The debut full-length collaboration of rapper Macklemore (Ben Haggerty) and producer Ryan Lewis—along with a small army of collaborators—was close to three years in the making (2009-2012), and spun off a total of six singles before being released in the fall of 2012. The album was independently released by the duo, and became enormously successful. Not only is The Heist itself nominated for the Album of the Year award, but the duo are nominated for Best New Artist, and three of the singles are also nominated in various categories. Not bad for an album that was created and released without major label support.
The Heist could have easily been called Macklemore: The Autobiography, as most of the songs are direct, often painfully earnest confessions about addiction, his views on human rights, the state of hip-hop, racism, and more. This earnestness is a mixed blessing for Macklemore because while it adds depth and power to some of the tracks, it also gives many of the other tracks a heavy, didactic feel. The Heist, at times, seems like a massive hits plus filler album that sometimes drags.
The opening track, “Ten Thousand Hours,” is Mackelmore’s manifesto/artist statement. He name-checks Escher, Basquiat, Keith Haring, Malcolm Gladwell, Kayne West, and David Bowie, in an effort to establish his musical, artistic, and intellectual creds. The key line of this track, and a theme that seems to wind through many of the songs on The Heist is “A life lived for art is never a life wasted.” He mentions the No Child Left Behind generation’s lack of engagement with the school system (as well as his own), and his struggles in achieving success. The track also emphasizes the virtues of the work ethic, “You see I study art/The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint/The greats were great cause they paint a lot.” Faith, work, and perseverance are also major themes of The Heist, which “Ten Thousand Hours” introduces.
“Can’t Hold Us,” one of the big singles from the album, features Seattle-based R&B/Gospel singer Ray Dalton on the hook. The slow climb to the top of the charts—the song was released in 2011 and did not become a hit until 2013—is indicative of The Heist as a whole. The track is an uptempo account of Macklemore’s self-motivated rise to success, and also exemplifies his populist streak: “Labels out here, Now they can’t tell me nothing/We give it to the people/Spread it across the country.”
“Thrift Shop,” with hook by another Seattle native, Wanz, is a humorous tribute to the wonders and virtues of thrift stores that also pokes fun at materialism and fashion. The payoff line, “I wear your granddad’s clothes, I look incredible,” has spawned countless internet memes, and the song itself has also inspired plenty of parodies (“Mine Shop,” “Pet Shop,” “Pot Shop,” etc.), a sure sign of a song’s importance in the pop culture landscape.
One of the strengths of The Heist is the quality of the collaborations, and Macklemore largely utilizes fellow artists from the Seattle region, many of whose careers have benefitted from the success of the album. For example, Wanz, Dalton, and Mary Lambert, who sang on “Same Love,” all are working on solo projects that have essentially resulted from their visibility on The Heist.
Thin Line,” a collaboration with Buffalo Madonna (Nathan Quiroga), a member of Seattle hip hop/electronic outfit Mad Rad, shifts the subject matter from the political and cultural to the personal. The song chronicles a relationship that is falling apart, “And on on and on and on we go/We love who we are but now it’s gone/Let’s leave before we eat each other alive.”
p>“Same Love,” which has been nominated for Song of the Year, has attracted a great deal of attention from the media. Macklemore, as an ostensibly Christian cishet white man, has come under criticism for speaking out on the issue of marriage equality and homophobia (in religion, hip-hop, and in the media in general)—example: (http://flavorwire.com/412156/queer-rapper-le1f-speaks-out-against-macklemore-why-same-love-doesnt-speak-for-the-lgbt-community/). Whatever the controversies that have surrounded “Same Love,” the song brought more attention to the issues it touches on, not only for Washington State’s push for marriage equality: http://news.radio.com/2013/07/03/doma-macklemore-ryan-lewis-same-love-and-the-power-of-perfect-timing/, but for the country as a whole. Mary Lambert, singer and spoken-word artist, created the hook to express her own experiences (she has since expanded her part of “Same Love” for her own song, “She Keeps Me Warm”). Perhaps Macklemore’s lack of direct experience with the issues detracts from its message, but the vital part that Lambert played in the song, and the attention the song attracted help to temper “Same Love’s” potentially problematic nature.
“Make the Money” and “Neon Cathedral” both center around Macklemore’s struggles to maintain artistic integrity. “Make the Money’s” orchestration and dramatic piano to add to the cinematic nature. “Neon Cathedral,” with Allen Stone’s soulful high tenor on the hook, also deals with Macklemore’s descent into addiction and how it detrimentally effected his music and his life, “Wouldn’t miss it for the world/Baptized in my vices and the bar is my church/Traded my artist and I pawned off the easel/Spend it all searching for God at the Neon Cathedral.”
“Bom Bom” is Lewis’ star turn on The Heist, is a dense, layered instrumental that features Lewis’ lithe piano work and slippery, shifting beats.
“White Walls” is a completely unironic love letter to the Cadillac, and is a fairly lackluster standard hip-hop track. “Jimmy Iovine,” a song named for the famed producer and co-founder of Interscope Records, is a scathing rebuke of standard major label business practices. The song is a fictional account of Macklemore’s encounter with Iovine, but is based, according to Macklemore, of his and Lewis’ encounters with major labels trying to court them: http://www.interviewmagazine.com/music/macklemore-ryan-lewis-the-heist/#_.
“Wing$” finds Macklemore both nostalgic of and saddend by the obsession with shoes, especially Air Jordan’s. He raps about how acquiring these kicks was the best day of his life, but that he soured on them when a friend of his’ brother was murdered for shoes.
“A Wake,” with hook by Evan Roman, a singer/songwriter who also spent time in Seattle (https://www.facebook.com/EvanErielleRoman/info), is Macklemore’s account of his own insecurities and the problematic nature of him being a white hip-hop artist: “Why you out here talkin race, tryin’ to save the fuckin’ globe/Don’t get involved with the causes in mind/White privilege, white guilt, at the same damn time.” He blasts how some interviewers seem to have singled him out because he doesn’t rap about guns, drugs and sex, and at the same time uses “A Wake” to talk about his generation is used to the violence the sex and the drugs. Whatever else can be said about Macklemore, on The Heist, he is open, honest, self-aware, and self-conscious.
“Starting Over” chronicles Macklemore’s relapse into addiction, his guilt over disappointing his family and his feelings of hypocrisy that his fans view him as a role model for getting sober. He is brutally honest about his struggles, but in the end, he feels that if he was an example for successful rehab, he could also be an example of how to cope with the aftermath of a relapse.
“Cowboy Boots,” the last track, melds political satire, “Sounds of the city on Capitol Hill/Where I question if what I’m seeing here is real/Cowboy boots doing lines at the bar/Where the time goes slow when you’re drinking PBR” with a meditation on growing up and growing older.
The three additional tracks of the Deluxe Edition really don’t add anything to the proceedings. “Castle,” traffics in 80s nostalgia, including samples of Eurythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again,” “Victory Lap,” is a pretty unremarkable run of the mill hip-hop track, and “My Oh My” is a heartfelt, but very Seattle-specific tribute to Dave Neihaus, the late, long-time Mariner’s commentator.
The Heist, overall, is an engaging, sometimes didactic, sometimes raucous, sometimes overly earnest collection of songs, the best of which combine outstanding contributions from collaborators with Macklemore’s honesty and Lewis’ immaculate production.
Image courtesy of Macklemore, LLC.