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The Heist’: soulful, honest and creative

Kevin Noonan | Wednesday, October 10, 2012

 

Honesty is a rare trait in art. Artists often talk about how their lives inspire their work, and sometimes make vague references to specifics in their past, but true, bare, brutal honesty is rarely seen or heard.

Above the powerful delivery and the creative, diverse production of the songs, it’s the soulful, genuine honesty that defines the debut album from rapper Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis, “The Heist,” and makes it spectacular.

The album has been in the works for over three years as Macklemore, whose real name is Ben Haggerty, attempted and eventually succeeded to break away from alcohol and drug use and dependency.

One of the most powerful and affecting tracks on the album, “Starting Over,” deals with this issue, as Macklemore delves unflinchingly into his demons. The song, which features an introspective beat from Lewis, explains the rapper’s relapse after over three years of sobriety and the internal suffering he went through as people continued to look to him as their inspiration to achieve sobriety.

He speaks his mind without holding anything back, and does it with a delivery that’s as powerful and emotionally charged as any contemporary musician.

Another one of the best songs on the album (there are a lot of them), “Wing$,” describes the rapper’s conflicted feelings on the extreme materialism of society, with a chilling, slow background from Lewis featuring string instruments.

Macklemore is an outspoken independent rapper. “Make the Money” and “Jimmy Iovine” shed light on his frustrations with the music industry.

“Same Love,” one of the album’s most touching songs, expresses Macklemore’s support for same-sex marriage rights.

Even with so many social messages, Macklemore insists he shouldn’t be labeled as a “socially conscious” rapper. He just writes from the heart, and what comes out, comes out. (Editor’s note: See Tuesday’s “Conscious Rappers” column for more on the subject.)

And the album isn’t all serious and introspective. The duo also proves at times to have some fun-loving childishness that keeps the whole production from being too much of a downer. “Thrift Shop,” one of the album’s singles, which features a humorous video of the two in various thrift shop outfits, might be album’s best song, and certainly is it’s catchiest.

The song is another window into Macklemore’s personality, showing his self-deprecating sense of humor, and the obvious departure from normal hip-hop stereotypes illustrates his unique place in the landscape of the rap game.

“Castle” has the same tongue in cheek humor and upbeat dance feel as one of the duo’s first successes, the highly popular “And We Danced.” It includes lines such as “Unicorns and wizard sleeves/Hammer pants and make believe” and “Who wants to eat a coyote?” – a welcome message that, as serious as he can be, the rapper doesn’t take himself to seriously.

As good as Macklemore’s lyrics and delivery are, the glue to the whole is the unbelievably on point production of Ryan Lewis. Track after track, Lewis’s beats, backgrounds, samplings and mixing bring the rapper’s words to life, and often are as moving as the lyrics themselves. Lewis proves himself from the opening track that, despite being an independent artist probably working with inferior equipment, he might just be one of the most talented and visionary producers in music today.

The overall style of “The Heist” is unique and very personal to Macklemore, but the soulful lyrics, creative production and refusal to try to fit in to hip-hop norms evoke comparisons to a rapper like Kanye West. And it’s an intriguing comparison.

Though it may be sacrilegious to say, but in terms of debut albums, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s opening effort is on the same quality level as Kanye’s “College Dropout.” Of course, being independent artists, they may not achieve the same level of success as Kanye did with his debut.

But in terms of powerful, honest and creative hip-hop, “The Heist” is as good as it gets.

 

Contact Kevin Noonan at knoonan2@nd.edu