Macklemore and Ryan Lewis self-released their second studio album, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, on February 26, 2016. There was some advertising before the release, but it was not as hyped as it could have been after coming off their Grammy Award-winning debut album The Heist. Like The Heist, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made features over 15 different artists, ranging from global icon Ed Sheeran, to great verses by Chance the Rapper, KRS-One, and Anderson Paak, to hip-hop pioneers like Melle Mel, Kool Me Dee, and Grandmaster Caz. It includes songs that tackle drug addiction, raising a child, fame and materialism, and white privilege. The album debuted at Number 4 on the Billboard 200.
In the trailer released for the new album, Ben Haggerty (a.k.a. Macklemore) discusses how he needed to escape Seattle to clear his mind from the pressure to survive in the music industry. While out in a cabin in Eastern Washington state, he remembered why he made music. He and Ryan Lewis made music “not because we had to, but because we got to.” Macklemore noted he has struggled with the exponential rise to stardom thanks to the incredible popularity of The Heist, and especially its songs “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love.”
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s biggest single from the album before its debut was “Downtown” featuring Eric Nally, Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Caz. “Downtown” was the combination of a homage to throwback rappers and an answer to “Thrift Shop.” “Downtown” has way too much going on in it. It felt like a forced anchor for the album, and it lacks the originality and hilarity of “Thrift Shop.” The same can be said about “Dance Off,” featuring actor Idris Elba and Anderson Paak, it is a classic Macklemore song only because he already made it as a solo performer titled “And We Danced.”
“Growing Up,” featuring Ed Sheeran, is about Macklemore becoming a father. The song is a very real description of fatherhood that gives insight into how Macklemore wants to raise his daughter and his views on the world. The chorus by Ed Sheeran is typical Sheeran (which is a fantastic compliment). It’s a calming song with a very genuine feel.
In “Need to Know,” with Chance the Rapper, the two artists discuss how they struggled to retain their genuine writing style in the industry. Chance the Rapper raps about how he has to “Stare at the cue cards, take out the juke parts/Take out the God references, just leave the cool parts.” In my opinion, this is the best song on the album because it is what Macklemore and Lewis became famous from—calling out the absurdity of the culture where artists need to dilute their music to fit the mainstream pop because the money matters more than the music.
The album’s best commentary is “Kevin,” wherein Macklemore discusses his drug relapse, railing against the culture of over-prescription in the United States. His best line from the song is “Got anxiety, better go and give him a Xanax/Focus, give him Adderall, sleep, give him Ambien/‘Til he’s walking ‘round the city looking like a mannequin.” Macklemore and Lewis convey a sense of hatred of this pervasive culture, one learned through experience. While these lyrics are not the most creative beats anyone has ever dropped, they pinpoint the problem at its core: anyone can be “fixed” with a pill.
“White Privilege II” was the album’s most direct commentary on current culture, but the eight-minute-46-second song did not reach its full potential. It was a culmination of random dialogues from the news and Macklemore’s own verses. It constantly felt like it was there only because it needed to be. It’s long and discombobulated, and it lacks the sharp wit that Macklemore and Lewis are known for. It had specific points that were very good, such as its comment that Americans take what they want from black culture but do not show up to defend black lives, but it lacks cohesion and any sort of clarity in the message. “A Wake” (featured in The Heist) was Macklemore and Lewis’s best song that dealt with race. Compared to “White Privilege II,” it is subtle yet powerful in its message, and has lyrics that are more emotional than forced.
What made The Heist so great was that the songs weren’t made with the intention of appealing to a mass audience. Macklemore made them for himself, with the intention of making music and making society better. In this album, Macklemore and Lewis are too self-aware, and the constant reminder that they tried to be as genuine as possible blurs the points they try to make. With the exception of a few songs, the album cannot compare to their previous one. With that said, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis continue to write songs about the issues they care deeply about; debating how well those songs address a certain issue is inherently better than an artist that doesn’t address any societal issues at all.