Starting Over: Macklemore's Relapsed Journey After "The Heist"

Macklemore got everything he wanted from "The Heist" but has everything been too much?
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Macklemore got everything he wanted from "The Heist" but has everything been too much?

What happened to Macklemore?

For a brief moment in history he was the center of a storm raging through the mainstream. Grammys were stacked, Billboard records broken, radios flooded, thinkpieces written, his name was simultaneously the most exalted and damned in music. He came, saw and conquered so swiftly that it almost feels surreal what he accomplished in 2012 and 2013. Commercially, rappers have wet dreams about the kind of success he accomplished. “Thrift Shop” took his name into households around the world by being his first number one, “Can’t Hold Us” his second number one and the most streamed song on Spotify in 2013, “Same Love” was embraced so strongly by the same-sex community he would be honored by ACLU, even “Wing$,” a song showing the darker side to sneaker culture was used during the NBA All-Star game in 2013. What didn’t this album achieve? What accolades weren’t received?

It felt like the birth of a new superstar, until it slowly but surely didn't. After The Heist's run he's been staggeringly silent. There have been no new singles, no new videos, no remixes, the last two years have produced exactly one guest verse, for 2014's "Fences." He has joined an elite class of the famous but secretive, but even for that group, his inactivity has been baffling. Adele broke her silence to sing for James Bond, Frank Ocean sporadically delivered a teaser or two, Andre 3000 will pop up on guest verses, but Macklemore has stayed silent on record while touring like mad, neglecting the same industry he disrupted. Slowly, Macklemore faded from the glaring spotlight into the dimly-lit foreground.

Silence isn’t a luxury for the famous, they must stay within earshot, be always within eyesight, it’s one of the sacrifices made to acquire all the rewards of fame. Silence breeds speculations, assumptions and theories. If they don't tell us what we want to hear, we'll say it for them. During a pitch meeting, Nathan introduced a theory surrounding Macklemore’s silence that left me in awe. What if Macklemore’s goal was to pull off a heist on the music industry? What if there was never going to be a next album, what if he was always planning on grabbing every dollar and accolade he could then vanishing from the public eye? Instead of being the “king of rap,” he was plotting on being hip-hop’s Danny Ocean.

It never occurred to me that Macklemore could just stop. Does anyone in entertainment ever just stop? Even Dave Chapelle's back to doing stand up. Macklemore spent years releasing music, starting in his bedroom before being catapulted to the pyramid’s peak. I assume his life now was always the goal, to reach the pinnacle of attention, the top of Olympus, be heard and adored around the globe. How do you walk away from that? After a bit more thought though, the album title is what really captivated me. Picture it - breaking into the mainstream as an independent* artist, robbing them blind, and sailing off into the sunset to divvy up all the gold with Ryan Lewis like musical pirates of the Caribbean. To exit at the height of his acclaim, before driving himself mad trying to recreate the same magic that thrust him into this new life, before fame pushes him into the same dark hole that devoured Cobain, while shooting the biggest middle finger to the establishment that has gotten over on artists for years and years. If he took all the money from his insane touring schedule and bought a modest home, raised a family off royalties, and never even flirted with the industry again, that would indeed be a heist worthy of an Ocean’s 11 remake.

The Heist's many accomplishments puts an immense amount of pressure on Macklemore to deliver a suitable sophomore. The moment he releases a single, it will be like dipping a bloody napkin into a sea of sharks. Especially with the cultural appropriation criticism still hovering over his head like a gray cloud that could downpour at any minute. How will hip-hop embrace his next release? I know the critics will have no mercy, the fans are expecting a grand return, and that pressure can drive a man to the edge. Not just the singles, his entire album will be dissected with the intensity of a middle school class obtaining their first lizard. That weight alone would make an escape completely understandable, leaving us all wondering, could he have done it again? We speculated until Nathan’s insane theory started to sound genius. That’s the thing about celebrities, we create the stories about their lives we like best and then expect them to live out those stories. 

Tuesday, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis reappeared, although it wasn't with a new song but on the cover of Complex’s August/September issue. In the first paragraph of the cover story, it became apparent that the lack of new material wasn't the result of a plot to pull off the most epic heist in music history but that something serious was happening behind the scenes of their impeccable victory streak. Macklemore relapsed. The life got to him, the exhausting touring, the mental strain of media backlash, adjusting to newfound fame, the existing addiction, all the elements manifested into a hand that pushed him off the wagon into an old habit. In the past, Macklemore documented his battle with addiction, the song “Otherside” is a transparent confessional of when lean and other drugs were the giant monkey hanging from his back. He started doubling his cup because of Lil Wayne, trying to achieve that same creative gateway just to find himself in an inescapable hell hole. His purity created a bond with fans, he became a symbol of sobriety, the face of overcoming your demons for those that were caught in a similar battle.

“Otherside” was released in 2009, when he had gotten sober the first time. But not long after Macklemore relapsed, he admitted to falling from grace three years later on “Starting Over,” the second to last song on The Heist. This isn’t a song simply about overcoming addiction, it’s about carrying the burden of being a role model. Not only did he let down his family, friends, but the very same fans that saw him as a symbol, as a Superman. In reality, there is no Superman. We all are flawed men, except we hope the heroes we idolize harbor something inside that separate them, some engrained resistance from the same human emotions that we suffer from. “Starting Over” is Macklemore revealing to the world he isn’t super but a man that falls victim to his vices as well. He embraces the role as a role model, something I’ve respected throughout the years. It makes the cover story that much more powerful, once again he stands before us starting over.

“I think I was in a place of sophomore slump jinx fear until I started writing songs again. When I was smoking weed, trying to avoid life at all costs, I was in a place of fear.”

Macklemore smoking weed and popping sleeping pills isn’t the person he wants the world to see, but that’s who he is. I saw a lot of jokes online, how his problems are jokes compared to others, but he’s an addict. No matter what the substance, he will abuse it to the fullest. Addicts don’t understand moderation, they’re extremist so even recreational drugs won’t be taken lightly. Hence why in 2014 Macklemore was unproductive. He was popping pills, feeling guilty, unable to detach himself, too focused on hiding his addiction to get into the studio. It’s like being caught in a loop, one he couldn’t exit. The reason Macklemore relapsed was an attempting to escape. Yelawolf used the same word to describe his alcoholism during an interview on Highly Questionable. It astounds me how fame is something the famous are constantly attempting to cope with. It’s such an overwhelming burden that they look for anything to help them balance out the strain of success.

Like any accomplished addict, Ben bargained with himself throughout summer 2014, struggling to quit: “You know, like, Monday, I’ma stop…. OK. Tuesday, I’ma stop…. OK, fuck it, I might as well go on to the weekend. Sunday, I’m done. But after this bag of weed…” He became “sneaky” and “deceitful,” to those closest to him.

Discovering that his fiancée was pregnant is what really changed Macklemore, the knowledge that he would become a father in his future placed a new burden on his back.  A burden bigger than the fame, the drugs, bigger than himself. That child is now his escape, the best kind. If he decided not to drop this album and focus on his family I would deem him a genius. He has happiness, a family, and his health, why not just be that happily ever after ending? 

Macklemore is still a symbol, his fans haven’t forsaken him. His next project is rumored to be released during the final quarter of the year, but we all know how shaky release dates are, especially when the frontman's fighting addiction. I’m expecting an album full of growth, something that shows what the last three years have been like, songs that capture his second trip to the dark side. The deception, the fear, the turmoil of falling apart when you’re expected to keep it together. In a way, that’s who he is. Take away the hits, the accolades, the money, he’s just a flawed man in a world that loves flogging the publicly flawed. I prefer the imperfection, the addict, the man that’s in a constant state of starting over. Reaching, falling, trying to keep it all together while pursuing the next plateau. Aren’t we all that man?

Sobriety or relapse, another smash or a sophomore flop, right now it's all possible, but as soon as that first song drops the possibilities will start disappearing, replaced by more singular truths. It has to be a terrifying bridge to cross, but if Macklemore wants to still be able to call himself a musician, he'll have to cross it. One way or another, we'll see him on the otherside. 

[By Yoh, aka Thrift Yohp, aka @Yoh31]