Monday, February 10, 2014

The Grammys Said I Should Listen to This - Macklemore & Ryan Lewis's "The Heist"

One of my resolutions when I started this blog was to remain open-minded about the albums that I set out to cover—I try to go into the record without the expectation that I will or will not like it.  For the most part, I have selected records that I have had a genuine interest in experiencing and have ended up enjoying immensely, but I understand that this positive experience may not always be the case.  Inevitably, I knew that I would stumble upon a record that I had heard fantastic things about, but for whatever reason I simply did not find enjoyable in the least.  When the idea for the recurring feature about Grammy winning records occurred to me, I accepted the fact that the likelihood of listening to records that did not appeal to me was a big part of the territory.  It has always been my understanding that the Grammy Awards is based on album sales, radio/MTV play, the results of executive circle jerks, etc. and not on the, y’know, actual merit of the work; so in that regard, I have never picked up an album simply based on the recommendation of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.  Please don’t get me wrong though, I am certainly not the type that avoids music simply because it is popular—I am quite fond of Eminem’s latest record, for example—but I have also found that there is zero correlation between the popularity of an artist and the quality of that artist’s output.

The first record up for consideration in “The Grammys Said I Should Listen to This” is the most recent winner of the “Best Rap Album” award, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s The Heist.  Prior to listening to the album, I had seen a few of the duo’s videos on Facebook walls and while perusing YouTube.  I had seen their performance of the single “Same Love” on The Colbert Report and was aware that there was a thing called “Thrift Store” that the kids were all into.  Sufficiently satisfied that the group’s music wasn’t my flavor, I largely ignored them and went about with my life as usual—drugs were sold, gats were busted, and after I quit playing Grand Theft Auto, a blog was started…and I needed something to write about.  So, armed with the knowledge that the Grammys were a thing that existed, that these guys had won one, and the lukewarm recommendation of a friend, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis stopped getting ignored by the most important new blogger on the interwebs and got a few new listens on Spotify.

Also, I apparently heard the duo in a commercial for an email service.

Ryan Lewis (left) never gets more excited than this.
I pressed play and was greeted by the opening synth cords of “Ten Thousand Hours” and was immediately hit with the thought that I should probably pay attention because this music is trying to tell me how important it is.  That thought stayed with me throughout the entirety of the album.  Please don’t misinterpret what I am saying—I don’t think that this music is important, I think that the artists really, really believe that their music is important.  There is a pervasive smug sincerity that courses throughout the record (excepting the few “party” tracks) that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.  Actually, I was in a really foul mood after my first listen of The Heist, which runs counter to the intentions of the artists who really, really believe that their important music should uplift and inspire.  My reaction caused quite a bit of consternation as I wondered about why exactly this music forced such a reaction from me.  Have I become such a curmudgeon that any hint of emotional sincerity immediately fills me with rage?  I don’t think so.  Is it that I think that the humanity on the album is questionable—calculated to make people like it because it manipulates their heartstrings?  That might be a little harsh, but I might be getting closer to the truth.  Is it the ever present “indie rock” sing/whine on seemingly every hook?  Yes.  Yes, that probably has a big part to do with my caustic reaction.

This man is an important artist.

Okay, I did get a little teary-eyed at this video.

Macklemore tackles several serious issues throughout the album from the dangers of materialism and substance abuse to his support of marriage equality and the fantastic deals found at your local Goodwill store.  “Same Love” is a song that shouldn’t have to exist.  Unfortunately, in a world where a significant portion of the population still believes that another significant portion of the population doesn’t deserve the same rights, the song is a pro-equal rights statement that certainly serves a purpose.  Will it change the minds that should be changed?  No it won’t.  But if it inspires one gay teenager to keep on living or one rapper to stop saying “faggot” or makes a same-sex wedding reception a little more poignant when played, I think that “Same Love” has been successful.  That said, I think the song is sappy as hell and musically, I don’t really dig it.

I actually really dig this track.  I would listen to a whole album of this type of instrumental.

I thought quite a bit also about the reasons why I have such issues with the way that Macklemore deals with his political and social concerns versus other artists that I actually enjoy.  While having a tea (English Breakfast, ftw!) and hearing “Thrift Shop” for about the fiftieth time, the thought occurred to me that in contrast to other rappers/groups (such as The Coup, Ice Cube, 2Pac, Public Enemy, and countless others), Macklemore’s music has a significant lack of a sense of danger, subversion, anger, revolution.  I don’t feel any exasperation from Macklemore, any frustration, anything that sounds like a battle cry.  Throughout The Heist, it’s as if Macklemore is showing us a picture of junkies, homophobes, capitalists and saying “this is bad mmmkay.  These things are important.”  Then he plants that smug smile on his face beneath his brightly colored 80s sunglasses as all the children agree with him because they are already a part of the choir.  And that would be fine if the picture were more vividly painted and interesting to view.  Instead, it’s bland and easily digestible.  I felt unease not because of the examples of social issues on display, but because I was fucking bored when I should have been outraged or sad or happy or whatever other emotion I was meant to be feeling.  Because the duo so desperately wanted to make something important that it didn’t feel important at all.  Also because The Heist has this incredible time-bending property that allows the hour it occupies to stretch into three.  Seriously, it just drags on for-fucking-ever.

Notes from my initial listening.  I could have probably just posted these and saved a bunch of time explaining how I feel about this record.

Alright, so did I enjoy listening to The Heist and will I listen to it again?  No on both counts.  I’m gonna go listen to Run the Jewels to cleanse my palate.  As a matter of fact, here’s one of their videos instead of the Macklemore one I was going to place in this spot.

Next up on “I Need a Beat” will be Schoolboy Q’s Setbacks.  I really like Habits & Contradictions and Q is always a highlight for me when he does a feature on another rapper’s track (including The Heist, incidentally), so we’ll see how his first album compares.

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