Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made”

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Light Tunnels,” “White Privilege II”

Man, a couple years ago I really hated Macklemore. I watched two straight dudes rip off Le1f, a struggling queer, black rapper, and win a bunch of Grammy’s for it and get lauded as LGBT icons. When Macklemore Instragrammed his Grammy saying Kendrick should’ve won, I didn’t believe his sincerity. But I will say he’s won me over into at least neutral ground. He was noticeably absent from the public eye after that Grammy’s ceremony, and in that time, he’s been evaluating his own stance as a sudden, important voice in a community normally reserved for black performers. His second collaborative album with Ryan Lewis sees him tossing and turning internally, struggling with his own white identity. Unfortunately, he throws us along for the process – and This Unruly Mess I’ve Madehits high highs and low lows.

Macklemore is at his strongest when he is serious, checking himself. The opening track “Light Tunnels” is also the best, with Macklemore directly addressing the media bias for both controversy and white performers. He namechecks the Britney and Madonna kiss, and mentions media egging Kanye on for controversy. He also raps about not preparing a speech for the Grammy’s, being unprepared to win. “St. Ides,” the mid-point and the only track without a guest, is an honest look into Macklemore’s history with addiction (which he has allegedly slipped back into). The album also finishes with three great, serious songs. “Bolo Tie” is further musings on his stance, with his best flow on the album, “The Train” is a more gentle song, with some great Spanish background vocals courtesy of Carla Morrison, and there’s second single “White Privilege II.” Reviews of the track have been mixed, understandably. It’s possible that Macklemore shouldn’t have related the song to his own career, or that he shouldn’t have made the song at all. I can believe all viewpoints. To me though (as a white person), it was a burning in him that had to come out. It’s radically different than the rest of the album, with soundclips and sudden breaks in sound and tone. He calls out white media, as well as Miley, Elvis, Iggy Azalea and himself for appropriating black culture. He also calls out people who say they don’t listen to rap except for him. It’s misguided at times, but there’s a brutal truth at the bottom of the song that needs to come from a very specific white person. I don’t know if Macklemore is that person, but so far he’s the best option.

“Mess” is at it’s worst when Macklemore takes a step back and makes jokey-rap, which unfortunately is about 75% of the album’s runtime. The great, ranting opener is followed immediately with lead single “Downtown.” While the song itself is fun, and Macklemore surprisingly fits right in with legends Grandmaster Caz, Grandmaster Melle Mel and Kool Moe Dee, it’s a dopey song that represents the total opposite end of the spectrum from “Light Tunnels.” There’s “Brad Pitt’s Cousin,” where he makes fun of his appearance, “Let’s Eat,” where he jokes about failing a diet, and “Buckshot,” where he insults Seattle’s music legacy. “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” has a Deez Nuts joke and a guest appearance from his cat. “Let’s Eat,” maybe the worst of the bunch, makes reference to Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. The lyrics almost throughout are just hokey and terrible, with lame pseudo-boasts and jokes that fall immediately flat.

Ryan Lewis doesn’t have as immediate of a presence on this album. “Can’t Stop Us” and “Thrift Shop” – beats decidedly unoriginal – had huge, bumping rhythms deadset on radio. There’s more of a subdued nature on this album, possibly coming from Macklemore using his personally elevated platform for discussions on his stance. “Downtown” swipes a great old-school beat, which works well. Elsewhere, there are surprising guest contributions. As mentioned, some legends pop up on “Downtown.” YG makes a surprise guest on “Bolo Tie,” Chance the Rapper shows up on “Need to Know,” and Leon Bridges owns a soulful outro to “Kevin.” Ed Sheeran also pops up on a cheesy ode to Macklemore’s daughter, “Growing Up.” Most surprisingly is a guest contribution from 2016 Oscar nominee (really??) Idris Elba, who has enjoyed a small, private music career.

The album’s title, “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made,” comes from the opening track and refers to Macklemore’s accidental messing around with the state of race in rap. But it refers to the album as well, and I think they know this. There’s two distinct albums here, and they cannot blend at all. Serious songs bookend and occasionally permeate an album of otherwise goofy, cringeworthy songs. It’s obvious that Macklemore is weighing his own platform, and that he’s struggling with it. We’re forced to struggle with him, his music and direction changing on a dime. The result is an incredibly inconsistent and mismatched album that’s occasionally great, but often embarrassing. Macklemore is trying to find his exact voice. On “St. Ides,” he raps “We gon’ be alright,” just like Kendrick’s “Alright.” It is symbolic; one of the album’s best moments came from another rapper.

-By Andrew McNally

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Madonna – “Rebel Heart”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Living For Love” “HeartBreakCity”

Madonna’s new album has a song called “Bitch I’m Madonna,” so, what more do you need?

As we’ve settled deeply into this digital age, there’s been a feeling of resentment about the blending of music and technology, spurred on largely by Thom Yorke, Bjork, and others that don’t see the value of platforms like Spotify, and by the likes of U2, who have no idea how to harness technology to any sort of advantage. The elders seem to think that they’re outdated, and that their further output won’t be able to hold up amongst the music of younger acts. But there’s plenty of musicians fighting against the aging – like Madonna. On “Rebel Heart,” her 13th studio album, Madonna shows no signs of aging, instead standing with and against modern acts like Nicki Minaj, Diplo and Kanye, including them in the album and shoving them under her career in the process.

Madonna’s previous album, “MDNA” was lackluster. It couldn’t find the formula to match Madonna with EDM. On “Rebel Heart,” she’s learned to just be herself and let everything fall into place around here. Indeed, the album’s strongest songs are the ones where Madonna just powers through the dance music around her. On “Living For Love,” “Ghosttown” and “HeartBreakCity,” her voice dominates over all, and although they’re not always the most immediately enjoyable songs, they’re the ones with the longest staying power.

Generally, the bigger the ideas are on this album, the worse they’re pulled off. “Iconic” is the most high-concept song, a track that features Chance the Rapper and, uh, Mike Tyson. Tyson is a voiceover in the beginning, Chance is wasted in a forgettable guest spot, and Madonna herself is lost in the EDM-y overproduction. It’s a big track, one that’s immediate fun, but leaves a bit of a sour taste. “Bitch I’m Madonna” is like that too – it’s a great track overall, but it’s aided by Diplo and Nicki, and Madonna gets lost in the beats. This isn’t something that happens consistently, just on a few tracks, but it highlights the tight line Madonna walks as a 56 year old pop singer.

But, more often than not, “Rebel Heart” just works. With track titles like “Illuminati,” “Holy Water,” “Joan of Arc,” and the aforementioned “Bitch I’m Madonna,” we’re seeing a side that’s showing no reservations. She hasn’t calmed or grown weary in her years; this is the same performer we had in the Sex days. Her voice and her persona haven’t lost an edge, even going so far as to call out everyone in pop culture today on “Illuminati,” from Steve Jobs to Bieber to ISIS. Madonna is back out for blood, and it feels more natural than it has in a long time. “Rebel Heart” may not be a masterpiece, but it’s one of the better pop albums of the year so far.

-Andrew McNally

Skrillex – “Recess”

(Photo Credit: soundisstyle.com)

Grade: C

Key Tracks: “Try It Out” “Dirty Vibe”

Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.

Alright, that’s a slogan for a kid’s toy, but it kind of applies here too. “Recess,” Skrillex’s first official full-length (long delayed after all his work was stolen a few years back), has all the wobbles, but it never falls – there’s no bass drops. The EDM/dubstep mastermind practically invented a new form of music on his ubiquitous EP’s, but he levels out here and settles for more commercial dance music. Sometimes it works, usually it doesn’t. Too many songs on “Recess” fall victim to repetition, and could really benefit from some insanity.

“C,” in grade school terms, comes out to “average.” This is a very average album. The songs are catchy, easy to dance to, and forgotten the second they end. And it’s a shame, because Skrillex, aka former From First to Last singer Sonny Moore, was the leader of an EDM revolution only three years ago. “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” won Best Dance Recording at the Grammy’s, despite being one of the most chaotic releases of the year (and despite the voters of the Grammy’s not wanting to know what drugs their (grand)children were taking to his music). But this album feels safe, like a step back. It’s understandable to think that a full album version of the head-pounding and riot-ensuing music on his EP’s would cause seizures, but there’s a common ground that is almost never found.

There’s really only two great songs on the album – “Try It Out” and “Dirty Vibe.” The former is the leadoff single, and it’s a bridge between standard dance music and the typical Skrillex chaos. It resembles what dubstep has become – high pitches, inexplicably dancy, and shrill, just to the point of annoyance. The latter is the only song that tips on the side of chaos, maybe because of a Diplo guest spot. It’s the only song reminiscent of old Skrillex. It’s also worth noting two other great guest spots – Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos on the otherwise overlong and forgettable title track, and Chance the Rapper on “Coast Is Clear,” one of the more decent tracks.

Although “Recess” is a wholly listenable album, it is disappointing. Skrillex seems to have fallen victim to his own creations. It’s entirely possible that his early releases set a bar too high, one that, if matched again, would only induce violence. It’s also possible that Skrillex wanted to make a more conventional, dance club record. Either way, it’s a turn in a different direction, and one that his fans may not be overly excited to grasp for. Songs from this album – especially single “Try It Out” – will surely be played in clubs. But there isn’t much more here. “Recess” gets a little boring, and it becomes kind of a chore to finish each song. Fans of dance music in general might enjoy the album, but fans honed in more on Skrillex might not feel the same.

-By Andrew McNally