In a hiphop mainstream that is often a disorientating mix of banality and bizarreness, Macklemore (Ben Haggerty) has never quite managed to fit in. The exuberance of Thrift Shop, or the euphoria of Can’t Hold Us, sure, has emphatically broken onto the pop playlists of mainstream radio, yet, one can’t help feel that the rapper, renowned more for his undercut hairstyle than his flow or rhythm, has remained on the interstice between credible MC-ing and pulp. Structurally, his albums, notably, his breakout, The Heist have always straddled this boundary with varying measures of success, blending Spotify Playlist-ready hits with tracks more focused on demonstrating the artist’s lyrical prowess and semantic innovation. With This Unruly Mess I’ve Made dropping several months after the bombastic but slick Downtown, and the antithetical didactically sound but technically messy White Privilege II, its worth considering Macklemore’s development as an musician here, as he, alongside Ryan Lewis, potentially reaches the zenith of his influence on his fourth studio album.
The implicit contradiction between Macklemore’s indebtedness to West-Coast Hiphop and his often light-hearted, dancefloor-ready aesthetics is perhaps best rendered in his eclectic lyrical content, which unsurprisingly succeeds and fails to the same degree. Opener, Light Tunnels, which clocks in at a hefty 6.30 is peak Macklemore musically, with a flamboyant hook and ostentatious choral backing vocals. Yet the lyrics are far more interesting, as Haggerty depicts a fickle, superficial music industry, one that he feels displaced within. Rhythmically its pretty clever, with the track’s tempo becoming more frenetic as pressure builds within the narrative, but discussing constant photography, Macklemore can’t help making a quip about becoming a meme, which doesn’t quite fit. This is indicative of the haphazard poetics that underpin the album, and whilst Light Tunnels is by no means a bad track, in other cases this tendency is far more garish, such as in the naff Growing Up, complete with a saccharine refrain from Ed Sheeran.
As I alluded to, Macklemore and Lewis definitely have a recognisable instrumentational blueprint, and I really appreciated how this pervades throughout the album successfully. Their use of keys, multi-part vocals and other more extravagant ornament are seldom intrusive, offering a highly listenable and varied set of accompaniments to Haggerty’s rap, which is on the whole very solid. This blend means the often-introspective themes function effectively, with the album’s middle section especially strong in this regard. I highly recommend, Kevin, St. Ides and Need to Know as a result of this.
Of course with Macklemore you have to expect a degree of silliness, whether this be manifested in the Rock Opera epic of Downtown or in album tracks such as the eye-catchingly titled Brad Pitt’s Cousin. Yes, this one is quite literally about what it would be like to be Brad Pitt’s cousin. The fact is Haggerty and Lewis are no slouches, and with a series of strong hooks and inspired guest-stars, from Chance The Rapper to Anderson .Paak, there is a lot of good stuff in This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. The problem is that it doesn’t all quite work together, and often, tracks more ambitious for their political content, such as the aforementioned White Privilege II fall extremely flat due to being structurally cluttered. There is no doubt Macklemore and Ryan Lewis will continue to be big names for some time, and This Unruly Mess will cement this position. However I can’t help feel they are a few steps away from something genuinely incisive. Lets hope they still have the time and conviction to realise this.