1 Listen Album Review: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "This Unruly Mess I've Made"

It's been four years since Macklemore exploded and became a hip-hop trending topic, his new album proves he still has a place in music.

The first song on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ debut album, The Heist, is titled “Ten Thousand Hours.” The title is inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s "10,000-Hour Rule" theory, which states that it takes that much time before you can claim to have mastered any skill. Macklemore wanted listeners to know from the beginning that he isn’t just some new act, that he's poured hours into his craft. You can hear it in his raps - each bar is carefully written, each song thoughtfully constructed, listening to him is no different than watching a mathematician solve an equation. What could be seen as fascinating or boring, that’s the line Macklemore teeters for me.

At his best he can deliver a record like “Wing$” that takes Jordan’s highly sought after sneakers and paints a portrait of consumerism in America. It’s relatable with a necessary message. “Starting Over” is another gem of his, a great look into his struggles with addiction and the fall that relapse brings. Then you have “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us,” pop songs that became smash, hit records I found rather painful on the ears. They're more corny than cool, but that’s who Macklemore is. There isn’t just one box to place him in.

The Heist isn’t a bad album, it’s sprinkled with moments, but it wasn’t worthy of beating Kendrick at the GRAMMYs. That’s old news, a story that’s been told over and over, but the album did ascend Macklemore to an extremely high plateau. He reached the top, got battered by the hip-hop culture he so obviously wanted to be accepted by, and then disappeared from making new music right alongside Frank Ocean.

After three and one half years of laying low, he’s finally back with a new album. A lot has happened in that time - he relapsed, lost himself, found himself, and had a child. It’s the kind of ups and downs that can be channeled into great art. The title This Unruly Mess I've Made alludes that he will be confronting all the disorder and chaos that's surrounded his life during the last few years. I expect him to be Macklemore the mathematician, overly thoughtful and calculated, a balance of fascinating and boring. I also really enjoy when he’s more personal, if he truly confronts all the skeletons hanging in his closet, than this could make for a good second coming.

Per 1 Listen Review rules, this will be a gut reaction listen for the first time, no pausing or rewinding, no editing, no rewriting. Just stream of consciousness reactions that try to capture the moment. We'll be back later with a follow-up review that attempts to break down the meaning and importance of the album once we've had time to marinate on it. For a deeper explanation of 1 Listen reviews, click here

"Light Tunnels" (ft. Mike Slap)

Let’s get it! I’ve always enjoyed Ryan Lewis' big, grandiose sound and he kicks the album off with a gorgeous string section. Macklemore is walking us through, getting ready for some big music show, sounds like he’s getting ready for the GRAMMYs. This has to be the GRAMMYs, his description is way too vivid. I like his storytelling. Yeah, he’s talking about sitting near Jay, Bey, and Taylor - there’s no other room for those three other than the GRAMMYs (or a TIDAL meeting). Interesting first verse. Is he really kicking his album off talking about the GRAMMY? I wonder if this is what Nathan felt like. Their perspectives sound similar except Nathan had more McMuffins.

Now he’s bashing the award show, that’s the kind of unsuspecting backstabbing that Brutus would clap for. Talk that talk Macklemore. This is one guy who doesn’t live in the moment. Wow, this is a long song. Mike Slap sounds good on the hook. “Just look normal don’t get turned into a meme,” such a great line; you no longer worry about being plastered on the Summer Jam Screen but becoming the next crying Jordan. WOW. He’s walking through winning the award. He mentioned his daughter so this can’t be the best rap album award from 2014. It’s a bit self-indulgent, but I think a lot of artists will relate to this. Not a bad start. Not bad at all. Longer than a B.E.T marathon of The Game but not bad.  

"Downtown" (ft. Eric Nally, Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee & Grandmaster Caz)

Kind of surprised this song didn’t take off like Thrift Shop. The beat has a nice groove, but Macklemore rapping about a moped is making me cringe. I wonder what Kool Moe Dee was doing when Macklemore called. Probably his taxes. I love how the song is constructed but it also feels like something from a lousy show tune or out of a Disney musical and those are more painful than a bee sting to the eyeball. Glad the legends got a check. Will avoid this one in the future.

"Brad Pitt's Cousin" (ft. XP)

Macklemore put his cat on the record, wow. “I’m Brad Pitt’s ugly cousin.” I’m confused. So confused. A song about Brad Pitt's cousin and a hook about, “All my Angelina's if you got it let me see it.” There is truly no rapper like Macklemore. Kind of wish T-Pain was singing this terrible hook. He’s rapping from the perspective of God and made a deez nuts reference. Remember when I wrote that he had the tendency to be more corny than cool? Could’ve done without this one.

"Buckshot" (ft. KRS-One & DJ Premier)

KRS-One and Premier, this has to be good. Macklemore used to work at Subway and rapped on his lunch break, we need to give him his own 8 Mile. Ryan is giving me a '90s NY vibe with the boom bap. Yeah, this is cool. Macklemore used to be a graffiti artist? From working at Subway to tagging up subways. Never expected to hear him rap about tagging walls, running from the police in his Adidas, ha. The scratches! KRS can still flow. It’s feeling like ‘88 in my headphones. This is good. This is pretty damn good.

"Growing Up" (ft. Ed Sheeran)

The song Macklemore made for his child. It’s warm, Ryan Lewis is pretty underrated. His production has such range. Macklemore does have a feathery voice, he could’ve been Danny Tanner, Tim the Toolman Taylor or Mr. Feeny. Some good advice given, soon-to-be-fathers take note. Ed Sheeran is going to have a long, long, long career. This is already one of the highlights. Love how big the sound is on the hook, the choir backing up Ed is genius. Stadium music. A nice horn at the end to close this one out.  

"Kevin" (ft. Leon Bridges)

Nice, uptempo. Loving the loop. Death is the subject, I believe this must be a tribute for someone named Kevin who overdosed. As an addict, I’m certain the death must have touched Macklemore on a deeper level. Leon Bridges sings directly to your soul. I felt chills as his voice came on. You can hear the gold flowing from his vocal chords. An amazing talent. “My little brother,” could Kevin be Macklemore’s brother or brother in the sense of another human living on the same planet? He’s attacking the pharmaceuticals. “First dealer was his mother’s medicine cabinet.” A song against prescription pills. Very necessary. I have to say, Zannies and painkillers are on almost every rap album but this is not a perspective you get everyday. Leon is killing this bridge. Killing it. So more strength and soul. Clap for him.

"St. Ides"

This album feels more cohesive than the last one. It’s flowing nicely. Reflective versus, no hook, Mack's voice seems soft and removed. He’s really deep in thought. From past to present, this one seems to be about moving from his hometown. Not a bad record, it lacks the power of "Kevin" but it’s personal. I’ll go back and fully immerse myself in his story.

"Need to Know" (ft. Chance the Rapper)

Macklemore went all out on the features this year but he didn’t go to the usual suspects. Leon Bridges and Chance The Rapper? Wow. Is that Donnie Trumpet I hear? Macklemore is flowing on this first verse. Whoa. He’s preaching but it’s sounding incredible. Chance on the hook sounding like he’s ready to drop his gospel album. Chance is rapping about his daughter, that line about wanting her to only want white friends is going to leave his Twitter mentions in shambles. This boy is good. Too good. After getting passed the mopeds, this album has gotten better with each song.

"Dance Off" (ft. Idris Elba & Anderson .Paak)

I spoke too soon. “I challenge you to a dance off,” Macklemore is describing him dance battling, I’m imagining the Wayans in White Girls. This is really weird. Whoever they sampled for the hook sounds like a demented referee. This sounds like something Eminem made when the drugs got too strong and he was singing about his big weenie. The bassline is nasty though. This is too much. Anderson .Paak, please save this. Please. Anderson has the voice of an angel that did drugs with Ray Charles. He barely has a feature. I’m assuming him and Idris are on the strange hook. This song is weird. So weird.

"Let's Eat" (ft. XP)

Ha, now this is funny. A song about wanting to get lean and mean but can’t stop eating the junk. It’s extra, over the top, but I’m enjoying it. If your New Year's resolution was to exercise and start working on that summer body but have failed thus far, this is the song for you.

"Bolo Tie" (ft. YG)

Macklemore and YG? Really hope Mack raps Bicken back being bool one time for the culture. Another personal, introspective record. Not winning a spelling bee, must really be haunting Mack for him to mention it on his sophomore album. The struggle is real. Ok, this record is good. Two rappers that sound fed up. YG got off. Wooo. I have nothing to say but I want to rewind this one. Need that new YG album.

"The Train" (ft. Carla Morrison)

Minimal production, just a heavy piano, Carla Morrison has a nice voice on her. I don’t know what language she’s singing in but it sounds beautiful. Macklemore walking us through his family relationships while traveling. Loving how the train trucking down the tracks sound against the production.

"White Privilege II" (ft. Jamila Woods)

Well, well, well. Here we go. I’ve heard this before but it was only once. I forgot that he touched on the subject briefly on his first album. It’s cool to compare the two songs and see how his views have changed. It really makes me cringe to hear the “No Justice, No Peace” chant. The second verse is the most passionate I’ve ever heard Macklemore rap. Ever. I believe he’s coming from a genuine place. My favorite part is Macklemore’s impression of a white woman approaching him and praising him for the kind of raps he makes. You can tell it’s based off actual conversations. I also love the new clips that are used. I like what this song stands for. I like that it created conversations. There’s been plenty of writing done on it. For that I appreciate Macklemore for making a song that is truly for the fans that share his skin color and not so much mine but man this is long. Jamila Woods is another incredible talent, word is bond. “Your silence is a luxury. Hip-hop is not a luxury.”

I didn’t expect to walk away liking this album but it’s much better than I expected. He raised the selfie stick and took portraits of himself. It’s the sophomore release that you expect from a rapper who had a major debut that made him fairly famous. His life has changed and the music reflects this. There’s definitely a sense of moving forward on this album. He may not have the hit records of the last time around, but it feels very true to himself. The features all delivered, a rare cast, legends and newcomers, all for Macklemore. I couldn’t hear it on The Heist but it’s becoming very clear after just one listen to This Unruly Mess I've Made that Macklemore’s ten thousand hours are paying off.

By Yoh, aka Peaceful Yoh, aka @Yoh31.


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