Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ 2012 breakout, The Heist, was a heartwarming underdog success story. A true son of Seattle, Macklemore does a fair amount of hand-wringing over his fame on this long-awaited follow-up: The album opens with “Light Tunnels,” which makes winning at the Grammys sound like a winter shoveling snow in a Soviet gulag, and songs like “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” and “The Train” work the same self-pitying theme. “Make better music,” he wills himself on “Bolo Tie.” And sometimes he does, especially when the beats turn soulful and artists like Leon Bridges and Chance the Rapper swing by for assists.
With the exception of the exuberant “Downtown,” coming up with “Thrift Shop”-style catchiness is rarely the goal here. Macklemore would rather see himself in the tradition of old-school edutainers like KRS-One (who appears on “Buckshot”). He’s at his best balancing introspection and teacherly realism, as on “Growing Up (Sloane’s Song),” a moving letter to his daughter that adorably advises, “Study David Bowie, James Baldwin and Tupac.” And the nearly nine-minute “White Privilege II” is more than worth its weight in think pieces. “My success is a product of the same system that let off Darren Wilson,” he raps in one of many oh-shit realizations. In doing what he can to excavate all the theft and violence the American dream is built on, Macklemore redeems every other indulgence on the record.