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Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ ‘This Unruly Mess’ review: Hip-hop duo returns, on shaky ground

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis follow up their Grammy-winning

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis follow up their Grammy-winning album, "The Heist," with "This Unruly Mess I've Made," out Friday. Credit: Macklemore Records

THE GRADE B+

BOTTOM LINE Struggling to figure out what to do with their unexpected hip-hop success.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis shocked the music industry in 2014 when the hip-hop duo landed four Grammy Awards for the album “The Heist” over the acclaimed Kendrick Lamar.

Did Macklemore and Lewis win because they were white? That was certainly the debate at the time. And it’s a debate that has seemingly consumed Macklemore on the duo’s follow-up, “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made” (Macklemore).

“I forgot what this art’s for,” he raps in the opener “Light Tunnels,” about his Grammy experience. “I didn’t get through freshman year to drop out as a sophomore.”

In the closer, the sprawling “White Privilege II,” he goes even deeper, trying to figure out his place in not just the hip-hop world, but in the world in general. Macklemore recognizes that, as a white man, he has advantages in both worlds and he can’t figure out what to do about it. “We take all we want from black culture,” he rhymes. “But will we show up for black lives?”

In the end, Macklemore remains unsure, as would be expected. His heart seems to be in the right place, especially with all the hip-hop legends lined up to help him. His skill isn’t actually in social commentary, which often comes off feeling like musical after-school specials. It’s in offbeat thrift shop fun and making club-bangers like “Can’t Hold Us.” There isn’t one of those on “This Unruly Mess,” by the way. The closest they get is the anthemic single “Downtown,” which didn’t get the attention it deserved because many were still bogged down in the racial questions surrounding Macklemore and Lewis, and the spacey “Dance Off” featuring Idris Elba.

Those songs, along with the questioning “Need to Know,” go much further in securing Macklemore and Lewis’ future in hip-hop than the ones where they wonder what their future should be.

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