Macklemore has always been infatuated with the concept of trial and error, both musically and quite literally in his personal life. Addiction, recovery, relapse, and those first painful steps of starting over have been at the forefront of his lyrics and the conceptual backdrop to each of his albums. That isn't just an idea that applies to his own troubles with drug addiction, either. Instead, it’s an encapsulation of how we, as flawed individuals, spend our lives perpetually trying to course correct our own imperfect cycles, and how the pursuit of happiness for many of us is those first few steps in a new direction, away from our past mistakes.
On his first outing, 2005's The Language of My World, Macklemore seemed like an emcee interested in conscious, nuanced lyrics draped over production inspired by J Dilla and Hi-Tek. He felt like a descendant of something familiar and traceable, with a flow that felt like Slug from Atmosphere, and cynical “wokeness” that felt like a less intrusive Lupe Fiasco. By 2012, after linking up with producer Ryan Lewis, however, Macklemore had seemingly dropped much of the aesthetic he had only begun to explore in search of something grander.
The Heist, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ debut album, was an album that will live in infamy for myriad reasons. It’s as polarizing an album of the last decade of hip-hop one is bound to find, its biggest fans championing Macklemore’s aim at social issues and its biggest critics finding imperfections in his strategy at every turn. The Heist ranged from the genuine and important but shallow (“Same Love”) to the introspective and well-thought-out (“Starting Over,” “A Wake”), to the downright bad, but insanely catchy (“Thrift Shop”). Yet, it also felt like its creators never prepared for it to be as all-consuming as it was, and thus began to buckle under the weight of its own intentions. Macklemore had reached Icarus status in hip-hop; he created an independent album out of sheer obscurity and flew it as close as he could to the sun of mainstream success until it burned him alive.
It’s been five years since The Heist broke into our ears, and since then, Macklemore’s career has continued the process of “starting over” and falling into the same mistakes over and over again. This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, he and Ryan Lewis’ second album, promised a renewed Macklemore, one that had taken almost three years off from music to find himself, only to go through many of the same motions as The Heist, only without even the polarization of the music to keep us intrigued.
Now, with Macklemore’s second solo album, Gemini, the idea of a fresh start is once again at play. The title alone makes it feel like Macklemore is finally ready to address the conflicting sides of his own career, and without Ryan Lewis by his side.
The most noticeable aspect of Gemini is how much more it feels like a "traditional" rap album. More often than not, Macklemore leaves behind the heavy-handedness and the tracks filled with sprawling “woke” narratives that only served to draw listeners the outlines of the issues at hand without ever coloring them in. Instead, the album feels much more centered on Macklemore as a man, and even during the moments where he delves into familiar topics like drug addiction (“Intentions”) or why he continues to make the music he does (“Church”), the narrative never deviates into a history lesson.
On “Intentions,” specifically, the concept of the Gemini—the Zodiac sign that translates to the “twins,” of which those afflicted, much like myself, have conflicting personalities—is on full display. Macklemore’s lyrics like “I want world peace, but I wanna watch Worldstar” feel surprisingly familiar for both those who are accustomed to the best-laid plans and perpetual disappointments of such addictive behavior, as well those from a generation who mainly wish for the world to change instead of actually taking on the responsibility.
To complement Gemini’s more introspective tracks, Macklemore also takes several opportunities to let loose from some of the self-seriousness and have fun. Tracks like “Willy Wonka,” “Fire Breather,” “Corner Store,” and “Ten Million” are welcome additions on an album that mostly accentuates the positive characteristics of Macklemore’s artistry, as opposed to completely avoiding them for the sake of radio play. On previous albums, tracks like “Bolo Tie” and “Jimmy Iovine” were left to fend for themselves in a swamp of melodramatic cuts and rap abominations like “Dance Off” that even "Weird Al" Yankovic would blush at. On Gemini, although tracks like “Willy Wonka” still contain the quintessential Macklemore corniness, he does a much better job at containing himself.
Impressively, Gemini also showcases Macklemore’s continued desire to showcase lesser-known talent, and the album’s best tracks are given that honor because of guests like Dave B, Travis Thompson, Xperience, Dan Caplen, and Saint Claire. Macklemore focuses the concept of the album on himself, yet never stands in front of the mic too long. He allows other voices into his own narrative in such an effective way, that even a guest like Ke$Ha feels compelling and worthwhile on “Good Old Days.”
Unfortunately, Gemini lives up to its title by also showcasing Macklemore's worst side. The album’s first three tracks, “Ain’t Gonna Die Tonight,” “Glorious,” and “Marmalade,” are retreads of every mistake Macklemore has made as an artist since 2012, falling into a category of subpar that lands somewhere between Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” and KYLE’s “iSpy.” Beyond the terrible start, the dueling track couplet of “Over It” and “Zara” find Macklemore rapping about the highs and lows of relationships in the most boring fashion imaginable. At best, both tracks feel like detours into the writers’ room of a canceled CW show.
As far as formatting is concerned, Gemini sounds like Macklemore’s attempt at Drake’s More Life; a project that gives every type of Macklemore fan and critic something to listen to. It isn’t perfect, but for the most part, it works as a project that explores the many sides of the imperfect man behind the lyrics.
The Gemini, as a sign, is contradictory, constantly battling itself in the hopes of finding an inner peace. It was thought that, for all the creativity, ingenuity, and giving the Gemini could bless the world with, the war within would, at times, almost consume them whole. Here, Macklemore’s title holds true to that very idea, as Gemini’s best parts are where its leading man is the most conflicted.
On the album’s last track, “Excavate,” Macklemore raps, “Hold me up into the light, and study every part of me / I’m an open book, no I don’t mind, and sometimes I’m hard to read / Just flesh and bone, I’m headed home, but this life is so hard to leave / But who am I, when they cut the lights, and nobody’s watching me?”
For the first time, it feels like Macklemore is ready to finally try and answer that question.
3 Standout Tracks
“Firebreather” ft. Reignwolf
To this point, the best version of Macklemore is the one who settles down long enough to stop giving a fuck and just focuses on honing his craft as a lyricist. Accompanied by Red Hot Chili Peppers-esque live production and a catchy hook from Reignwolf, “Firebreather” finds Mack at the top of his game lyrically when he’s the most cynical towards his critics.
“Corner Store” ft. Dave B & Travis Thompson
“Corner Store” comes oddly close to sounding like a throwaway track from Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book, yet it works for that exact reason. It’s trumpeted production is intoxicating, Macklemore’s material channels positivity and nostalgia without all of the cheesiness, and Dave B and Travis Thompson’s guest appearances absolutely steal the show.
“Excavate” ft. Saint Claire
“Excavate” is as impactful a song, emotionally, as Macklemore has delivered since “Otherside.” It’s raw, never deviates into tangents about “the man,” politics, or other avenues through which Macklemore only seems to create more problems for himself, and, at its core, recognizes the contradictions in his own career that have only distracted listeners from learning more about Macklemore the person. Musically, it’s a soft but meaningful step in the right direction and one can only hope his next project builds from its foundation.