His mix of humour and big issues has made Macklemore one of hip hop’s most loved and loathed figures, but his own demons pushed him to the edge, finds Mark Beaumont.
The remote woodland cabin: natural habitat of serial killers, trappers and heartbroken folk singers whimpering out an album called ‘Why Jessica, Why?’ It’s not the natural home of superstar rap-pop duos making a record about drugs, dancing and police brutality, yet that’s exactly what rapper Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis did to create the newly released ‘This Unruly Mess I’ve Made’ – all in the name of escaping the celebrity whirl that’s followed them since 2013’s global hit ‘Thrift Shop’. “Celebrity is addictive,” says Macklemore, “and I didn’t want that to be the thing that gave me self-worth. I wanted to step back and remember why I love music.”
Out at Lewis’s parents’ bolthole in the mobile signal-free Idaho wilderness, Macklemore prayed, meditated, tapped away on a typewriter and found his voice again. First album ‘The Heist’ had showcased his ability to fuse Lonely Island-style comedy with firebrand social commentary and ‘This Unruly Mess I’ve Made’ is a similar mix of thumped tubs and belly laughs. In one corner are bubble-rap tunes about getting fat (‘Let’s Eat’) and Z-list hangers on (‘Brad Pitt’s Cousin’). In the other lurk moments of reflection on ageing and fatherhood (‘St Ides’ and ‘Growing Up’, featuring Ed Sheeran).
At the album’s most political, ‘White Privilege II’ tackles police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement and cultural appropriation – all dangerous territory for a rich, white, American rapper, and none of which went unnoticed on social media. Macklemore’s argument is that he’s starting a conversation we all need to have. “I care about humanity,” he explains. “We’ve been falsely taught since the beginning that white is superior. That’s in the media, in the movies we watch, in the way our teachers teach us history, and it’s a false ideology. Until we unpack that then we’re not doing the work to undo racism.”
On a more personal level, the ‘…Unruly Mess…’ of the title may well refer to Macklemore’s slip back into “old habits” in the wake of his sudden rise. “When I use drugs and alcohol my life quickly becomes unmanageable,” he says. “It affects me, it affects my relationships and it’s extremely dangerous.”
Macklemore first entered a rehab programme in 2008 and the album’s most devastating track, ‘Kevin’, tells the story of a childhood friend he ran into there. “We were trying to stay sober together. I told him that if he could get a couple of weeks sober he could come over to my studio and record. The morning after we did it, I got a call from his sister to say that he’d passed away of a drug overdose,” he explains.
It’s a heavy subject for an album that also includes a LOL-sy track about buying a cheap scooter, but that’s Macklemore’s modus operandi: luring audiences in with comedy party hits and then forcing them to think. “Art can be a catalyst for change if done in an authentic way,” he says. And that, to quote ‘Thrift Shop’, is really “f**king awesome”.