Macklemore Talks 'Gemini,' His Upcoming Career Reset Without Ryan Lewis

The rapper on working with Kesha, life after poorly received 'Unruly Mess' and why he's not overthinking his first solo record since 2005

Macklemore is releasing his first album without Ryan Lewis since 2005. Credit: Ryan Mckinnon

Macklemore is returning on September 22nd with Gemini, his first album without producer Ryan Lewis since 2005. It's arriving less than two years after This Unruly Mess I've Made, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' follow-up to the platinum smash The Heist. One of 2016's most ambitious blockbuster rap outings, Mess featured an eight-minute concept opus about white privilege, guest appearances by Seventies hip-hop pioneers and percussion from the Seattle Seahawks' drumline. Though coming in the wake of two Number One singles, four Grammys, a Rolling Stone cover and a blockbuster performance at the Video Music Awards, the album failed to meet anticipation, both critically and commercially.

Undaunted, Macklemore is returning solo with music that is more spontaneous and less explicitly political. Macklemore says he's going to "talk a little bit more shit" on Gemini, an album where he reminisces about his touring days on a song with Kesha, talks about watching Toy Story 3 in his car on "Marmalade" with Lil Yachty and engages in a furious boastfest with Offset of Migos ("I'm a motherfuckin' icon, boots made of python/I met with the Prez and I'm in Obama's iPod").

Rolling Stone caught up with the rapper to talk about his new approach.

What can you say about Gemini?
It's not extremely politically motivated or heavily subject- or concept-oriented. I think it's mostly the music that I wanted to hear. It's the music that I wanted to go get into my car and listen to. I wanted it to be fun. A lot of people have asked me, "So with all this stuff going on in the world right now, you must've had a lot a to write about." And my answer is "no." I think at this point if you're rooting for Donald Trump in any capacity, you are supporting a bigot and a racist and I question your own bigotry and your own racism. I don't need to go and preach to the choir anymore. Everybody knows what's going on. I'm not gonna sway somebody at this point. … I believe that music can be a form of resistance without having to hit the nail on the head in terms of subject matter. It can be something that uplifts, that makes you dance, that makes you cry, that makes you think. But I didn't feel like I needed to go super in-depth with the politics. It was just not where my heart was at. It felt contrived at the moment, and I stayed away from it.

What are some of the types of things that you're saying on this album that you didn't say on your last record?
I think there's a confidence in Gemini that wasn't necessarily there on This Unruly Mess I've Made. I think that with where I was at in my career, coming off the massive success of The Heist, and delving into an album that was really heavy. Really, really dense and attempting to write a nine-minute song on white supremacy, white privilege, police brutality and the black lives matter movement and make that into a four part play ["White Privilege II"] – that was a really challenging record to write and took a lot of processing, as it should've. But it was … hard. And you know, there was records on there that were hard to write. And I enjoy that. I enjoy delving into a concept and really pushing myself to write what is in my heart. But with this album I think there's an air of like "first thought, best thought" that I don't think that Ryan and I really ever tapped into – just being in the booth and feeling an emotion and going with it. And then the next day you start over and you do it again. Like you watch Wayne or you watch Jay-Z record or you know a lot of these new rappers how they record and I think there's an air of freedom to that method of just like, "Let's just make art, let's not overthink it, let's not over-calculate it, let's not preemptively quantify what this is gonna mean to the world." But let's just make some rap music.

How is it working without Ryan Lewis for the first time in a long time?
Ryan, first and foremost, is my brother. I love him. He's one of my best friends in this world. He's a creative genius. He's one of those. And so at first it was really scary. ... What do I do? Who do I work with? Do I just get beats from random people? Do I go scour SoundCloud and try to find the next up-and-coming dude? And, you know, what I did was work with my old friend and collaborator Budo and a new kid by the name of Tyler Dopps. I think the biggest difference with this is that I wanted to catch a spirit. I didn't want to be doubting myself. I think Ryan is so good at finding what the wants out of people and bringing out the best in people. I think at times it can be daunting a little bit when someone's constantly like, "Nope, rewrite it. Nope, rewrite it, rewrite it." … It's a balance of both of us being heavy critics so we can make the best art possible. But with this project, I felt very inspired to just go in every day and try something new. And with that I gained a new level of confidence that I was lacking.

You've said that having your last record kind of underperform was freeing to you.
Everyone in the industry, it's like, "What are your first week sales gonna be?" It's like no one's thinking long term. We all get caught up in these numbers of what's like the headline gonna be the week that the album comes out. And I think all of us, including myself, missed the bigger picture. Music was never made to be for numbers, it was never made to be for statistics. It's turned into that over time because of the business, but that's not at the core or the essence of what quantifies a good album.

And you know, for me, when I found that number out, which still was a decent number, I think it was just less than what we had hoped for, I had 15 minutes of just being like, 'Fuuuuck, I can't believe this.' And I was like, 'That's it.' All of this stress or thought process or knowing how horrible our rollout was to put this music out, it didn't matter anymore. Like it was done. And from that point on, I didn't read a review. I didn't tap into the internet. I wasn't in the comments section, all of that stuff is so toxic to me. And I've felt that people had already put us in a box, either good or bad. Why continue to delve into these boxes that have already been decided for you, where people don't even necessarily give the music a full chance?

I think someone in like USA Today gave us half a star. ... And it was like, this is ridiculous. It had been out for like two hours. … This doesn't matter, this isn't real. I can either tap into this or I can tap out. And that was a defining moment of me being like, "You know what, fuck it. I'm gonna make art 'cause I love it. I'm gonna make it for the people that resonate with it. The rest of the people? Keep it pushin'."

How has your life changed from being one of the biggest pop stars in the universe to suddenly being the underperforming rap guy?
Well, [laughs] I probably wouldn't put it in those terms. 'Cause the other thing that's interesting about all of this is that we're talking about America, right now, right? We're not talking about Europe where I played and sold out arenas. I go to Australia and "Glorious" is at Number Two on the chart. It's just different. So that's almost a different question 'cause when I travel internationally, I still am that guy. In the U.S.A., we're so quick to turn around new shit. Like, what's the flavor of the week? Like, who's popping this month? That's the difference.

But I think in general, it's a better life for me. I desire for the music to be successful. But on the flip side of that, when my music was the most successful, when it was the most played songs on the radio, when I had the awards and when everyone was speaking about the music … I was relapsing on drugs and miserable. And, you know, that's me not knowing how to handle fame. That's me not putting my recovery first. That's me prioritizing other people's opinions over my own. So, it all comes down to where I'm at spiritually, where I'm at in my recovery, where I'm at with my family and with my friends and how much I'm being in a place of gratitude versus a place of fear. 

'Cause you look at people that are on the top of the charts that are selling millions and millions of albums, and fear and insecurity are rampant when you get to that level. Because all of a sudden you have something to lose, right? All of a sudden it's like, 'Oh no, I got here, what if I don't have this next time?' … This is a very volatile industry, it goes up and down very quickly. And when you're at the top, it's difficult to even forecast that this could drop down a couple notches.To kinda get that check was exactly what I needed. 

And I would 100 percent prefer to be able to go walk around with my daughter right now around my neighborhood and not have the paparazzi in the bushes or not have to take a picture with someone every 30 seconds and my daughter's crying in my arms. It still happens, you know, it's still part of my life. But it's lessened so much. And that, to me, is a far superior life. If that comes at the expense of record sales, so be it. I'm trying to be a good, fulfilled dad and human, and the rest of it is just extra.

How was working with Kesha and Offset for Gemini?
Kesha, she is a great spirit. She is someone that I walked into the room and I immediately just caught a vibe with and became friends with pretty instantaneously. … She's a musician, she's a writer, she's someone that is not afraid to try ideas in the studio, not afraid to get vulnerable in front of people, not scared to go for the high note when she doesn't know if she can hit it or not. She is a musician in every sense of the word, and she's hilarious.

How did you reach out to her?
Well, Ryan had a session with her in Seattle. She was already here. They had already done "Praying" and they were working on a couple other records that I don't think made her album. She had [an] off day and I hit Ryan and was like, "Would you mind if hit up Kesha?" And he was like, "Of course not."

I really like Offset as a person, he's one of those people [who] immediately he's the homie, we have a lot of common interests. … We got in the studio and at first I was like, 'Do you want to write to this?' And he looked at me like, What the fuck? He was like, "Write?! Nope." Just turn the beat on in the booth. Just like Yachty did and just like Jay does and Wayne and a bunch of other people, he just took it bar-by-bar every couple bars and freestyled that catered to the melody and put words to it and absolutely destroyed his verse. It's one of my favorite Offset verses ever.

You talk a lot about getting that kind of spontaneous energy throughout this record. Did you end up doing any bar-by-bar stuff or freestyle stuff, or are you still writing the old way?
You know, I tried it once after Yachty left and that path led me to writing a story about a threesome in a tent at Burning Man. Which has never happened, but that's where my bar-by-bar mind led me. [Laughs.] … And at that moment I realized that I'm probably better with a pen and a pad of paper.