Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Written by DeRa Brinson
This breakdown will cover Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s sophomore album, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. Their debut album, which won a Grammy, was nice, but I didn’t revisit it that often after the first couple of listens. We will see if they succumb to the sophomore jinx or rise above it to improve upon their last work.
“Light Tunnels” featuring Mike Slap
A string orchestra, imparting a cinematic environment, matches the content from Macklemore. He is giving us a breakdown of the rigorous steps he takes in preparation for a major award show, which we later find out is the Grammys. The string instruments add a sense of suspense, combined with Macklemore’s tone that is juxtaposed by the chorus. As the production progresses, the layers become more intricate, building the tension. The final verse has a celebratory feel, confirming with the lyrics that they won the Grammy and how he plans to move on from this point. He is expressing that he isn’t becoming complacent and will continue to grow, allowing his craft to expand or evolve. The track ends with a light piano chord fading out.
“Downtown” featuring Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz, Kool Moe Dee, and Eric Nally
This is a happy, upbeat song that makes sense as to why it was released as the single. The production is very reminiscent of several old-school songs from such legends as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Melle Mel, and Kool Moe Dee. Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz, Kool Moe Dee, and Eric Nally are featured here. The lyrical structure is very much in a retro vain that completes the atmosphere of the infancy of hip-hop. There is also a somewhat of Broadway feel with how the lyrics and sounds are exaggerated and drawn out.
“Brad Pitt’s Cousin” featuring XP
This production has The Heist type of sound that is upbeat but still light, which is accomplished with the high piano keys. The chorus is humorous, and Macklemore’s flow over the production is entertaining, but it had to grow on me to thoroughly enjoy it at the level I do now. The sample used has a Middle-Eastern feel.
“Buckshot” featuring KRS-One & DJ Premier
Pays homage to old-school hip-hop again with a more 80s-90s beat produced by the legend DJ Premier. Bagpipes are the core of the production with a piano melody and some scratching to punch up the nostalgic emotion. In the first verse, Macklemore is giving the rundown of how he made it as a struggling artist while dropping nuggets of hip-hop culture history. One of those nuggets is the reference to the TV show Rap City: Tha Basement. The second verse is laced with references to taggers and tagger slang, which is another aspect of hip-hop culture. Macklemore as bring noticed to the group Boot Camp Clik, one of whose members’ name is the title of this track. KRS-One delivers his verse in the only way he can, by killing it. KRS-One proves that a true lyricist never loses the ability to drop a hot verse. It was a perfect way to conclude the track.
“Growing Up” featuring Ed Sheeran
A reflective, slower, stripped-down production is used to keep the lyrics from being overwhelmed. In the first verse, Macklemore breaks down several stereotypes, from gender roles to praising his wife while expressing his apprehension of raising his daughter. He enlightens us as to how difficult it will be to balance his professional and personal time. Macklemore gives insight to his philosophy on parenting and shaping the character of his daughter. I am a fan of Ed Sheeran, but his presence on this track seemed a little forced.
“Kevin” featuring Leon Bridges
The production here has a “higher” or “everyday people” feel that provokes hope and change that stems from extreme sadness. This song revolves around the death of Macklemore’s brother, who we learn in the first verse died at the young age of twenty-one from an Oxycodone overdose. Macklemore expresses the survivor’s guilt that he experienced as a result of this tragedy in his life. The chorus touches on what some believe is the factory-like setting that the healthcare industry is moving toward, where doctors are losing their compassion to really understand their patient, instead fixing their ailment and then sending them on their way. It seems Macklemore wants to move closer to the past, when doctors knew all their patients on a first-name basis and were truly invested not only in their ailments but the person as well. Now in defense of the healthcare industry, the steady increase in population and the decrease in the number of doctors or even people wanting to become doctors makes the system impossible to function with that level of attention and care to each patient outside of their specific ailment. I do believe there is a solution, and adding more physician assistant schools and decreasing the cost of medical school will help. In the second verse, he touches more on pharmaceutical companies and doctors being held to a different standard when it comes to being accountable for their actions. He touches on doctors abusing their power by overprescribing medication, which makes it easier for people to abuse or become addicted to those medications. I do agree that many doctors are readily prescribing certain medications, particularly antibiotics, which is leading to the rise of new antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. The piano that ends the track, matched with the chorus sung by Leon Bridges, exposes the pain that people like Macklemore must feel and a hope for ushering in a change.
A driving-song feel that reminds me of a song by The Mountain Goats from the only album of theirs that I have heard, Beat the Champ.
“Need to Know” featuring Chance the Rapper
The core of the production is a piano melody with an added a trumpet. The feel of this track could have fit right in with tracks on Donnie Trumpet’s Surf. Macklemore breaks down the mentality that he sees in himself and society of being materialistic and self-centered or narcissistic. This features Chance the Rapper, who follows through with brutal honesty. He is so honest that he even admits to thinking about taking a line out of his verse.
“Dance Off” featuring Idris Elba and Anderson .Paak
A dance-hall sound permeates this track. This is my least favorite song off the album. I really like Anderson .Paak, but just not on this song. Check out the Anderson .Paak album review written by Effin Mattie, and I strongly suggest that everyone check out his album Malibu. Idris Elba has a Vincent Price from “Thriller” vibe that takes away from the song because I can’t shake the image of “Thriller” when I hear it.
“Let’s Eat” featuring XP
This is a lighter, humorous track that deals with a subject that is harder for me to relate to, which is having issues trying to lose weight. As a person that has been trying to gain weight my whole life, I can’t sympathize with his situation. Macklemore does present his body issues with weight and diet in a manner consistent with what I have heard from many people in that position.
“Bolo Tie” featuring YG
A very somber, ominous guitar riff is heard over a few piano chords, making it seem like a stripped-down production when it is actually more complex then assumed. The tension seems to mount and mount, reaching a precipice at the end of each verse, matching the escalation in the production. Macklemore touches on how he is perceived by friends and associates involving how he chooses to allocate his money. He focuses on some of the great things that his success and affluence has allowed him to experience, but it also has brought on fake friends and hangers-on. He shows us that there are people in his life that believe that he owes them something, from money to time to even just responding back to texts. Macklemore also promotes something which is a running theme found throughout this album, and that is that he has put and still puts in a lot of work to provide quality music. He implies through the chorus that he isn’t concerned with what people think about what he is doing as long as he is happy with the man he is becoming. YG fits in the production nicely and has an interesting verse, from the content to the choice of flow, which is frustrated acceptance. He touches on the media using him for click-bait and how that doesn’t capsulate who he is as a man. YG also points out that we live in a cynical world where negative news about people overshadows the positives in most cases. His verse seems short, but I believe it only feels that way because of how on-point the verse is. This is one of my favorite tracks and has high replay-ability.
“The Train” featuring Carla Morrison
A much lighter feel is heard on this track by way of the piano and Carla Morrison, but it still has the gravity from the previous tracks. The train that ties the theme together is first heard on the hook but can be felt far before that. Macklemore stays pretty level or somewhat monotone for most of the song and lets the production provide the dynamics.
“White Privilege II” featuring Jamila Woods
The track starts with several voices giving a tribal African vibe followed by a saxophone and piano with an upright bass tying it all together and pushing a jazzier atmosphere. Macklemore provides a perspective that I hope is more prevalent than I have seen previously discussed. He begins by setting the scene that informs the listener that a protest is occurring and he is going to participate. He feels disjointed and conflicted about even being present for this protest because he isn’t a black man, but he is also aware of the injustices that minorities, particularly African-Americans, face that white people don’t experience. With just that aspect of the story, he taps into one component of white privilege. That component is not having to worry about certain injustices, specifically police brutality. The fact that he feels disjointed is sad and hopeful at the same time. It is sad that just because you are not affected by an issue you feel that it isn’t something that you should fight for. It is hopeful because he has the feeling of wanting to stop these injustices. The black community can’t stop racism, discrimination, police brutality, and institutionalized racism alone, we will need other races to help because alone we don’t have the numbers, the power, or the influence to evoke any meaningful changes.
Macklemore has a preacher’s cadence, leading to the hook that has a choir representing the protestors with the slogan, “Blood in the streets, no justice, no peace. No racist police, no rest till we’re free. There’s blood in the streets, no justice, no peace.” This is followed by what I interpret as the thoughts going through Macklemore’s head at seeing these travesties and injustice. In the second verse, he touches on the appropriation of black culture, from music to fashion and everything in between to our slang, for monetary gain without even giving credit. He expresses how the “culture vultures” don’t even care about the culture or the people whose culture they are taking from. This part of the track was very controversial due to him bring up Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea. I separate him from culture vultures because he really knows the history of hip-hop and not only wants to be a part of it when things are positive, but stands up when things are negative. Making this song could have jeopardized his brand, but he still decided to record and release it. He wrestles with the fact that people are questioning his intentions for even being at the protest.
At this point in the song, the production gets stripped down to mainly just the piano. A skit of some of the things that are said to or about Macklemore by other white people further indicates how being white can be beneficial and how some don’t even understand or see these benefits. There is a clip of someone using a metaphor to explain the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the clip, the gentleman compares Black Lives Matter to a subdivision, saying if a group of houses are burning, you’re not going to call the fire department on every house in the neighborhood, just the ones on fire. This provides context that when people shout or say, “Black lives matter,” it doesn’t mean that other lives don’t, it just means others aren’t being killed or harmed in the same method.
The third verse covers something that I believe hinders many conversations regarding race in America and that is people getting defensive. Defensive in the matter that just because black people say there is white privilege, that doesn’t mean that you are personally at fault for the injustices, but silence to injustice is equal to inflicting injustice. The song ends with the beautiful voice of Jamila Woods repeating these poignant words, “Your silence is a luxury, hip-hop is not a luxury.” Those affected by injustices or the disenfranchised don’t have the luxury to be silent. This is a deeply introspective track that tackles so many issues that I didn’t even address here that needed to be said and I believe need to be said by someone not in the black community. I would also encourage people to listen to the podcast regarding my first impression of this album under the Stay Woke! page here.
This album is a slight upgrade from their previous work The Heist. This is a very introspective album, similar to the first, but I believe he pushes his openness even further. The production for the album was done mostly by Ryan Lewis. This album shows that Macklemore has done his research to really understand the fundamentals of hip-hop and pays honor in a well-done way to those giants whose shoulders the new artists stand on. Macklemore has a knack for telling relatable stories, which I would assume the hip-hop purest find enjoyable. It is very clear that Macklemore is well versed in hip-hop culture and that he is clearly a student of hip-hop, not a culture vulture. I want to acknowledge the bravery it took for him to make a sophomore album as risky and advantageous as this. I also appreciate his willingness to open up and allow us to see so much of who he is. This album is worth checking out, and I have gone back to it more than The Heist, but not by much. Come back and check out our next album review, which will be Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered. Coming up after that will be Bas’s Too High to Riot.