Conscientious BeatMakers: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “The Heist”

A life lived for art is never a life wasted . . . – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

After years of decrying the state of hip-hop as overly concerned with consumer culture and self-aggrandizement, it’s refreshing to hear countless young MCs and collectives getting back to the roots of early rap and hip-hop, a critical reflection on the state of our communities.  Over the last two years, I’ve found more albums and artists focused on blending our desire for pounding dance beats with rhymes of introspection and  empowerment.  And, now another record of a similar ilk worth grooving to:  The Heist by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (“M&R”).

When I first heard M&R’ “Same Love” earlier this year, I was overwhelmed with its sincerity and simplicity. In a culture that too often appears dominated by self-promotion and self-indulgence, M&R were recording and releasing a piece about fighting for equality and human rights, advocating on behalf of the rights of other people. The song’s poignancy begins with its opening lines, a young child questioning his own identity based on false and ignorant stereotypes perpetuated by popular culture and normative standards of behavior. The message rings true not just in the realm of gay rights/same sex unions but also for any person that has ever been told “who they are” based on a limited set of outwardly perceived actions or appearances. The track is not just a one-off; the themes of perception, definition, adversity and self-determination resonate The Heist.

Admittedly, I approached the record with cautious trepidation, concerned that the entire record could not live up to the single’s power. Boy was I wrong. The Heist is yet another installment in a series of lyrically biting, musically diverse, and upbeat collections of Hip Hop records. Following up in the vein of Frank Ocean and Odd Futures, critique and observation over party anthems and celebrating violence, M&R tackle a series of heady and heavy issues, like substance abuse (or more accurately relapse), our society’s obsession with materialism, living up to expectations, personal and artistic self-development, along with issue of gay rights and marriage equality. Yet, M&R do it with a steady mix of light-hearted and comical rhymes and aggressive, non-ironic, searing lines directed both externally and internally.

Starting with “Ten Thousand Hours”, M&R set the tone for album devoted to a celebration of life, self-definition and self-empowerment. Borrowing from Malcolm Gladwell’s notion that any individual can become an “expert” if she spends 10,000 hours practicing or devoted to a single task, Macklemore tells his own story while celebrating those “people who put their passion before being comfortable”, devoting their energy, sweat, and heart to their art and who disregard the institutions and pundits who stand in the way.  (Plus, I really love his shout out to studying the works of Basquiat and Keith Haring.)  With many friends pursuing their artistic passions, clawing and persevering despite the challenges and lack of remuneration, I think the song is spot on and reminds how those who work tirelessly have successfully managed to make a rewarding and inspiring life in the arts.

It’s not all heavy, just sample “Can’t Hold Us” and “White Walls” both of which offer varying tempos of club bangers perfect for dissolving into without any lyrical recriminations. Or, listen to the genius of “Thrift Shop”, were M&R tackle the foolishness of expensive couture contrasted against the sartorial recyclers. Perhaps, you prefer a slow subtle groove? Then, listen to “Thin Line”, a love song replete with ambivalence and uncertainty.

However, the songs that really impress me are the soul-searching numbers. “Wing$” addresses our obsession with material possessions (in this case Nike basketball shoes) and the literal and figurative dangers that they represent. On both “Neon Cathedral” and “Starting Over”, Macklemore opens up on his challenges with drinking and his own personal failure with sobriety. Yet again, the power of these tracks lies in the artist’s vulnerability and willingness to reveal his flaws and failures. Having watched many people deal with the challenges of overcoming addiction; I recognize the overwhelming difficulty these friends and family face in changing and reframing one’s life. This battle with the bottle is nothing so novel (many a track has been devoted to dealing with addictions), but the approach is fresh.  What resonates throughout “Starting Over” is the notion of letting other’s down (family, lovers, friends, or, in his case, one’s fans) and how staggering or paralyzing it can be. To be fair to Macklemore’s words, overhearing people discuss a person’s relapses is heartbreaking, not because the person “fails” but because too often the people who aren’t wrestling with the challenges of addiction are too quick to judge and not forgive. There are many schools of thoughts on tough love in this realm, but I can’t imagine not welcoming my friend or family member with open harms when in need.  Despite falling, Macklemore is resolute about not giving in or up: If I can be an example of getting sober, I can be an example of starting over.

The Heist definitely requires thoughtful and repeated listens. It is not an entirely escapist record, but will offer a steady balance of booty-shaking beats, clever wit, and disarming insight.

But, don’t let me tell you what to think, this goes counter to the record, take Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist for a spin.

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