It's safe to say that Seattle rapper Macklemore (real name: Ben Haggerty) doesn't really fit the stereotypical hip-hop mold. After toiling away in relative obscurity for more than a decade, Macklemore's debut full-length studio album The Heist (crafted with the beat-shaping help of producer Ryan Lewis) has garnered widespread attention for a pair of startlingly different tracks.
"Same Love" (lyrics from which will wrap this review) advocates embracing homosexual equality and gay marriage—historically taboo topics in the rap world. It's a deadly serious song, and nearly the polar opposite of the duo's No. 1 hit "Thrift Shop," which playfully pays absurd homage to all manner of inexpensive "bling"—displaying almost gleeful scorn for rap's frequent infatuation with materialistic excess.
Elsewhere among The Heist's 15 lengthy tracks, Macklemore further hijacks his genre in the service of other decidedly un-rap-like subject matter, including his struggles with addiction, his belief in hard work and his desire to be a person of integrity.
In his 2008 book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell suggests it takes 10,000 hours for anyone to truly master their craft. Macklemore picks up on that theme and even name-checks Gladwell in album opener "Ten Thousand Hours," a salute to hard work in the service of artistic excellence: "Ten thousand hours, I'm so d‑‑n close I can taste it/ …. This is dedication/A life lived for art is never a life wasted." "Can't Hold Us" also praises hard work and the joy of creating music for fans, not for fame. "Make the Money" suggests that the right motive for creating art shouldn't be amassing mammon, but helping other people.
"Thin Line" deals with a difficult romantic relationship and our tendency to dodge hard truths and don concealing masks amid conflict: "Nice mask on, wear the same one/The greatest trick that the devil ever pulled/Was convincing women that they looked better in the makeup." Macklemore also suspects he's too committed to his career to sustain a real relationship (an admission which may or may not be a good thing) and recognizes that he and his lover's attempt to patch their problems with sex is actually pulling them apart ("Can't get her out of my head/This place is a mess/ … She walks that thin line/In and out of my bed/Each time, I love her less").
"Neon Cathedral" and "Starting Over" both deal confessionally with addiction. Macklemore repeatedly sings, "Dependency has been a thief at night" ("Neon Cathedral"). And he wonders if a self-destructive search for comfort in alcohol is actually a search for God. On "Starting Over," he admits to a 2008 relapse and talks about the shame he felt in an AA meeting when a fan told him how much his previous songs about battling addiction had helped her: "Back of that meeting on the east side/ … Somebody stops me and says, 'Aren't you Macklemore?/I just wanted to say that if it wasn't for [the song] 'Otherside,' I wouldn't have made it'/I just look down at the ground and say, 'Thank you/ … I wanna tell her I relapsed, but I can't/I just shake her hand and tell her congrats." Then he raps, hopefully, "If I can be an example of getting sober/Then I can be an example of starting over."
Abruptly changing the subject, "Wing$" powerfully indicts American consumer culture as it narrates a boy's growing realization that his infatuation with Nike Air Jordan shoes won't fulfill him. "It started out with what I wear to school," Macklemore recalls. "That first day, like these are what make you cool/And this pair, this would be my parachute/So much more than just a pair of shoes/Nah, this is what I am/What I wore, this is the source of my youth/This dream that they sold to you/For a hundred dollars and some change/Consumption is in the veins/And now I see it's just another pair of shoes." "Thrift Shop" walks us down some of those same paths.
"A Wake" addresses racism, specifically white people's responsibilities to economically underprivileged black people. "Jimmy Iovine" satirically imagines an artist willing to go to violent lengths to secure a record contract (which isn't good) before realizing that he's not willing to sell out his artistic soul for something as carnal as a contract (which is good).
On "White Walls," we hear, "White hoes in the backseat snorting coke/She doing line after line like she's writing rhymes." Later, the song employs the f-word to talk about having sex with the women. Elsewhere on the album, many more f-words (some paired with "mother"), s-words and other profanities turn up. Two songs include crude anatomical references to the male anatomy.
"Thin Line" admits to casual sexual flings after Macklemore and his girl cease cohabiting ("Gave the keys back, now I'm on the homie's couch/Always going out, sleepin' with strangers/Danger!"). "Cowboy Boots" nostalgically reminisces about youthful indiscretions.
And then there's the subject of "Same Love" … which we'll conclude with in the next section.
In many ways, The Heist eschews common rap tropes and heads in some surprisingly vulnerable directions. How often, for example, do mainstream rappers talk about the virtue of hard work, the importance of humility, the lie of consumerism or the shame they feel when succumbing to pernicious addiction?
That said, Macklemore does enjoy indulging his obscene side, as well as winking at casual sex—lyrical problems that make his honest psychological and sociological insights much harder to access, much less embrace.
Which brings us to "Same Love," Macklemore's precise and passionate distillation of where many people in our culture stand today on the subject of homosexuality. He verbally eviscerates anyone who believes that same-sex relationships are in any way problematic or immoral as he frames the discussion of sexual orientation in terms of genetic destiny and civil rights.
"A culture founded from oppression," he raps, "yet we don't have acceptance for 'em/Call each other f-ggots behind the keys of a message board/A word rooted in hate, yet our genre still ignores it/Gay is synonymous with the lesser/It's the same hate that's caused wars from religion/Gender to skin color, the complexion of your pigment/ … It's human rights for everybody, there is no difference.
"When I was at church, they taught me something else/if you preach hate at the service, those words aren't anointed/That holy water you soak in has been poisoned/ … rather than fighting for humans that have had their rights stolen/I might not be the same, but that's not important/No freedom till we're equal, d‑‑n right I support it/ … Whatever god you believe in/We come from the same one/Strip away the fear/Underneath it's all the same love."