Did Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' new album just flop? To answer that question we have to go back.
October, 2012. I'm backstage at a Macklemore show in L.A. with DJ Z, which might be a flex except at the time getting backstage to a moderately popular indie artist's show wasn't anything to flex about. We'd been posting Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' music since 2009, and looking out at the 2,000 or so people in the crowd it was good to see how far they'd come since DJBooth inbox submissions. At the time The Heist had just dropped and gone to #1 on the iTunes chart, a feat Macklemore was treating like a platinum plaque.
Three months later they were global superstars.
That's why the idea that Macklemore and Lewis made The Heist as some sort of carefully crafted attempt to take over the globe from the beginning just doesn't hold up if you were even in remote proximity to the duo at the time. Sure, "Thrift Shop" and "Can't Hold Us" were obvious attempts at crossover records, they hired Warner's radio promotions hoping to get some radio play, anything would be better than the nothing they'd received so far, but you'd have to be an insane person to make music out of a small studio in Seatle and think, "Yeah, this song's going to be a number one hit in 22 countries."
There's nothing shocking about a white guy becoming famous and rich, but by every historical music industry measure The Heist's platinum-success was an anomaly. So for industry watchers like myself the duo's sophomore album, This Unruly Mess I've Made, was going to be the true measure of their popularity. Lightning can strike once, but if it strikes twice that's clearly more than chance.
So far it looks like Macklemore and Lewis' unprecented run of success is over. Early projections have This Unruly Mess I've Made selling as many as 60,000 copies first week, a step backwards from The Heist's 80,000 first week. While it's not quite right to say 60K is a flop or that singles like "Downtown" have failed - 102 million views only looks small next to the 860 million for "Thrift Shop" - considering that exponentially more people know the duo than when The Heist dropped in 2012, purely from a numbers level there's no other way to look at This Unruly Mess than as a backslide. For perspective, it looks like Kevin Gates' is now about twice as popular as Macklemore. That's a real thing that happened in real life.
Let's not be so quick to start writing eulogies for Macklemore though. It's tempting to see those lower numbers as the result of hip-hop heads withdrawing their support, but hip-hop heads never really supported their rise in the first place, at least not in numbers large enough to move the needle. Macklemore's next level leap was the result of catching a mainstream pop wave, but that's the least stable wave there is in music (just ask Carly Rae Jepsen). Mainstream waves peak, crash and then they're gone.
Instead, I see these sales not as a flop but as more of a market correction, a return to something more closely resembling sanity. Macklemore might not be destined to be the kind of superstar able to stay on top of the game for years, but he's making music meaningful enough to carry a loyal fan base. And even if he never has another "Thrift Shop," which could still happen, he'll be able to tour to sold out crowds for years, which is where the money is in music in 2016 anyway.
And for a kid from Seattle who five years ago was holding pizza parties to pay for recording costs, that's far from a flop.