Macklemore’s ‘Ben’ is a Surprising Downshift From a Pathological Over-Sharer
Macklemore has always been kind of a lot. The histrionic hooks, middlebrow exegeses about white privilege, the double- and triple-time bars, even the damn haircut: He is the only popular rapper with the panting, sweaty air of a Broadway showman, almost pathologically eager to please. History will never forget him as the guy who won a Grammy and then apologized to the guy who should’ve won that Grammy, and then posted that apology on Instagram. Given how over-the-top the general Macklemore experience has been, the notion that the rapper’s new comeback LP, Ben, is a front-to-back concept album about his own death might strike the Macklemore-averse as way, way too much Macklemore.
Surprisingly, it finds him mellowed out, focused, with a newfound interest in subtlety and even subtext. Following the deceptively IMAX-scale “Chant,” which sounds more of a piece with his bombastic work with the producer Ryan Lewis, the record settles into a stretch of spunky pop rock, including a shimmering, M83-esque bit of rap-free synth-pop on “1984.” You can almost smell the sea breeze, even as the syncopated chorus forces him to croon, Santa-like, “Fire burning in my so-ho-hole/I don’t want to be alo-ho-home.” Still, there’s a low-stakes sense of pleasure to this stretch that recurs on the throwback boom-bap of tracks like “Heroes” and “Grime,” which, similarly, find the rapper looking to the music of his youth with a healthy blend of nostalgia, reverence, and newfound perspective.
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That perspective, of course, comes at a cost. It’s been a half-decade since Macklemore’s last LP, and he has spoken about the impact of the pandemic on that tenure, both in terms of delaying his desire to roll the album out and the way the amorphous timelessness of 2020 challenged his sobriety. And so creeping through these effervescent pop songs is a hint of mortality that comes into full bloom on the treacly “Day You Die,” and eventually dominates the back half of the LP. “I wonder what celebrities will tweet RIP,” he raps on the suite-like “Sun Comes Up, “when it’s announced that I’m dead on TMZ.” Macklemore is a rapper whose clarity of thought is matched only by those thoughts’ corniness, but this quality is better suited to explicating the nature of his own existence than the broader social concerns that dominated his previous LPs.
Those records may have primed listeners for some throat-shredding climax here, in which our hero vaingloriously Chooses Life, but even in its final act the album contains some surprises. The drumless “I Know” recalls early-Drake’s taste for ambience, and “Tail Lights” concludes the album on the quiet image of a car finding its way through the dark. To be sure, Ben features plenty of catharsis and oversharing, but it also has no grand answers or conclusions, just apologies, acceptance, and ambiguity. Some of Ben’s success must be attributed to the producer Budo, a longtime collaborator, here providing skillful texture to the album’s broader arc, but the truth is that Macklemore, who on his last album rhymed “porno” with “DiGiorno,” has matured. Ben is handily his best album. It’s a midcareer downshift from an artist who desperately needed it.
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