Macklemore is poised to become the most famous rapper to ever emerge from Seattle, Washington. 2012 XXL Freshmen of the Year cover notwithstanding, the dude born Ben Haggerty is already a gigantic celebrity inside the bounds of his relatively small native city. In the last year-and-a-half he’s sold out Seattle’s venerable Paramount Theatre, performed in front of 30,000 Major League Baseball fans at Safeco Field, drawn over 10,000 fans to his Bumbershoot headlining show at Key Arena, and, in general, become the worldwide (yes, worldwide) face of Seattle’s suddenly rich and still-blossoming hip-hop scene.
The Heist is Macklemore and production partner Ryan Lewis’s debut full-length album and it arrives as the duo is in the midst of a monstrous 60-date world tour, the majority of which is already sold out. The rapper’s top six videos on YouTube count a mind-boggling 30 million total views. Macklemore’s impressive resume runneth over with achievements inconsistent with an unsigned hip-hop artist, especially one with a mere two LPs under his belt. The Macklemore Phenomenon is indeed a real thing and it’s powered by an ardent, half-crazed fan base (nicknamed the Sharkface Gang) who will follow him anywhere and hang on to his every word.
Listening to The Heist explains a lot about why Macklemore has achieved such a wide appeal. First there’s the honesty. The majority of articles written about the rapper have touched on his admitted substance abuse problem. On wax the MC has dealt with the issue often, first on “Otherside” (from his 2009 EP with Ryan Lewis, VS) and now on “Neon Cathedral” (featuring R&B singer Allen Stone) and “Starting Over” (with Ben Bridwell from Band of Horses). These tracks have an intimate confessional tone that goes a long way in establishing an immediate personal connection to the listener.
Secondly there’s the humor. Macklemore has walked a fine line between serious MC and novelty rapper—I’ve never spoken at length to the man but I would hazard a guess that he doesn’t consider either artistic role a mutually exclusive state of existence. After VS he gained some attention playing Raven Bowie (his flamboyant, party-starting British alter-ego) on stage and in the “And We Danced” video. In the clip for “Thrift Shop” (the third single from The Heist) Mack is equally effusive, this time playing dress-up as his real self while riffing on his love for second-hand bargains. It’s impossible not to like this track, with its decidedly old-school beat and stubborn dismissal of mass-produced trends.
Macklemore is a pro at fleshing out individuality while paradoxically existing in a world of commercialism. Which brings us to the third thing that makes The Heist so undeniably appealing: Above all else—and in spite of its indie grassroots—it’s a pop music record. Ryan Lewis shows an array of musical ability, from the four-on-the-floor dance workout “Can’t Hold Us”, to the balladeering euro-pop slant of “Thin Line”, to the new-trap sound of “Jimmy Iovine” (which features a sneaky cameo by Ab-Soul and succeeds in casting an ominous cloud over those mega 360 record deals). The Heist does a lot of things aesthetically but never veers from its pop sensibilities. In their rejection of signing to a major label, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis find freedom in being able to make the kind of pop music they want to make, staying unbeholden to a corporation’s bottom line.
The largest benefit of this increasingly popular business model is that Macklemore can indulge whatever lyrical whims suit his perspective. “Same Love” is a poignant call for marriage equality (guest vocalist Mary Lambert’s impassioned chorus is something truly special) and “A Wake” considers the complicating factors of race in hip-hop. (For those uninitiated: Macklemore is a white guy, and it should be noted that your loyal reviewer is trying his hardest not to turn this write-up into a treatise on that topic. Maybe another time.)
Indeed much of The Heist deals in heavier-handed subject matter, which sends Macklemore into an impassioned, breathy delivery. Sometimes he can be fairly overwrought (there’s a generic directive and annoying melodrama to “Make the Money”) and his tendency to often flow with a stuttered prolongation of syllables can be unappealing even when the message is a good one (see: sneaker cautionary tale, “Wings”). And, while it’s true that The Heist elicits a lot of emotion, which is surely commendable, it doesn’t succeed in being provocative—at least not in the way more exploratory, subversive hip-hop can. There’s something blatantly obvious about Macklemore’s lyrics that seems like a fussy criticism considering how many ears his words are reaching; still, though, this is not magnificent art.
But I’m being didactic. When Macklemore is relaxed and just having a good time, he’s a very good MC, able to fast-rap with the best of them (“Can’t Hold Us”) and command a stage with his unassailable positivity. Thousands of fans around the world are losing their heads over this guy and who can blame them? There’s a part in all of us that wants to express ourselves unapologetically, removing contradiction from the equation and allowing our unfiltered personalities to shine. So when a socially-minded dude like Macklemore sees fit to rap about his Cadillac’s “White Walls” with a gratuitously gangster Schoolboy Q, as he does on this album, we understand the motive. Contrary to what grumpier heads attempt to prevail, in the ever-widening scope of what constitutes hip-hop there is no wrong way for anyone to do this damn thing. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s engaging The Heist is proof positive of that.