In 2015, Macklemore (and Ryan Lewis by association) foreshadowed that the release of their sophomore album was going to come that year, but no one is going to blame them for taking a few extra months to iron out the details. Art takes time after all. And now that the bruise of Mack stealing the show at the 2014 Grammys is but a sour memory and we can move on (hopefully), it’s time to turn a careful eye on the duo’s latest LP-offering, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made (Feb. 26, Macklemore LLC). Following the massive success of their debut, The Heist (2012), the expectations this time around after what has occurred since are as massive and then some. Fortunately, it is safe to say that Macklemore has done what he is supposed to do for a man in his shoes, which is to shutoff the false opinions coming his way that say he doesn’t belong within the hip-hop demographic. He simply keeps on rapping with substance and heart. He does think about the shade thrown his way, but he doesn’t bend to its crushing whim.
Naturally, Macklemore wouldn’t be able to pull off the magic of This Unruly Mess without Ryan Lewis’s dedication to the pair’s wholesome style of sound, a mix of lush cine-music and avant-garde beat-composition. The album ebbs and flows and segues smoothly between and especially within songs and the adaptable Macklemore adjusts his delivery and rap-speed to fit his songs’ every mood, with excellent rhymes of course and important subject matter as well. There are the duo’s signature fun flavors in tracks like “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” and “Dance Off” plus their deep pensive mind-made stews in songs like “St. Ides” and “The Train.” Almost every song though is serviceable with the exception being “Let’s Eat,” which is supposed to be a hard look at the temptation toward trashy gastronomy but ultimately feels way too comfortable letting itself go to gorge on junk food. With that out of the way, it’s time to get to the good stuff.
It is proper and satisfying how Unruly Mess sounds about as independent as its music industry birth/release is. It infrequently follows the corporate-designed rulebook for audio-entertainment, and this is very good. The first two songs, “Light Tunnels” and “Downtown,” are quite meaty and in-depth for example. “Light Tunnels,” the intro, depicts the madness of celebrity award-giving congregations and industry ego-stroking, also serving as an attempt on Macklemore’s part to reconcile his disagreed-upon Grammy win from two years ago. The grand, fun, old school-throwback “Downtown” and the endearingly parental “Growing Up” are the most radio-appropriate establishmentarian pieces on the standard edition and were not-surprisingly two of the album’s four pre-release singles, though whether or not they will be universally embraced by radio stations is still very much up in the air.
Most of the nice artistic moves made here would likely never have been approved by the industry machine, had Macklemore and Ryan Lewis sold themselves out to one of the majors. It’s a good thing they didn’t. The inclusion of people like Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Caz, KRS-One and Chance The Rapper might have been seen as too risky by some record executives but actually, this inclusion proves to be a respectful homage to hip-hop culture’s rich past and present. Some of the other guest-choices, picks like Ed Sheeran, Anderson Paak and YG for example, while very good at what they do here, are quite standard and inside-the-box. Still, at the end of the path laid by Mack and Ryan’s fine style, skill and artistry are extremely urgent messages like those in the anti-dependency, anti-addiction “Kevin” song with Leon Bridges and better yet the anti-racism, anti-ignorance song “White Privilege II,” the original of which appears on Mack’s The Language of My World album from 2005.
Count Macklemore and Ryan Lewis out when it comes to the sophomore curse. Everything on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is smart and meaningful, except for a few light corny bits here and there, but there’s very little guilt, wrongdoing or foulplay anywhere to be found. It’s joyful and jubilant at times yet intelligent and deep at others. Emotionally, it may not adequately express the outrage it purports feeling; in other words, the way in which the most loaded topics are addressed might seem to stop short of jumping out of the speakers to shake our very beings. Macklemore essentially handles them in his usual non-profane, politically correct, feel-good mode of operation. The album is in fact alternative, revolutionary and controversial at times, but to some it may not feel that way enough. One could argue that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis didn’t go far enough to make it feel more disturbing and messier than it is. From the listener’s perspective, a few hardened souls might not feel as squeamish as they should from the communally consequential wakeup calls like “Need To Know” and “White Privilege II” just to pick a couple. Still, the fact that these good loaded sociopolitical ideas are here at all is a great blessing, and no matter how people react or what could or should have been done differently, the final product is extraordinary as a matter of fact. The outstanding work and attitude done and exhibited by everyone on this project raise much more than is needed to cover its costs.