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Forget Macklemore, Let's Talk About Ryan Lewis' Production Genius

We take a scientific look at Ryan Lewis, Macklemore's incredibly talented producer.

I’m a (relatively) smart guy, but when it comes to science I’m clueless. Senior year of high school, my chemistry teacher gave me a pity C on the final exam, bringing my grade to a solid D so that I could graduate. Ms. Walsh is a real one.

The following year, when I got to college, I got stuck in a biology/physiology class called Life At The Extremes. It sounded cool and I knew some of those words so I signed up. Big mistake.

Luckily, I managed to get a seat next to a beautiful girl (and future doctor) named Katie who saw me drowning and threw me a life raft. She carried me the whole year, partly out of the goodness of her heart and partly because I was her lab partner and she didn't have a choice. Like Walter White and Jesse Pinkman our fates were tied despite our different pasts and futures.

The rest of the semester, as I looked for a proper leak of Graduation on Datpiff, she cut open dead animals and made crazy study guides. I did what I could, pulling off oral presentations and bringing chewy Sprees to our study group, but while I wasn't about to let her go, I felt bad. Someone so talented shouldn't always have to be tied to someone so different. 

Emperor penguins and the Fennec fox live life at the extremes. So does Macklemore. He’s a highly successful independent rapper. "Thrift Shop" was one of the biggest songs of the current decade, which in turn made The Heist big and turned Macklemore into a GRAMMY winner. He gained fans, acclaim, admiration and attention but also plenty of criticism. Without diving into the Macklemore white rapper think-piece black hole, his skin color can’t be ignored. He's not for everyone and he's not for me. But love or hate, good or bad, all conversations revolve around Macklemore, when really it's Ryan Lewis, his lab partner, who’s been doing the heavy lifting.

To be honest, I wasn't planning on listening to This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. It just wasn't going to get my time over Nujabes. Then Nathan brought up my one weakness, my love of production. I've always believed Ryan Lewis is underrated. He not only produces for the duo, he also handles all their videos as well. He's basically the driving force behind the duo’s entire creative enterprise. While Macklemore’s at the helm of the ship it’s Lewis who's the wind in the sails. To his credit, Macklemore certainly plays his role as the front man, he absorbs all the criticism and hate along with the praise, but Lewis is too often marginalized. The life of a producer, I guess. So I made the decision to view this album as "Ryan Lewis & Macklemore,” not “Macklemore & Ryan Lewis,” and it made a world of difference.

From a production standpoint This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is remarkable. From the very first second it feels cinematic, like a movie or a musical. In fact, I couldn't help but hear Hamilton. The way the production progresses, the way it builds and breaks down, it’s exhausting in the best of ways. Big, grand, invigorating. "Downtown" is a song I wrote off as cheesy primarily because of Macklemore's moped riding, but it has a thumping bassline and a very sleek yet retro feel. Can you imagine Big Boi on that track? Hip-hop heads may cringe at seeing KRS-One on a record with Macklemore, but you can't deny that beat is perfect for him; now if we could just get Joey Bada$$ on it, too. Anderson .Paak on “Dance Off” gives me the same vibe I felt when I first heard his Venice album, unfortunately his part only lasts 30 seconds.

It’s amazing how well the features fit Lewis’ production, but it's never a good sign when the best part of an album listening experience is thinking about who else you would put on a track. 

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In a weird way the success of the production makes me hate this album even more. It’s disappointing to see such incredible landscapes dulled by someone I consider an adequate rapper. When I hear Macklemore rap, I hear me stumbling through an oral presentation. I see Ryan Lewis doing all the work and Macklemore bringing the chewy Sprees. God bless him he’s trying, and it results in some good, honest moments ("St. Ides"), but for the most part he's only able to risk stumbling because Lewis provides such solid footing. 

Take “Light Tunnels,” for instance. Hearing the way Slap and Lewis intertwine their skill sets is a thing of beauty. Slap has a different sound and it gives Lewis a chance to really take his production off the ground, but then he has to land again so Macklemore's straightforward flow can board. 

Sometimes, though, it’s not about the music that was made, but the music that was not. How many producers could provide a proper canvas for Chance The RapperYG, Leon Bridges, and KRS-One and still create a consistent, cohesive feel? We often debate which is more important, beats or rhymes, but really it’s a chemical compound. If C02 doesn’t have both Oxygen and carbon you don't have C02. If the production is great and the rhymes aren't (or vice versa), its doesn't make for good chemistry.  

When I hear the work of Ryan Lewis I hear a genius. I hear someone with the potential to do amazing things--I honestly think he could succeed in a Hamilton-like environment that span genres, sounds and influences.

This isn’t about taking cheap shots at Macklemore or critiquing his flow, not really. I just want more. I want to hear Lewis make great music with other great artists. Save for a few independent artists from Seattle, Lewis hasn’t produced for a single artist other than Macklemore since 2009. Even Drake's production companion "40" has ventured out to work with other OVO artists, as well as Action Bronson, Nas and Pusha T.  I want to hear Lewis at the forefront, working with different artists from different genres, not as a name that get cut off because it's easier to just write just “Macklemore.”

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis should and will likely create more music, and that's great (especially when it sounds like "Bolo Tie"), but experimentation is part of the physiology of a producer and I fear Lewis isn’t experimenting as much as he could be.

I learned one thing from that Life At The Extremes course, which is to evolve - adapt or die. Ryan Lewis is a rare species, I'd hate to see him go extinct. 

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Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth. His favorite album is College Dropout but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth. Photo by Ryan Lewis.



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