Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Heist!

My first introduction to Macklemore was a youtube posting of the video for "Wing$", a song about a friend being killed for his Jordans and a damning evisceration of conspicuous consumption (more serious, but not unlike the far more popular "Thrift Shop"). It was a powerful message told in adequate (good not great) rhymes.

It was a while before I found out about the "real" name of the group, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. This is a key and profoundly interesting distinction. Macklemore is the rapper. He writes the lyrics and helps compose the music. He could (and by all standard practices, should) be a solo act. He chose to include Lewis, his producer, as an integral part of the group.

The Macklemore story is feel-good. I suspect that's part of the reason this album was nominated (the others being the novelty of his skin color and his socially conscious lyrics). An independent rapper, rising from the oddly mean streets of Seattle and finding an internet audience completely outside the traditional music industry (explained and pilloried on "Jimmy Iovine"). But it is Lewis's inspired production decisions that make this album great (and probably made Macklemore's career).

It's not super original - you could say a number of the beats, combinations, and innovations are derivative of Kanye's best (early) stuff. But hip-hop has always been a genre of homage (if not blatant theft). If The Heist takes home the big award, it will be a combination of the story, the lyrics, the popularity, and the production - but it wouldn't happen without the production (there's even an instrumental! on a rap album!).

I just finished reading volume 1 of Mark Lewisohn's Beatles history and I can help but appreciate how much production and management can mean to even the most talented artists. Macklemore is not the most talented, but he's a voice me may not have heard of without an amazing conglomeration of happenstance.

Everyone loves the big hits - "Can't Hold Us" is among the best fun-dance songs in recent years (and my one and half year old daughter still raises her hands for every chorus with a smile on her face). The real gems are the REAL gems - those tracks dealing with real problems and real issues. It seems even more care was put into the production and writing of songs they knew would never be widely popular.

Songs like "Wing$" and "Neon Cathedral" are just deep, fantastic - and infused with overt religious influence, which appeals to the pastor in me. I've often shouted that Christianity isn't at all about religion, but about living life well; Macklemore gets this in profound ways; I'd call them prophetic. I have no idea what his relationship to fame is, but there's clearly something at work there tapping into a larger conflict between the reality of life and the idealism of what should be that underscores religion.

Finally, I knew about "Same Love" and had heard a few clips, but not until today had I heard the whole track. I knew it was THE track from the album, even though I hadn't heard it on the radio at all, it was the nominee for all the individual song awards. I suspected some of that was the cultural hype over it's subject matter: homophobia and equality. It's a massive track. I suspect it will win a lot of awards. Grounded by a great hook (calling it a hook is probably an insult) by Mary Lambert, there is a depth of connection and importance to this track beyond even the other well done numbers. Macklemore's lyrics are as tight as anywhere, well written and, you can tell, edited with sweat and late nights.

There are some lesser tracks ("White Walls", for one). Nothing throw-away like a typical pop album, probably because Macklemore had plenty of time to put together good songs with no pressure from a label to produce. Still, it's not hit after hit and that should be emphasized (since I so greatly enthused over the parts which are so very good).

Just when you're realizing that maybe it's just a bunch of well produced but otherwise unexciting tracks, with some phenomenal bits mixed in, then Macklemore throws something like "Starting Over" at you - a deep, profoundly personal exploration of relapsing from his sobriety.

This is the first album I've reviewed that I think has a legit shot to win. They all have a shot and are all deserving in their own way, of course, but you can listen and tell who the frontrunners are going to be. I've heard Daft Punk's Random Access Memories before, several times, which is why I'm saving it for last in the review (due the day of the Grammy's) but The Heist is the first album that's making me rethink my initial position: that this award is Daft Punk's to lose. I still suspect Random Access Memories is a more fully-formed album, as it should be given Daft Punk's experience, but they've got to be worried about The Heist - and that's pretty downright amazing for an opening act.

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