*EDITOR’S NOTE: This post has been imported from my Tumblr page, where it originally appeared.*
If you haven’t yet boarded the speeding bullet train that is Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, it’s time to jump on. Thanks to the runaway success of number one singles “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us”, the Seattle-based hip-hop duo are the only act to have a song in the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart every week this year–that’s 25 weeks and counting, and even more impressive when you consider that they are purposefully not signed to a record label. But don’t let the irresistible dance rhythms of their current singles lead you to believe that their debut album, The Heist, is all flash: There is great substance to these two as well.
It was Halloween, three weeks after Heist was released, that I first heard “Thrift Shop”, a bass thumping, horn blaring quasi-anthem, on the radio, and to be honest, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. A lot of today’s newer hip-hop artists are unimpressive to me, and with lyrics like “Ask your grandpa/Can I have his hand-me-downs?”, the song initially struck me as novelty. But the beat was too easy to nod my head to, with the catchiest chorus in recent memory that I already knew and was singing by the end of it (the sure sign of a great pop song). Since this was Top 40 radio I was listening to, it was easy to dismiss as just a guy using funny one-liners about cheap clothing and will probably talk on the next song about he much he gets laid. But after I heard it played on two separate alternative radio stations, it got my attention. I thought, “A black rapper playing on KROQ?! I’ve got to look into this guy.” (Of course, I usually missed the part where Macklemore referred to himself as a “honky.”)
After I checked out the incredibly fun music video by a very not black guy, I found myself really enjoying the song that I still considered a novelty. I shared it on Facebook with the caption, “I shouldn’t love this song. Why do I love this song? I love this song!” It wasn’t until after I shared it that I checked out other songs and videos of theirs on YouTube, the first of which being “Wings”, a rousing stomper that uses the idea of a $100 pair of Nike sneakers to discuss economic materialism in America: “My movement told me, be a consumer/And I consumed it/They told me to just do it/I listened to what that swoosh said.” As I listened, I realized that Macklemore wasn’t a novelty; he was the real deal. As soon as the song was over, I immediately regretted my Facebook post, realizing that there was a lot to like about this Seattleite besides his use of the word “hella”.
The fact is, Macklemore is intelligent, forward-thinking, and well read. The opening track of Heist, “Ten Thousand Hours”, finds him reflecting on his burgeoning success. He attributes this to his years of hard work as a reflection of the “10,000-Hour rule”, a central theme of the book “Outliers: The Story of Success”, in which author Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that the key to success in any field of work is to have practiced doing such work for at least 10,000 hours. If you thought you would have never heard Gladwell, David Bowie, and Basquiat all referenced in the same rap song, Macklemore is here to change that.
The majority of The Heist’s songs lyrically fall in line with “Wings” and run the gamut of societal topics, from activism (“Same Love” and “A Wake”) to monetary and personal wealth (“Make the Money” and “Gold”) to addiction (“Starting Over”). But the album never becomes a finger pointing affair. In fact, as you listen, you get a sense of something that I feel is one of the least prevalent things in hip-hop today: positivity. Macklemore doesn’t care about the haters or detractors; he’s focused on bringing himself up and living up to own levels of self-worth. All of this is laid over excellent music by producer Ryan Lewis. Realizing how much money securing sampling rights would entail, the duo decided to forego it, with Lewis creating completely original compositions that ebb and flow with the varying intensity of Macklemore’s delivery. You really get the sense that this is a true collaborative effort, and that to me is why both of their names are listed.
What this all leads to is one of the most refreshing hip-hop debuts in quite some time. How far will these two go long after the dance affairs of their current singles have faded from Top 40 radio? Only time will tell. But Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have been around long before Saturday Night Live, and I’m willing to bet they’ll be around long after as well. I’m on the bullet train, and I’m enjoying the ride.