You sorta have to feel bad for Macklemore. Sure, he and his production partner Ryan Lewis are swimming in commercial success—2012’s platinum underdog The Heist, No. 1 hits like “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us,” major Grammy wins—but the 32-year-old white rapper from Seattle still can’t catch a break from the cool kids…or from the rap community, the critics, or even other white rappers. No matter how hard he tries to impress, his efforts only inspire mocking memes and skeptical think pieces.
These are the conditions that helped spawn This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, a self-aware, uneven album that spends an ill-advised amount of time playing defense. Audience backlash, cultural appropriation, and even his haircut are among the topics weighing heavy on Macklemore’s mind.
In a way, Macklemore is starting to go the Kanye West route: Several songs here have him delivering self-critical raps about how the world perceives him. The six-minute opener, “Light Tunnels,” is a stream-of-consciousness retelling of their big Grammy night in 2014. (After beating critically acclaimed Kendrick Lamar for Best Rap Album, Macklemore caused an uproar by Instagramming the apologetic text he sent to Lamar afterward.) The song takes us through his insecurity (“Feels like the whole industry is staring at me”) and ambivalence (the album’s title comes from a lyric in this song), but stops short of addressing the controversy outright. It’s an exhausting exercise. Same goes for “Bolo Tie,” on which he relives his journey and internalizes the weight of the doubters—“I got a bone to pick with the man in the mirror/Questioning the purpose of my rap career“—and even references Kanye’s “Gone,” a far better song with similar themes.
The thing is, Macklemore has found his purpose—Unruly Mess sees him embracing his role as a social justice champion, sent to expand the minds of his (mainly young, white, suburban) audiences. It worked on the equality-promoting “Same Love,” and now he speaks more directly to his constituents: The Ed Sheeran-featuring “Growing Up,” framed as an ode to his kids, borders on saccharine after-school special; on “Kevin,” the rapper, a recovering addict himself, laments America’s prescription-drug problem. The pièce de résistance is “White Privilege II,” a much-discussed race-pondering track that’s more admirable than effective.
While Macklemore wants to provoke thought, the album’s real strengths are its mindlessly amusing tracks. “Downtown” is a gentrified hip-hop earworm, while Chance the Rapper turns the smooth, piano-laden “Need to Know” into a highlight. “Let’s Eat” combines silly lyrics with backpacker-friendly production, and “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” is a “Thrift Shop” sequel—low-impact, high-energy pop destined for video virality. And as much as it might pain its creator, that’s probably the best way to ingest this Messy album. B–
Need to Know A smooth, soulful highlight starring Chicago prodigy Chance the Rapper
Buckshot Old-school boom-bap courtesy of rap legends KRS-One and DJ Premier
St. Ides Macklemore gets reflective over an alluring beat
This Unruly Mess I've Made