I suppose this disclaimer must append this review, lest one be attacked for being a “hater,” which I am not in any way. I like Macklemore. He seems like a good dude, cares about the same community where I live, works ridiculously hard, has a big and sincere fan base and his song “Same Love” has raised tens of thousands of dollars for the campaign to legalize same sex marriage in Washington State. It’s tough to be cynical about his success, which includes selling out the spacious, 7,500-capacity WaMu Theater weeks in advance for his homecoming show on Friday and the new album The Heist hitting number one on the iTunes album chart immediately upon its release.
What I enjoyed most about The Heist is the production from Ryan Lewis, who gets equal billing. Lewis has crafted some innovated beats that set the tone with the emotional level Macklemore is trying to convey to the audience he is preaching to. The production is ambitious and crisp.
“Same Love” is the emotional high point on the album. It’s built around a hook with singer-songwriter-poet Mary Lambert’s vocals on the chorus. Macklemore doesn’t so much as rap, but speak from the heart of the need for tolerance in hip hop communities, and for his gay uncle and partner to have the same rights as heterosexual couples. That he’s making such a statement, when it may be easier for his career not to be so outspoken and as its beginning its ascent, is certainly admirable. While I don’t find “Same Love” the easiest song to listen to, its importance should hardly be overlooked. It captures the zeitgeist of a political movement, rather than following a trend. It is very clearly the right song at the right time.
That “Same Love” is so poignant makes much of the rest of the album such a frustrating listening experience. First, Macklemore seems to only have two styles: overtly sincere and goofy. He’ll begin a song in a solemn voice, like he’s giving you the straight truth, like he’s conveying learned wisdom. That only works if you have already bought into Macklemore, otherwise, it can come across as patronizing. One example is on “Wake,” where he says, “…Our generation isn’t the best on safe sex, we forget the latex, become Planned Parenthood patients,” he comes off as a moral scold, even when I agree.
A few months ago, there was a meme that made its way around the Internet where a well-meaning guy took a photo of himself holding up a sign that said, “Dear Girls, Don’t Be Insecure; You Don’t Need Makeup and Nice Clothes; You’re All Fucking Beautiful.” There was a photo below it where a young woman held up a sign herself that said, “Dear boy in outer space: Don’t Tell Me What to Do.” On “Thin Line,” Macklemore says, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing women they look better in makeup.” I know Macklemore means well, but it sounds no less patronizing when he says basically the same thing as the “Boy in Outer Space.”
Even the power of “Same Love” seems minimized when the same rhetorical trick is used with “Wing$,” a grating song about fetishizing basketball shoes. It’s the same shtick: slow, buildup with Macklemore talking to his audience, imparting wisdom while the song builds up to something larger. He even gets children to sing the chorus. It also feels dated on The Heist because the song has been around for about two years. There was a Kickstarter campaign to pay for its video in February 2011; we posted the video in July.
I have no doubt that Macklemore is sincere when he rhymes about his own struggles with dependency on cough syrup (his relapse is detailed in “Starting Over”), or his love of Mariners late broadcaster Dave Niehaus (“My Oh My,” not on The Heist), or whatever he’s rhyming about. Yet, I can’t help but find his biggest selling point, the sincerity, as grating at times. “Same Love” is a bigger subject than one person, and that’s why it feels different from the other, preachier songs on this album.
The preachiness may be a little more palatable if Macklemore didn’t compare himself favorable to annoying know-it-all Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker writer whose act the brilliant Maud Newton called, “a perfect specimen of the sort of fuzzy-headed, attention-mongering contrarianism.”
When Macklemore isn’t preachy and patronizing, he seems to be in love with his own cleverness. “Thrift Shop” is one of the better songs on The Heist, “…draped in a leopard mink, girls standing next to me, I probably should have washed this, smells like R. Kelly’s sheets: PISS.” It’s an unfortunate moment on the album’s most fun track, even if he felt obligated to rhyme “this” and “piss.” It’s also where Macklemore shows some of his dexterious skills as an MC. The song is joyful and funny overall.
“Jimmy Iovine” may be the best track on the album, or at least my favorite. It has a hero who is pissed off at the state of the music industry. It’s a side of Macklemore we don’t really see anywhere else on the album. He’s vicious and lays out a manifesto for his independence. “I’d rather be a starving artist than succeed at getting fucked,” is one of the most memorable lines on The Heist. It’s a great moment where the song’s intensity builds into the best payoff on the album.
And then it segues into “Wing$.” Sigh.
Chris Burlingame is the editor of Another Rainy Saturday.