When Macklemore & Ryan Lewis triumphed at the 2014 Grammys, the hip-hop duo stunned much of the music industry through a gesture rarely seen in the vain celebrity world – apologising, with evident sincerity, for winning.
Macklemore, who is white, made public a text message he sent to Kendrick Lamar, saying the rising African American star had been “robbed” for losing to the duo for Best Rap Album.
The second album by rapper Macklemore and producer Lewis – This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, released recently – is in some ways an hour-long extension of the sentiments behind that text message, expanded to reflect on the state of an America wrestling with questions of racism and inequality.
While many rappers are infamous for their lyrical boasts of personal greatness, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have instead crafted a style that is essentially anti-braggadocio, with the duo consumed by self-doubt.
On White Privilege II, Macklemore – who has emerged as the most critically acclaimed white rapper after Eminem – speaks of his mixed emotions as he joins a rally following the 2014 shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“My success is the product of the same system that let off Darren Wilson,” Macklemore raps, referring to the white officer exonerated in Brown’s killing.
“We want to dress like, walk like, talk like, dance like, yet we just stand by / We take all we want from black culture, but will we show up for black lives”.
Macklemore accuses by name two white stars, Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea, of exploitation of black culture in the song, which at nearly nine minutes runs far too long for standard radio airplay.
In the song, he wonders whether it is appropriate to speak at the rally. Taking his inner debate to another degree, Macklemore has publicly questioned whether he should have written White Privilege II at all.
The layered reflection contrasts with the more earnest advocacy in the duo’s 2012 signature song, Same Love, which became an anthem in the campaign for gay marriage equality.
Macklemore is acutely aware of the paradox, wondering on the latest album whether Same Love made the duo appear safe to white listeners who might instinctively sense danger from African American rappers.
Yet on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, Macklemore lays bare plenty of alternate sides. St Ides, one of the most musically striking tracks set to a minimalist guitar, explores his struggles with drinking, while Buckshot recounts the 32-year-old’s former life working at a Subway sandwich shop and spraying graffiti on the side.
On Growing Up, Macklemore looks ahead with excitement and trepidation to his new role as a father.
“Study David Bowie, James Baldwin and Tupac,” he offers among future pieces of advice for his daughter Sloane.
The album is not without its more banal topics such as on Let’s Eat, an ode to his appetite. “I never knew what a carbohydrate was / Turns out that it’s all the snacks I love,” he observes.
Yet Macklemore also tears into the US health care system on Kevin. A tribute to a friend who died from a painkiller overdose, he indicts pharmaceutical companies he charges with putting profits first through excessive prescriptions.
“Doctor, please give me a dose of the American dream,” sings soul artist Leon Bridges, one of a number of guests on the album who also include English songwriting sensation Ed Sheeran, hip-hop stars KRS-One and Chance the Rapper, and Mexican indie singer Carla Morrison.
This Unruly Mess I’ve Made opens aptly with a sinister retelling of the 2014 Grammys, where Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won four awards including Best New Artist – again defeating Lamar, who belatedly won recognition at the latest Grammys this month.
Macklemore fidgets being so close to the stars and voices disgust at the made-for-television media spectacle – “Watch celebrities take selfies with celebrities.”
Yet Macklemore again feels conflicted and admits, “I wanna make sure I’m invited next year.” – AFP Relaxnews