Seattle's Macklemore has a lot working against him from the start. For one, he's a white rapper in a music landscape that still isn't wholly comfortable with the idea. If that weren't enough, he's also one of those "positive" MCs, the kind who wants to tell us what's wrong with the world today while refusing to curse. In many ways, he's the Mumford and Sons of hip-hop: Both acts are sincere almost to a fault, with no qualms about dropping lyrical bombs about faith and truth and triumph. And because of this, too, both acts are frequently used as a cudgel against less "authentic" or "uplifting" acts. All Macklemore needs is a banjo and—wait, no, he's got one of those, too.
There's one more similarity: Also like Mumford and Sons, Macklemore has sold a ton of albums: His latest album with producer Ryan Lewis, The Heist, made it to #1 on the iTunes charts and is projected to sell north of 70,000 copies in its first week—no small feat for an independent artist.
But while his folkie counterparts from London seem comfortable, or even complacent, with their place in the universe, Macklemore is more agnostic. In the 15 tracks of The Heist, the former Ben Haggerty agonizes and philosophizes over what it means to be a well-meaning white rapper in the world today.
Macklemore (L) and producer Ryan Lewis (R) have a message, and fans are hearing it loud and clear.
Early single "Same Love" has gotten the most attention on this score, and it sums up much of what The Heist is all about. A gay-rights analogue to Lupe Fiasco's "Bitch Bad," the track finds Macklemore openly campaigning for marriage equality over hook girl Mary Lambert's best Regina Spektor impression. As with anyone on a soapbox, it's tempting to take issue with some of Macklemore's more self-aggrandizing pronouncements ("If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me"— hasn't the guy heard of Lil B lately?) but at a time when enjoying the best hip-song song of the year involves excusing a huge amount of homophobia, these are apparently still arguments we need to have. As he raps later, "A certificate on paper isn't gonna solve it all, but it's a damn good place to start."
When he's not calling for legislative action, Mack grounds the track in a series of personal reminiscences of growing up with two gay uncles and questioning his own sexuality. It's a trend that continues throughout the album. Macklemore's no Morning Paper Auteur, he's more like Drake, if Drake had starred on Nick News instead of Degrassi: The album's best tracks are personal narratives, first societal prescriptions second.
Case in point: "Wing$," which comes as Macklemore's unofficial rebuttal to "My Adidas," a critique of sneakerhead materialism that could have easily come off as scolding, especially with chorus of children singing about how much they want to fly. Instead he saves his barbs for his own childhood psychology:
Are you stupid, don’t crease ‘em, just leave 'em in that box
Strangled by these laces, laces I can barely talk
That’s my air bubble and I’m lost, if it pops
But the self-criticism cuts sharpest in two tracks late in the album. "Starting Over" finds Macklemore struggling to process his reconcile his position as a role model for recovering alcoholics in the wake of a recent relapse, that climaxes with an agonized encounter with a fan:
Maybe this isn’t the place or time
I just wanted to say that if it wasn’t for "Otherside" I wouldn’t have made it
I just look down at the ground and say thank you
She tells me she has nine months and that she’s so grateful
Tears in her eyes, looking like she’s gonna cry, fuck
I barely got 48 hours, treated like I’m some wise monk
"A Wake," meanwhile, starts as a bog-standard "What's wrong with kids today?" lament before shifting gears and taking stock of its author's own white privilege:
Ah, I'm not more or less conscious
Than rappers rappin' 'bout them strippers up on the pole, copping
These interviews are obnoxious
Saying that "It's poetry, it's so well spoken"—stop it!
Elsewhere on the album, though, Macklemore walks the fine line between sincerity and self-parody. The noir scenery of "Neon Cathedral" often rings false, while "Ten Thousand Hours" never transcends the TED-talk uplift of its source material. What's missing, too often, is the sense of joy—in wordplay, in performance, in something. He comes closest in "Jimmy Iovine," a crazed fantasy about the sins of major labels that closes with a biting retelling of Some of Your Friends May Already Be This Fucked, but he's drowned out by Ryan Lewis' bargain-basement MMG beat. (It's a rare misstep for the producer, who does admirable work on the rest of the album.) Macklemore's never going to be Nicki Minaj, but he's got the gruff voice and singing ability to be Kid Cudi, at least.
Or maybe he could be something else entirely. Album closer "Cowboy Boots" is a unabashedly silly track that's built around a banjo singalong straight out of the Sufjan Stevens songbook. It's also a refreshing exhale after an hour of earnestness, a simple-hearted ode to the pleasures of PBR and old friends. If Macklemore is going to keep doing this social-realist thing, he should borrow a lesson from the pioneers of country: There is a time for dead dogs, and there is a time for honky-tonks.
Can Macklemore hold it together long enough to rise above the "conscious rap" label? We hope so, but we can't deny that we're worried for him. We all know what happened to the last "positive" rappers to make it big.