I’ve neither met nor spoken with Macklemore, but I get the sense he’s an easy guy to like. There’s the laid-back vibe, the accessible catalog, the tongue-in-cheek approach to a number of songs, and on and on. The Seattle-based MC feels like an everyman, a guy with far more business sense than talent who caught a few breaks and ended up a millionaire. Could have happened to any number of chill bros with a thrift-store flannel and a goofy haircut.
Macklemore, who plays Houston's House of Blues on Wednesday, strikes me as the kind of guy who would make for good company and someone who seems like a genuinely decent human being, a guy wise and humble enough to appreciate his fame and good fortune. And this is why it’s even harder to cop to the fact that I find the guy’s musical catalog pretty much a trash heap of gimmickry and pandering.
Now, this is not to disparage Macklemore’s intent. In fact, when it comes to his musical stylings, it’s best to separate the intent from the finished product. This is, after all, a guy who has advocated for gay rights and encouraged racial unity in a number of songs. Hell, he's gotten deeply personal when detailing his own battles with depression and substance abuse. But, man, if only the songs born from such noble causes measured up to those standards in any discernible way.
But before we delve into Macklemore the musician, let us first exclude “Thrift Shop” from any and all scrutiny, mostly because “Thrift Shop” is pretty much the perfect way for an artist to break into the mainstream. The track is catchy as hell, which probably explains why it was a global No. 1 single, one that eventually moved more than seven million copies. It’s a legitimately funny track, and the song’s tales of bargain-bin fashion resonate with those who have been on a budget of their own. So yes, “Thrift Shop” is amazing and undeserving of any scrutiny.
But Macklemore isn’t even the best part of “Thrift Shop,’ and therein lies the problem; namely, more often than not, he's the weakest link within any given Macklemore song. He’s akin to a so-so pitcher who racks up victories on the back of epic run support, or a mediocre quarterback who rides a good defense and solid ground game to the playoffs. In short, Macklemore is less DeShaun Watson and more Brock Osweiler.
Need proof? Just start with the hits. The aforementioned “Thrift Shop” is most noted for its infectious chorus, which isn’t even performed by Macklemore, but rather, by Wanz. Same for Ray Dalton on “Can’t Hold Us.” Same for Hollis on “White Walls.” Mary Lambert on “Same Love.” You’re seeing a trend forming here.
Hell, Macklemore – even when he’s the only vocalist on a given track, which is rare – is often outpaced by his producer/sidekick Ryan Lewis. Again, props to the erstwhile Ben Haggerty for being aware of his own lyrical limitations and for having the keen insight and business sense to surround himself with those who are far more talented than himself. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that man’s catalog is diluted by, well, himself.
Not that Macklemore has to worry about Lewis’ star shining brighter on his latest studio album, mostly because Lewis wasn’t involved in its production. The album is Gemini, and it was released last month. It fared well enough on the charts, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, and it’s perfectly fine as Macklemore records go. Gemini is loaded with cameos, including big names like Kesha, Skylar Grey and Lil Yachty. It’s a bit more fun and up-tempo than Macklemore’s previous material, but he still makes time to reflect on life, getting older and his relatively newfound fame and fortune.
Macklemore and Lewis’ separation isn’t something controversial or acrimonious. Instead, the pair said they simply need a little creative space, which makes sense considering they’ve been doing their thing for damn near a decade. Lewis, underrated as a producer, wants to work with other artists for a while, and Macklemore – who has put out material sans Lewis before – wanted to try a slightly different sound.
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The only question is this – by the time Macklemore and Lewis reunite, will anyone really care? Sure, The Heist was a smash, but the duo’s follow-up – 2016’s This Unruly Mess I’ve Made – failed to resonate critically or commercially. And while Gemini has fared respectably, no one was exactly pining for a new Macklemore album.
Personally, I’m hoping that Macklemore’s career experiences a second wind. Maybe he catches fire with a solo single. Perhaps one of his many collaborators blows up in their own right and elevates Macklemore in the process. Maybe he and Lewis rediscover the lightning in a bottle that made The Heist a downright phenomenon five years ago.
However it goes down, I’m hoping it does. Macklemore is, by all accounts, a good guy whose message of love and unity deserves and audience. If only he were better able to deliver that message on his own.
Macklemore performs Wednesday, October 18 at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. Doors open at 7 p.m.; tickets $36 to $60.