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Review: The Heist – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

I have been a fan of Macklemore since I first heard his music two years ago, and though it’s true I’ve been eagerly awaiting his collaboration with producer Ryan Lewis, I articulate an apparently common sentiment when I say that The Heist is an incredible album: since its release last week, it rose to #1 on the iTunes music store – a feat virtually unheard of for an independent artist. You’ve probably heard Macklemore’s smooth voice rapping over the super funky saxophone riff on the hilarious “Thrift Shop,” or maybe his other single “Same Love” in which he eloquently discusses the problematic ways in which our society and the hip hop scene deal with homosexuality. Although these two songs are certainly excellent and demonstrative of Macklemore’s refreshing flow (marked by features of Pacific Northwest rap) and lyrical genius, the album as a whole is filled with one excellent track after another. Even after multiple listens, I am still overwhelmed by the emotional experience of hearing profoundly evocative and crushingly honest narration alongside Ryan Lewis’s instrumentals, the complexity and musical brilliance of which vault The Heist to its standing as my favorite album of this year.

The first track, “Ten Thousand Hours,” opens with bright, uplifting synths, over which Macklemore explains his artistic sensibility and exactly why his music and newfound success without the aid of major record labels means everything to him. The track title is a reference to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers, which argues that success in any field can be largely attributed to practicing a specific task for 10,000 hours, and Macklemore speaks especially poignantly about his musical endeavors: “This is dedication / A life lived for art is never a life wasted / … / My only rehabilitation was the sweat, tears and blood when up in the booth.” Macklemore comes clean about issues as personal as his struggles with drug abuse, and in so doing, declares that his breakthrough signifies new life while delineating his unique perspective about his role as an artist.

The second track, “Can’t Hold Us (feat. Ray Dalton), marks a shift in tone as an upbeat piano and trombone riff dances under victorious lyrics about Macklemore’s long-awaited breakthrough and artistic vision. He says, “Stay on my craft and stick around for those pounds / But I do that to pass the torch and put on for my town / Trust me, on my I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T shit hustling / Chasing dreams since I was 14 / … / Labels out here, nah, they can’t tell me nothing / We give it to the people, spread it across the country.”

“Thrift Shop (feat. Wanz),” the third track, is perhaps the catchiest song on The Heist. I guarantee that sax chord progression will refuse to leave your head for days and the lyrics about “popping tags” “at the Goodwill” will have you grinning like a fool. Despite the lighthearted nature of the track, however, Macklemore manages to slip in some edifying words, spitting, “They be like, ‘Oh that Gucci, that’s hella tight,’ / … / Fifty dollars for a t-shirt, that’s some ignorant bitch shit / I call that getting swindled and pimped, shit / I call that getting tricked by a business / That shirt’s hella dough, and having the same one as six other people in this club is a hella don’t.” Unlike so many other rappers who flaunt their lifestyle by dropping brand names and other icons of consumerism, Macklemore wages lyrical war against materialism and conformity.

The fifth track, and the “Same Love (feat. Mary Lambert),” features his musings on the vilification of homosexuality and the ways in which we transgress against our fellow human beings. He condemns societal norms of gender and sexuality which have created “A world so hateful / Someone would rather die / Than be who they are,” saying, “ ‘Man, that’s gay,’ gets dropped on the daily / We’ve become so numb to what we’re saying / Gay is synonymous with the lesser / It’s the same hate that’s caused wars from religion, gender and skin color / … / It’s human rights for everybody.” Even as he deplores the state of our heartless culture, he remains hopeful, compelling us to rap along, “No law’s gonna change us / We have to change us / Whatever God you believe in / We come from the same one.” This earnest criticism and call to action resonates especially poignantly, accompanied by a simple piano riff that sounds as though it were written for a love song.

“Make the Money” sounds like the title of another generic rap song, but it’s quite the opposite; Macklemore opens up about the struggle to “remain faithful” in a world that bids for “fame, fortune and the mansion,” and he entreats us to “Make the money, don’t let the money make you / Change the game, don’t let the game change you” just as he abides by these lines. Meanwhile, “Neon Cathedral (feat. Allen Stone)” is a haunting testament to his struggle with faith and alcoholism, and a beautiful violin score attends his poetic tribute.

The tenth track “Jimmy Lovine (feat. Ab-Soul)” starts with a familiarly menacing chord progression and thumping bassline reminiscent of mainstream hip hop, but the story he begins telling about his contract talks with the head of Interscope Records is far from conventional; the listener gets an honest account of the reasons why Macklemore decided to remain an independent artist rather than give in to the bureaucracy of a major record company lacking artistic vision or heart.

Though the eleventh track, “Wing$,” isn’t a new one, it’s one of my favorites on The Heist; Lewis’s brass, strings and percussion are impeccably woven into the song’s literary warning against American materialism and conformity. Macklemore recounts his obsession with Nikes that began at the young age of seven, saying, “We want what we can’t have, commodity makes us want it / So expensive, damn, I just got to flaunt it / … / Look at me, look at me, I’m a cool kid / They told me to ‘Just Do It,’ I listened to what that swoosh said.” But having come to realize that “Phil Knight tricked us all,” he admits, “These Nikes help me define me, and I’m trying to take mine off.” Through personal anecdote, Macklemore reiterates the importance of creating an identity based not on emulation but on the rejection of conformity and mindless consumerism.

On “A Wake (feat. Evan Roman),” Macklemore voices some of the internal struggles he faces as a (white) hip hop artist and questions the authenticity of the own persona he has created through his music. The second-to-last track (and definitely one of my favorites), “Starting Over (feat. Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses)” is perhaps the rawest song on the album, with Macklemore speaking completely openly about relapsing after three years of sobriety spent rapping about his recovery, and the accompanying pain and guilt.

I’ve listened to the entire album at least a dozen times through now, and I have yet to press “skip” on a track. The synergy of Macklemore’s lyrical ability and Ryan Lewis’s musical accomplishment is mind-blowing; this is some next-level shit. And the fact that the Seattle duo has achieved #1 on iTunes music sales despite refusing to sign with a record label is groundbreaking for the music industry. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are changing the game. If you haven’t heard The Heist yet, I strongly recommend you give it a listen, no matter whether you like rap music. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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