Being a white rapper has traditionally brought with it a certain amount of baggage. Eminem fronted out his lack of melanin with ferocious technique and something akin to what politicians call “the dead cat strategy”, tossing something appalling on the table to distract from the elephant in the room. Others, like G-Eazy or Asher Roth, got by through styling themselves as preppy or bro rather than gangsta or pimp. But Macklemore has tended to face the issue head on. Blowing up in 2012 with ‘Thrift Shop’ – a goofy pop-rap anthem about the joys of shopping vintage – the Seattle rapper has come to grapple with the question of his whiteness and exactly what that means when you’ve just become one of the biggest hip-hop stars on the planet.
That’s the essential question of ‘This Unruly Mess I’ve Made’, Macklemore and production partner Ryan Lewis’s first LP since fame came a-knocking. It’s equal parts witty and serious, poppy and knotty, cracking wise one minute, then demanding you sit quietly and listen carefully through some complicated soul-searching.
‘Downtown’ is easy to love, a popping ‘Uptown Funk’-a-like about owning a moped that enlists three oldest-of-the-old-school New York MCs – Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Caz. Equally fun are the comic knockabout ‘Brad Pitt’s Cousin’ (“Every white dude in America got the Macklemore haircut…”) and dotty electro-shimmy ‘Dance Off’, featuring Dre collaborator Anderson .Paak and – brilliantly – Idris Elba. At the serious end of the scale is ‘White Privilege II’, a nine-minute suite that tackles police brutality, latent racism, cultural appropriation and the Black Lives Matter movement. A noble attempt to address pressing issues, but it’s a sprawling thing that shoots from too many perspectives and ends up gazing at its own navel.
In between, there’s lots of grappling with white-guy problems: feeling awkward while winning a Grammy (‘Light Tunnels’), growing pains (‘St Ides’), getting emosh about being a dad while Ed Sheeran honks away in the background (‘Growing Up’). This approach gleans one success in ‘Kevin’, a gospel-powered lament for a dead friend that skewers America’s prescription drug problem, driven home by a hook from Leon Bridges. Ultimately, though, perhaps Macklemore is at his best when he’s the loveable doofus on the moped, not trying to pen his own ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, and the quicker he realises that, the better.