Here are the album reviews I wrote for the May issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on April 25.
This Unruly Mess I’ve Made
-Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (Warner)
Man About Town
-Mayer Hawthorne (Victor)
Reportedly, when Macklemore won the best hip-hop album Grammy in 2014, he felt guilty since he’s a white guy plying an African-American art form, and other, presumably more deserving, albums by black rappers were overlooked. Two years on he releases an album that awkwardly addresses this conundrum, and some people will wonder why he bothered. Eminem, after all, never felt the need to justify his fame and success, so why does Macklemore? In an age when “White Privilege” is still a problem, perhaps he thinks he has to address these matters forthrightly in song. In any case, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made covers a number of social issues, including addiction and body image, and it all sounds obligatory rather than inspired. Producer Ryan Lewis backgrounds Macklemore’s sermon-like raps with a lot of instruments and voices, which is why some people refer to his music as “gospel rap,” and to that extent he’s fashioned a unique sound that may or may not qualify as hip-hop but retains the catchy breeziness of good 80s radio pop. He earns more than enough props with “Downtown” by featuring rap godfathers Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Caz, who nevertheless manage to show up Macklemore’s somewhat lackluster lyrics even though all they do is chant in unison. Of course, the point is that Macklemore knows his history, but more variety in this vein would be welcome. As it stands, he’s versatile enough to be called a real entertainer, but he might do better with a word collaborator. For sure, when he tries to explain himself, as on the aforementioned “Privilege,” he digs a hole that even Lewis’s scruffy beats can’t pull him out of. It’s good to see Macklemore working out these matters for himself, but an internationally released album may not be the best place to do it. Mayer Hawthorne is another nerdy white guy who has staked his career on black music, and his acceptance by the general music-loving public has nothing to do with paying dues to the source, except in the sense that he pays dues by getting everyone’s booty shaking. As a solo act he’s done as much to revive old school urban soul music as Leon Bridges, and as a member of Tuxedo made white disco safe for hipsters. On his fourth album he leavens the R&B with 70s soft rock and a bit of Steely Dan jazz. Though not as tasty as his 2011 joint, How Do You Do?, the grooves are more resilient and the singing less self-conscious. Since Hawthorne’s lyrics are generic in the romantic make-out mode, there’s not a whole lot of depth to the record, but he applies his melodic gifts liberally to slower cuts like “Cosmic Love” and “Breakfast in Bed,” making them more than just enjoyable pastiche. In this light, it’s difficult not to think that Macklemore wouldn’t have to worry about privilege if he just had more talent. Continue reading