Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are on track to sell roughly 50,000 copies of their new album This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, a total that seems unremarkable until you put it in the right context. Their first-week sales are being dwarfed by those of The 1975, the ambitious British pop band who released I like it when you sleep… on the same day, and competing closely with Adele, whose blockbuster 25 has been available for over three months. It’s selling worse than the duo’s debut, 2012’s The Heist, and that album didn’t really take off until singles like "Can’t Hold Us" and "Thrift Shop" blew up a year later; it’s unlikely This Unruly Mess I’ve Made enjoys the same slow-burning success.
It’s tempting to look at this as a massive failure, but it’s more of a market correction: the success of The Heist was anomalous, and the new album’s mid-tier visibility and sales are a truer representation of Macklemore’s commercial power and importance. The drop-off can even be satisfying, if you believe he deserves some kind of karmic comeuppance for stealing Grammys out from under Kendrick Lamar and benefiting from listeners’ casual racism. But Macklemore’s pending regression to a more appropriate spot in hip-hop’s commercial pecking order is also going to solve many of the problems people have with him, and the album suggests he’d be just fine taking a step or two down the celebrity ladder.
Macklemore spends a good chunk of This Unruly Mess I’ve Made reckoning with fame: the impact it’s had on his life, the weight it places on his conscience, the role of privilege in facilitating his success. He finds himself isolated on opener "Light Tunnels," a line-by-line, lonely walk through the aforementioned Grammy ceremony: "I wish I had the homies with me here, but nope / most of the artists that I know don’t get invited to this show." He grapples with self-loathing alongside YG on the brooding "Bolo Tie," and he closes the record’s standard version with the massive, groaning "White Privilege II." He takes nine minutes to wander through the Black Lives Matter movement, cultural appropriation, fans that make him question the impact he’s having on hip-hop, and white supremacy.
Macklemore knows he was "many steps ahead to begin with"
All of these songs revolve around a complicated reconciliation: How can you feel happy about your success when you know you achieved it with relative ease? Macklemore battled through a prescription drug addiction and embraced an independent ethos before hitting it big with "Thrift Shop," and that doesn’t change the fact that it was more likely he became a mainstream pop star than someone like J. Cole. (The comparison is fitting given their ratios of hacky joke raps to socially conscious screeds are roughly equal.) He says as much in the middle of "White Privilege II": "The DIY underdog, so independent / But the one thing the American dream fails to mention / is I was many steps ahead to begin with."
It’s important to note that the value of the question above is contingent on the degree of success being achieved. If Macklemore is the most popular rapper in the country, it’s paramount; if Macklemore is somewhere near the bottom of the top 20, it’s less pressing. If he’s not being lauded for setting the tone on conversations surrounding race and sexual orientation because he’s not popular enough to have that impact, he becomes a much more benign quantity: a socially conscious, well-meaning white rapper free to pontificate and pay tribute to hip-hop godheads in a small corner of a larger musical space.
This album's lukewarm performance could end up liberating Macklemore
It’s obviously important to Macklemore that his listeners understand he’s familiar with the mechanics of privilege, that he doesn’t take his disproportionate success for granted. (When he reaches for an example of a rapper lacking that kind of awareness, he ends up with Iggy Azalea.) It’s also foolhardy to suggest that artists would opt to sell fewer copies or achieve less fame if given the choice: you can’t hop inside their minds, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be rich and loved. Yet the lukewarm performance of This Unruly Mess I’ve Made may have an unexpected positive effect on Macklemore’s career: it could liberate him. When he’s not trying to wrap his brain around the societal implications of his success, he’s a perfectly capable joke rapper and an occasionally incisive (if a little over-earnest) critic of other major American problems: prescription drugs ("Kevin"), body image ("Let’s Eat"), alcoholism. His unruly mess is about to clean itself up, and it should make digesting Macklemore a little easier for everyone in the long run.