Tonal shifts are tricky business. If an artist of any kind chooses to veer wildly between the light and the dark, there must be a capable set of hands at the wheel. The goofy medical comedy “Scrubs” could never land its various leaps into dramatic territory without the tremendous work of a capable team of actors and writers.
Would you trust the rapper Macklemore with this kind of tightrope walk? On his latest album “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made,” a full-length collaboration with producer Ryan Lewis that released on Feb. 26, he certainly tries it. Unfortunately, it fails, and most of the problem falls on his own shoulders.
Macklemore has never been shy about pushing a message – consider his passionate defense of homosexuality on 2012’s “Same Love” – and he brings plenty of ammunition to the table this time around. In the opening track “Light Tunnels,” he attacks the Grammy Awards, illuminating from a first-person perspective what he perceives as a general phoniness from the various celebrities in attendance.
But he can never send his message in a satisfying and meaningful way. Macklemore writes his verses like the most literal of slam poets – think Jonah Hill in “22 Jump Street” – and therefore every thought must be conveyed in the absolute least subtle way possible. It’s not enough for him to paint this image of the Grammys in the first two verses; he must say in the third that the ceremony “feels so narcissistic/dressed as a celebration to conceal it’s a business.”
Even his flow, merely nimble at its best and downright clunky at its worst, emulates slam poetry in its style. Macklemore can ride a beat well if need be, but most of the times he’ll move at his own herky-jerky pace, with temporary speed boosts to cram extra words in places where they don’t necessarily fit.
Then the tonal shift: the deeply serious opening track ends, and the next track is about buying and riding a moped. Three tracks later, he gives a passionate tribute to a personal friend who overdosed on prescription medication, and three tracks after that he’s accepting a dance challenge from Idris Elba against a naked old man. See how this could get out of hand with such a shaky MC in charge?
Lewis, to his credit, tries to follow Macklemore instrumentally as he vacillates between extreme tones, and he occasionally succeeds through sheer grandeur. He turns “Light Tunnels” into an absorbing cinematic experience with an active orchestral arrangement, and successfully steers “Downtown” into Broadway territory by playing with big horns and vocal chants.
As the lead producer on every track, Lewis is not always successful. What do you do when Macklemore approaches you and asks to do a song about eating donuts and trying to do yoga? Lewis tries his best to keep things consistent, and he does wonderful work with the piano in particular, but he’s not a magician.
While “Unruly Mess” is disappointing overall, it is not without its moments. Macklemore and Lewis did strike gold with “Same Love” and “Can’t Hold Us” on their debut record in 2012, and they land hits here too. “Buckshot” is a strong boom-bap flashback with assists from legends KRS-One and DJ Premier, and “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” overcomes a weak hook on the strength of a legitimately funny Macklemore performance.
But at the end of the day, a hip-hop album is a journey, and while its producers can help to chart a successful course, the rapper is its captain. The album goes only as far as the rapper can take it, and would go up in flames should they mishandle the wheel.
Macklemore isn’t a very good captain. He can have success in certain roles, but he struggles tremendously with biting off more than he can chew. By throwing his hat in so many different rings, he considerably damages his chances at overall success, and when he tries his hand at a subject that he believes is truly important, his skills simply aren’t up to par.
Look at the closing track of “Unruly Mess,” where he spends nine minutes wondering aloud about the extent of his white privilege. In trying to make headway in this problematic discussion, he asks many questions, but doesn’t offer many answers. It works as a discussion starter, but is so unnecessarily overwrought as a piece of music that it offers nothing of genuine social substance.
For his own good, both financial and creative, it may be best for Macklemore to avoid the more difficult topics, and stick to the funky charms of the thrift shop or the moped store.
Right before he hands down an unwieldy definition of white supremacy on the that closing track, he raps that “America feels safe with my music in their systems,” and that may be true for the massive stereo systems blaring inside of NBA arenas, but not far beyond that.
Ask for any more and you’re heading into dangerous waters with a midshipman in command.