG delivers bars about growing up in sticky situations and giving back in “Bolo Tie.” Leon Bridges adds depth on “Kevin,” a chilling ode to a fallen friend who overdosed on prescription pain meds. Hip-hop legends Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Caz can be heard hamming it up in the top 20 single, “Downtown.” It’s easy to like Mack when he’s being corny with tracks such like his ode to carbohydrate courtship, “Let’s Eat,” or the Anderson .Paak and Idris Elba (!!!) assisted “Dance Off.” However, when he clumsily attempts to be more serious through songs that tackle issues such as America’s prescription pill problem, neglecting his family and white guilt, admiring him can be a push-pull situation.
“Instead of writing a song about feeling bad for being a successful white rapper, he could have merely continued to do just that.”
Cue the album’s dramatic conclusion: the controversial “White Privilege II.” You can’t deny the amount of fame Macklemore has amassed in such a short period of time doing music that (for years) was strictly for blacks only. In the nearly-nine minute song, Mack is wearing his guilty conscience for his success on his sleeve and on wax. He acknowledges that he is aware of his privilege by way of lyrics like, “You’ve exploited and stolen the music, the movement/the magic, the passion, the fashion, you toy with.” He may believe he’s doing the right thing by being vocally sincere about the elephant in the room, but in doing so, the wrong thing comes about.
Instead of writing a song about feeling bad for being a successful white rapper, he could have merely continued to do just that. Besides, bringing up that he’s a profitable white act in a predominantly black genre is not necessarily groundbreaking. Eminem’s 2003 album The Eminem Show tackled that issue head on. His song “White America” said, “Let’s do the math, if I was black, I would’ve sold half/I ain’t have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that.” That’s not to say that “White Privilege II” isn’t candid and culturally-relevant regarding a topic that has plagued the industry for decades. Unfortunately, it served as more of a bulky catharsis for Mack’s personal uneasiness about an issue that’s common knowledge by this point. It was sort of like his Grammy text to Kendrick Lamar in song form—you know he had good intentions by putting it on display, but it would have been better if he hadn’t.
You’ve gotta love Macklemore’s moxie, though. Being able to put his thoughts out there for the sake of artistic expression is something that society lambasts so many musicians for. However, he approaches these particular songs in an almost timid manner compared to the charismatic approach he takes towards tackling his loony tunes. He fairs a lot better when he’s rapping about being “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” than when he’s being didactic about cultural appropriation. Although the serious conversations are needed, they get drowned out almost completely by the “fun” stuff, creating, yes, one big, unruly mess.