That’s not to say it’s a bad mess or anything, but it’s certainly a jumbled album. The opening track, “Light Tunnels”, introduces the album huge, dramatic strings and Macklemore very beautifully describing his introduction to huge levels of fame, including his infamous performance at the 56th Grammy Awards, helped with a resounding hook from Mike Slap. The song is a perfect introduction to the record and fitting ends with Macklemore apologizing for “this unruly mess I’ve made”.
It wouldn’t be a Macklemore album without a radio smash however, and the album immediately drops off in quality with the track “Downtown”. The lead single to the album is even more ridiculous and less entertaining than “Thrift Shop”, with Macklemore inviting on hip-hop legends such as Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Caz, and Melle Mel to assist him … on a song about buying mopeds. And unlike “Thrift Shop”, the hook (provided by Eric Nally) isn’t very catchy, and the beat is absorbed by an annoying cacophony of instruments ranging from pianos to drums to cymbals. The issue of weak hooks continues onto the third track, “Brad Pitt’s Cousin”, which doesn’t have an awful beat, but the hook (sung by Macklemore’s longtime affiliate XP) completely ruins the tune of the song.
Unlike his debut, The Heist, Macklemore isn’t inviting very many pop singers to join him on radio hits on Unruly Mess. Besides Nally and XP, British musician Idris Elba is the only other singer to join on a pop-flavored track, and unlike “Downtown” and “Brad Pitt’s Cousin”, “Dance Off” goes over very well, with Elba’s spoken-word hook over an electronic-flavored beat making for a fun song (even with Macklemore’s weak verses). For the most part, Macklemore is inviting R&B crooners to lighten the mood. Ed Sheeran joins on “Growing Up”, a song about fatherhood, while Leon Bridges shows up on “Kevin”, a song dedicated to a friend of Macklemore’s and his struggle with drugs. But Macklemore fails to match the intensity of his guests on these songs, instead rapping lines about “cheating on calculus” over instrumentals that sound like they were meant for Bryson Tiller.
Macklemore brings on a pair of legends in KRS-One and DJ Premier (doing scratches) on the song “Buckshot”, and it’s not a bad track, but could certainly have done without the blaring horn than runs throughout the song. It may be the most interesting track outside of the intro, with Macklemore and KRS-One both detailing their pasts in graffiti, but like every other song on this record, there’s always one thing preventing it from being a “great” song (in this case, the horn). “Need to Know” is the only song that avoids this curse, with a terrific feature from Chance the Rapper, who basically makes the song his with a well-done hook as him and Macklemore go back in their pasts. YG pops in on “Bolo Tie” with a surprisingly socially-conscious verse, but misses the emotion that makes YG interesting, and just feels like a Macklemore verse rapped from the standpoint of YG. The album ends with “White Privilege II”, a song that got a lot of attention for it’s Black Lives Matter message, but has more spoken word interludes than actual rapping, and is not worth its 8-plus minute runtime.
At the end of the day, Macklemore needs to decide if he wants to be a serious rapper or a full-blown pop rapper. Unruly Mess sees him succeed – and fail miserably – at both of these. The amount of jumping around between topics keeps it from being an album interesting all the way through. Macklemore is a talented rapper, but sometimes it feels like he doesn’t want to put his talent to use.
Best tracks: Light Tunnels, Need to Know, Dance Off
Worst tracks: Brad Pitt’s Cousin, Let’s Eat