A decade ago, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were an unstoppable force in popular music. The duo’s breakout album, The Heist, and its ubiquitous no. 1 single, “Thrift Shop,” were a spectacular collision of hip-hop and hipsterdom. Beneath his kitschy presentation, Macklemore was a painfully earnest backpack rapper who turned his relentless sincerity into his signature strength.
In an early hometown profile, the Seattle Times described Macklemore’s “sermonlike rapping over violins and trumpets.” Some of these musical sensibilities were familiar to anyone who listened to the so-called “conscious rappers,” such as Talib Kweli and Lupe Fiasco, who won some mainstream success in the aughts. But Macklemore would strike several new nerves in the following decade. “Thrift Shop” was a loud, honking, and definitive pronouncement of the post-hipster, post-Obama zeitgeist. “Same Love” was a genuinely bold single about homophobia, released (lest we now take its boldness for granted) a few years before the Supreme Court would affirm gay couples’ right to marry. Macklemore could rap well enough, and much of The Heist was conventional rap crossover, but Macklemore also offered the sort of tender affirmations that you’d typically encounter in either pop, podcasts, or paperback.
Macklemore is white. Hip-hop, as a largely Black genre, has long employed a certain scrutiny of white rappers, based largely in resentments about racial favoritism in the other direction in the formative history of rock and pop. Eminem, in his own heydey, proved his white rapper bona fides with breathless tongue-twisting excellence in his performances. Macklemore, given his ultra-earnest confessional progressivism, opted for straight-up contrition. He’d already made a song in 2005 called “White Privilege,” rapping, “Where’s my place in a music that’s been taken by my race / Culturally appropriated by the white face?” It was a weirdly prescient articulation of progressive anxieties around race relations in the present day—long before “cultural appropriation” became a mainstream term—and also a hint of Macklemore’s eventual undoing. Rather notoriously, he celebrated his 2014 Grammy Award for Best Rap Album by sending an apologetic text message to his fellow nominee Kendrick Lamar, posting a screenshot of the text message to Instagram with a still-more overwrought caption, and then sulking into self-exile for the rest of the 2010s. Macklemore released his 2017 album, Gemini, produced without Ryan Lewis, to gentle but largely unenthused reviews, most of them flagging the album’s conspicuous lack of political pronouncements; this was generally understood to be a relief. “Macklemore feels like he’s shrunk back down to an appropriate size,” Jonah Bromwich wrote in his review of Gemini for Pitchfork.
Now Macklemore is back with his latest album, Ben. Macklemore’s still shrunken. He’s once again releasing an album without Ryan Lewis (save for one song, “Maniac,” where he’s credited), here chiefly accompanied by his other longtime producer, Budo. He’s still sermonizing over piano, strings, and brass, though not as provocatively as he was as recently as 2016’s “White Privilege II.” He opens Ben with “Chant,” with an arena pop-rock chorus belted by the Australian singer Tones and I. But the album in full is, as always with Macklemore, a signature balance of big, bracing pop and gentle hip-hop throwbacks. On “Heroes,” Macklemore gets his hands on a beat from the hip-hop golden age godfather DJ Premier and surveys his formative obsessions: “Wanted a windbreaker and some Eastbay kicks / Wanted a perm like DJ Quik / My mama said, ‘Ben, are you aware your hair is way too thin?’”
Macklemore is hardly the first rapper to tackle a post-vintage beat from Preemo on a boom-bap revivalism mission, but attitudinally, “Heroes” is Macklemore at his best, leaning into self-deprecation without collapsing into self-sabotage. On “Grime,” produced in a similar boom-bap pattern, Macklemore reminisces about his darker days, but from the bright side, with righteous wisecracks about Big Pharma and codeine: “I ain’t judging, enjoy your life / But that shit is killing people, and it’s overpriced.”
He loses his edge, however, in a couple clunkers in the back half. Macklemore takes a turn for the curmudgeonly on “Lost/Sun Comes Up” with its witless verses about social media curation and a sad-sack hook about smartphone addiction. A soft-spoken, bass-driven song of despair about the harsh light of sobriety, “Faithful,” featuring NLE Choppa, provides an only slightly menacing beat with neither bite nor bark from either rapper to back it up. The trouble isn’t the obviousness of some of this songwriting. Reimagining his history of alcoholism as a dysfunctional love story on “Tears,” Macklemore shows he can still do all right by an overdone song concept, so long as he steels himself and at least puts some bass in his voice.
For all his self-consciousness about the white rapper’s proper place in hip-hop, Macklemore remains rather delightfully—and admirably—unburdened by any expectations game. I always thought Drake gave the most sensible debrief on the 2014 Grammy fiasco in an interview with Rolling Stone. The write-ups at the time emphasized the bit of the interview where Drake called Macklemore’s apology to Kendrick “wack as fuck,” but his comments later in the conversation were a bit more thoughtful about the underlying insecurity. Drake said:
[Macklemore] made a brand of music that appealed to more people than me, Hov, Kanye and Kendrick. Whether people wanna say it’s racial, or whether it’s just the fact that he tapped into something we can’t tap into, that’s just how the cards fall. Own your shit.
A few days ago, Macklemore sat for an interview with Elvis Duran and the Morning Show to promote Ben. On air, Duran read a message from a listener crediting Macklemore’s music with inspiring him for eight years in recovery from drug addiction. This listener thanked Macklemore—Macklemore! The guy who made “Thrift Shop”! The guy who made fucking “Spoons”!—for saving his life. And you know what? I don’t doubt the caller for a second. Music—yes, even the cheesiest commercial pop on Z100—is some unthinkably powerful shit. What kind of musician wouldn’t want to own that? The most transcendentally beautiful music ever recorded has saved lives, and so, too, has some of the tackiest music you’ll ever hear. Like Macklemore, on Ben. If that’s the best thing I can say about his music in March 2023, then he’s come a long way up from his self-inflicted humiliation, even if he’s also clearly come a long way down from the top of the world.