Review: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – “The Heist”

October 11, 2012 8 comments

In today’s hip-hop climate (hereafter referred to as the rapmosphere), there’s a definitive lack of artists who want to have a discussion with you. Most rappers rap about jewels and cars and women of all varieties, eschewing the purported “responsibility” that stardom brings. I’m a big fan of ignorant rap, to be honest. In the course of my day, I rarely feel the need to be reminded of the ills that plague our society. I’d rather hear slapping bass and rhythmic hi-hat while someone with just enough talent to succeed gives us his version of the American Dream™. It’s admittedly shallow, but it’s an escape from my office chair. However, I also believe every weight needs a counterbalance, so whenever a record with some buzz from the conscious rap heads hits the stores, I’ll check it out. Usually, it doesn’t do much for me. The latest offering from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist, did.

Macklemore’s rise to fame from the clutches of unfavorable circumstance is pretty inspiring stuff. A proud Seattle native, the guy born Ben Haggerty put out his first mixtape in 2005, but didn’t make any waves outside his home state. The first time he popped up on the national radar was with his 2009 mixtape, The Unplanned Mixtape, where we first heard his message-driven style and mildly raspy delivery. It wasn’t until he began to collaborate with Ryan Lewis on The VS. EP and its counterpart, The VS. Redux, that he started to garner mainstream buzz. Songs like “Wings” and “Otherside”, in which Macklemore tells the story of how he became addicted to codeine and had to start his life over again, were a breath of brutal honesty that the rapmosphere was desperately missing. A 2012 appearance on XXL’s Freshman List due to a massive underground push further launched him into the spotlight, and with The Heist he releases his independent debut after over a decade of struggle.

An equal part of Macklemore’s success can be attributed to his and Lewis’ cinematic music videos. Each one is like an entire movie, compressed into easily digestible yet thought provoking snippet. Take the video for “Same Love”:

It’s beautifully shot, evenly paced, and packed as full of purpose as one could imagine. No other artist successfully matches conceptual songs with these types of visuals; Macklemore & Ryan Lewis do it with seeming ease.

Before you give The Heist a spin, a warning: you will be talked to. One of the primary characteristics of Macklemore’s style is “preacher mode”, in which he acts as a contemporary pastor, preaching on a specific topic in each song. Coincidentally, one of those songs, “Neon Cathedral”, shows us that Macklemore is decidedly non-religious (as does his past work with Geologic), equating bars to churches for alcoholics.

What differs him from, say, a Lupe Fiasco, is his ability to focus on a thought, form a coherent opinion or narrative, and present it to its full potential. On “Same Love” and the anti-industry “Jimmy Iovine”, Macklemore feeds us a fully formed story, rich with detail and personal anecdotes. When the song’s over, he doesn’t revisit that subject material again. It’s just not in his nature to rap about superficial things or fall back into a comfort zone, as he would have to reiterate his thoughts unnecessarily.

Ryan Lewis’ importance to this project cannot be overstated. Every single song on the album is laced with some of the best production you’re likely to find all year. There’s an emotion to the beats on the album, from the foot-stompingly catchy “Can’t Hold Us” (gonna need some Ray Dalton solo material soon) to the morose guitar chords on “Starting Over”, that maintains a firm grasp on the listener’s ear. The lone instrumental on the album, “BomBom”, is a complete song even without vocals, putting enough into its musical progression to make it a repeated listen. Over these beats, Macklemore chooses a subject to expound upon and effortlessly glides along its surface. You could listen to each song multiple times for either the lyrics or the beat, but together they’re a powerfully moving combination.

There are a couple missteps, however. While the beat for “White Walls” is absolute crack, its content is completely forgettable. ScHoolboy Q drops a typically generic guest verse which doesn’t add anything unique to the proceedings. While “Cowboy Boots” leaves us with a singalong chorus, on its own, it’s not particularly memorable. “Neon Cathedral” plods a bit after the energetic ending of “Make The Money”, and its melodic chorus and strings can only partially redeem this transition.

Of all the projects that have come out this year, few have been this sonically pleasing. Yes, Macklemore doesn’t have the jargon-twisting skills of some of his contemporaries, and at times it can feel like you’re being dragged by the ears through a church service. But what sets Macklemore apart and makes all of this tolerable, nay, eminently likable, is his complete sincerity. He believes so fervently in what he raps about, you can’t help but feel it. I’ve never owned a pair of Jordans in my life, but I can relate to that desperate desire to belong. His infectious enthusiasm brings out the best in Lewis’ jaw-droppingly creative beats. It’s a somewhat chewy debut, but if you have the patience to walk in a stranger’s shoes for a while, you might just find yourself loving the places they take you.