Four years ago in the birthplace of grunge music, an Irish American rapper and a producer/DJ who had been collaborating and struggling for years finally achieved what most musicians only dream of: worldwide acclaim. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ debut studio album, The Heist, blew away audiences, music charts, and record execs. Many of the singles from the album delved into sometimes-uncomfortable topics like gay marriage, poverty, and corporate greed in the music industry; nevertheless, these songs became anthems for people of all ages, races, genders, and social statuses. With their very first at-bat in the major leagues, Macklemore & Lewis hit the ball out of the park. After the shine from the platinum records, the fame, the Grammys, and the money had faded, only one question remained: How are they going to top that?
Four years later, the answer has arrived in the form of an album adorned with plush red and crisp gold, titled This Unruly Mess I’ve Made. One of the things that fans have worried about while waiting for this second album, is whether or not fame has gone to the collective heads of Macklemore & Lewis. To those fans, I say: You were right. The duo knows how big they’ve gotten in the past few years, but that’s not to say it’s turned them into megalomaniacal monsters. They worked hard, got famous, and they know it. However, the one thing keeping them rooted is the same, simple thing that has kept history’s most powerful people in check: Doubt.
There’s no way for Macklemore & Lewis to go back to their old lives of obscurity, but on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made they are able to portray a life of wealth and privilege that’s been checked by uncertainty. “Dance Off” is a high-energy, driven track (featuring hard hype work from actor/DJ Idris Elba) about the new levels of respect Macklemore now commands in the club. On the very next track, “Let’s Eat”, Macklemore talks about how hard it is to not be a fatty when you love food so much (and, coincidentally, about how jealous he is that Ryan Lewis has stuck to his diet). Their success has been grounded by the same worries and anxieties that plagued them before the fame; the same ones that lurk in the back of the average person’s mind every day.
Of course, there are tracks on This Unruly Mess I’ve Made that delve even deeper into the insecurities keeping fame from overtaking their lives and personalities. The song “Growing Up” (which features soulful accompaniment by Ed Sheeran) describes how Macklemore grappled with the pressures and doubts he had about raising his newborn baby daughter, Sloane. He expresses how difficult it is balancing work and family life, and how all the love, care, and money in the world still leaves him unsure of whether or not he’s a “good dad”.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis explore an even more sensitive and relevant subject on the “Same Love” track of the new album, “White Privilege II”. Diving into different points of view on subjects like police discrimination and brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and civil rights, the song is interspersed with proclamations from a gospel chorus and sound bytes from news interviewees. Even though Macklemore & Lewis are both white, the song becomes incredibly personal. Macklemore questions whether or not he’s appropriated black culture through his music, getting famous off of another culture’s popular form of expression without the social and political struggle that normally comes along with it. As a star in the hip-hop scene, he worries that songs about clothes and clubs overshadows similar musicians with real issues. And it’s not only the taking that he worries about; he’s afraid and shameful that giving something back to social equality might mean losing that privilege that’s taken him so far. To quote one of the interviewees in the song, “I think one of the critical questions for white people in this society is ‘What are you willing to risk, what are you willing to sacrifice to create a just society?”
In the end, Macklemore & Lewis don’t have concrete answers. To be fair, nobody has any answers; just opinions, statistics, and of course, doubts. The problems of this world aren’t going to be solved by one album, nor two musicians. Even with all the fame, success, and money, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are doing all they can by staying true to their beliefs, just as they did on The Heist. They’re sharing their doubts with everyone else to let them know they’re not alone, and preaching that things as simple as a small child or dancing all night long can make the world seem a less scary place.