Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist (Album Review)

Posted on October 14, 2012 by

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Who is Macklemore? That seems to be the question of the day around the Internet.  The Seattle native just released his independent debut, The Heist, produced in full by long time friend and collaborator Ryan Lewis, to a number one ranking on iTunes.  Most of the shows in his international tour throughout Europe sold out, and he is gearing up to showcase his music at many more sold out spots around the US.  Having lived in the Pacific Northwest for the last few years, I have been familiar with Mack for a while and he has definitely grown on me.  As an artist, he represents honesty, and strives to be an example of what can happen when you believe in yourself and stay true to what you want.  His road hasn’t been an easy one and while he may seem like an overnight sensation, his diehard fans (of which he has many) will remind you that these moments you see today are over six years in the making.  Even his album is said to have taken over three years to complete but it was worth the wait; we got it HIS way.

Rappers like to remind the listeners that they do not sleep or “how hard they grind” but bragging about hard work usually ends there.  Borrowing some tips from Malcolm Gladwell, Macklemore kicks off the album by relaying just how long it took to reach magazine covers and the iTunes homepage – ”10,000 Hours”.  He isn’t one to embellish his process and when it comes down to it, his journey has been work, work, work and practice, practice, practice. Some emcees claim natural talent, but, as he backs in interviews and can be heard in his music, Mack has honed his craft over the years and grown tremendously.  If The Heist is the story of Macklemore’s life over the three years of its creation, the opener is a great introduction that briefly summarizes how he feels and what he’s done.

“Can’t Hold Us” has long been my favorite Macklemore & Ryan Lewis song, especially after seeing it performed live.  Ray Dalton is a tremendous talent, one that we will start to hear more about. He kills this hook and was a great inclusion to the song. One of my biggest complaints about the album is that Ray Dalton is only featured on this one song.  It’s a fun, high-energy track that I believe has major crossover appeal.  We get to hear a faster paced flow than usual and it just has great vibes and feel.

The fun doesn’t stop on “Thrift Shop,” Macklemore’s ode to bargain hunting and counter-culture.  Ryan Lewis spazzed on this beat; one of my favorites on the album.  Macklemore pokes fun at himself for “wearing your Granddad’s clothes” but also brags about how he “looks incredible”.  And before you write this off as a Northwest hipster anthem about liking things that most don’t, Macklemore uses the opportunity to spit some game.  “They like ‘Ooo that Gucci is hella tight’, I be like ‘Yo that’s $50 for a t-shirt/limited edition/ let’s do some simple addition/ $50 for a t shirt is just some ignorant bitch shit/ I call that being swindled and pimped shit/ I call that getting tricked by business/ That shirt’s hella dope/ but having the same one as 6 other people in this club is a hella don’t”.  While most in today’s rap scene boast about rocking the best name brands, Macklemore tells it how it is; he really does wear ridiculous clothing and he makes a fair point about designer fashion.  Macklemore’s way is more relatable for me, and I assume most, as I have never owned Gucci anything but would be lying if I said I have never browsed the aisles of Good Will.

The next two tracks each take a different angle on relationships.  “Thin Line” is a grounded look at a relationship that the members want to work in theory, but have a much harder time fulfilling in practice. He accepts his share of the blame but is unsure how to move forward. I think the beat accompanies the track perfectly. One of my favorite moments on the album is when Mack says that he has said peace before but this time he means it and then the beat drops and you only hear the sound of a hung up telephone before the beat builds back in. That type of attention to detail is just another sign of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ craftsmanship and artistry.

“Same Love” is an overdue concept for hip-hop about equal rights for Gay and Lesbians.  I have heard that this track was originally written from the perspective of a Gay teenager who committed suicide because of bullying.  But, as Ryan Lewis told him, that isn’t Macklemore’s story and while I am sure it was good before, the song has become much more powerful expressing the conflict in Mack’s OWN life.  While the horror story of the suicide is one we have heard before, in this song we get the perspective of a conflicted individual who has homosexual family and friends, yet grew up in homophobic cultures – the Catholic Church and Hip Hop. Macklemore’s honesty about his original lack of understanding is commendable and probably mirrors more people than are willing to admit.  Now he sees the issue more clearly and is ready to speak out in a way that few artists (and other people for that matter) have.

Macklemore has really taken his own advice from “Make the Money”, probably more than he ever anticipated.  I am sure he received record label offers at some point but his decision to remain independent and his subsequent success definitely made the money without the money making him and changed the game without the game changing him; a very non-subliminal delivery of the album’s overall message.

“Neon Cathedral” is poetry to my ears.  I love the metaphor he holds between alcohol and religion. I love the way he draws it out into a concept for a full song without it getting stale, even more.  His extensive vocabulary of both religious and boozy terms, jumps out of the speakers and makes it that much realer; something you can really feel.  It is obvious that this is something Mack has thought about a lot and an issue he has dealt with on many levels.  Allen Stone, featured on the chorus, is another big name coming out of the PNW and he adds a very nice, almost hopeful touch to such a somber track.

“Bombom” provides a well-timed break at the midpoint of the album. Ryan Lewis builds tension and exudes triumph without any words.  It is a breakthrough for the album and their careers as the mood shifts towards their music and away from their lives.  As we know, though, those are not so separate.

Before listening to the album, my most anticipated track was definitely the ScHoolboy Q feature.  “White Walls” is an odd one.  The song doesn’t sound like something that either artist would usually do and feels a little off the wall.  Macklemore has some trouble riding the beat but he hits a few nice strides and falls into pocket more than once.  It can be fun to see artists out of their comfort zone and pushing boundaries. This was a worthwhile experiment for both Q and Mack, one that I like more with each listen.

“Jimmy Iovine” is pure intensity and Ab-Soul’s inclusion ups the ante immensely.  Record labels paint themselves as saints of the music industry that help artists reach the world and their potential.  Many musicians, on the contrary, describe record labels as devils that take everything you own and then some, making false promises all the while.  In reality, they are somewhere in between and function as the right situation for some but not for others.  That being said, every artist has dreamt at one time or another of being signed and benefiting greatly.  This track sends waves of emotions through the listener ranging from excitement to fear to disappointment to desperation.  In real life, Macklemore has obviously foregone a major label to this point and can attest to achieving success independently through hard work but he knows artists that have signed themselves into both bad and good deals. He puts the tough decision in perspective for those that have yet to experience it themselves.  This is one of my favorite tracks on The Heist.

Macklemore continues his inner struggle on “Wings,” in which, he recognizes the problems that stem from commercialism and consumerism but acknowledges that condemning them is a lot easier said than done.  His willingness to admit the difficulties and challenges he faces keeps the music from sounding preachy.  This isn’t just about refusing to buy shoes because of the social issues the company that makes them creates; it is about being yourself and not allowing anyone to dictate what makes you, you.

Race is always a difficult topic to cover and especially so in hip-hop.  At this point, hip hop has expanded beyond its roots as a Black culture and into the mainstream, but it can still be difficult for white rappers to discuss their inclusion. “Wake” makes a lot of points that I relate to as a white male myself.  It is crazy to think about the reaction after seeing what happened to Rodney King as compared with, as Macklemore puts it, “every month there’s a new Rodney on YouTube/ I guess it’s just something our generation is used to.” In many ways, things are worse than they were at that time, in some, they are better.  We all know how we feel about these issues but few of us know how to react.

Macklemore is making it big and he is bringing the Pacific Northwest with him.  His inclusion of fellow Seattle-ite Eighty4 Fly on “Gold” is my favorite feature.  It is a dope collaboration that demonstrates their chemistry and is a great introduction for any new Mack fans that aren’t yet familiar with the PNW sound.

I am torn about how the album ended.  On one hand, I think “Starting Over” is so powerful that it could have been the album’s last track but it is also a downer, especially compared to “Cowboy Boots”, so I can see the thinking that took place.  The way Macklemore deals with disappointing loved ones and more importantly disappointing himself spans way more than relapsing on drugs; setting expectations and goals is how we achieve anything but falling short happens to everyone. This track is inspirational even in a tale of failure.  The hope of getting back on the horse and fighting on is too real.  If he can do it, so can we and those are my words, not his. On second thought, this DEFINITELY should have closed the album.

I am not from Seattle so maybe “Cowboy Boots” is just not for me but I was somewhat disappointed in the final track.  I just do not think it fits into the overall feel of the album. Over the last few years, Macklemore has been in many different places and this must have been one of them.

Macklemore keeps the rap features to a minimum and it really allows the listener to get to know his music.  Ryan Lewis is on point as always and provides an amazing soundscape for Macklemore to paint pictures over. He is not the greatest technical rapper out there but his flow is versatile.  He keeps his rhymes varied and fresh enough that we don’t get bored and can listen to his message, which is the most important aspect. For some, it is about how they say it but for Macklemore it is 100% about WHAT he says.  There are political statements throughout but they are told in a personal manner that keeps Mack from being labeled a “conscious” rapper.  He isn’t telling the listener how things should be or how they should feel, just what he sees and how he can come to grips with it.  The great thing about Macklemore is that getting to know his music really feels like getting to know him as a person.  All of the guests, and Ryan Lewis as well, help orchestrate our meeting.  There are a lot of epiphanies and points of view packed onto this CD that really give the listeners a rounded view of Mack.  He refuses to spare his faults and reminds us of his accomplishments in the same sentence.  Like most of us, he is trying to find himself and not lose it.  After listening to The Heist, I feel confident in saying he has done that.

Posted in: Editorials, Reviews