Macklemore was at home in Seattle last December when he heard from an old friend: singer-songwriter Chris Mansfield, a.k.a. Fences, who was working on a demo for his upcoming Elektra Records debut. "It didn't sound like something that I could necessarily rap on – it was a stretch," Macklemore says. "But I was down."
The rapper and his musical partner, Ryan Lewis, worked on Fences' demo until it became "Arrows." The emotional track is technically a Fences song featuring Macklemore and Lewis, but it's effectively the hip-hop duo's first new music since their 2012 smash The Heist. They also worked closely on Fences' video for "Arrows," which you can check out above.
Macklemore got to know Fences around 2009 through mutual friends in Seattle. "We were friends before we made any music together," says the MC. "We have a lot of things in common – our vices and our demons and our art, the things that we're good at and our shortcomings." (Fences, like Macklemore, has spoken about his struggles with alcohol abuse and subsequent commitment to sobriety.)
When he started writing his verses for "Arrows" around Christmas 2013, Macklemore was on a short break from the marathon world tour for The Heist. "I was exhausted, burnt out," he says. "It's always strange for me to come back home and have any sort of downtime after you've been out in front of crowds, night after night, thousands and thousands of people showing you love. Then you get back home and it's like, 'Whoa. I'm alone in these thoughts right now. Who am I?' It's weird and challenging and uncomfortable."
The Heist transformed Macklemore from a more-or-less unknown rapper outside the Pacific Northwest to an international superstar with a pair of Number One hits in the U.S. ("Thrift Shop," "Can't Hold Us") and a complex relationship with the press. "2013 was the craziest year of my life," he says. "I wasn't really in the best place with the fame when I started to write."
His first scene in the "Arrows" video shows him trading places with a tiger in a cage that's quickly mobbed by cameras. "Oftentimes you feel like a spectacle," he says. "There is this feeling, just walking around now, like, 'I'm not even a human being.' People are taking pictures of you. They don't even ask you. There's a lack of any sort of privacy. You don't know what that is until you're in that box. I try to go about my life with the utmost gratitude, but there are times when you're like, 'I feel like an animal stuck inside of these bars.'"
The striking image accompanies a verse in which Macklemore wrestles openly with the backlash that followed his success: "When the world finally sees his art/He wishes that he never would have made it." "Art is the thing that keeps me sane," he says now. "But once the general public gets ahold of that art, it takes on a new shape. It's its own living, breathing organism that is separate from the intention that it was created with in the first place. There's times where you flirt with the idea of, 'Would I be happier if I was a normal person making art in my bedroom?' – versus putting it out for the world and being molded into whatever they want to mold me into."
In the song's second verse, Macklemore raps about feeling "blinded by this limelight" and reckons once again with the unexpected realities of fame. In the video, he's shown climbing a sky-high diving board before diving into a pool filled with copies of his August 2013 Rolling Stone cover story – and finally being struck and apparently killed by an arrow to the chest. "It's the ladder of success, the ladder of fame," he says. "You climb to the top and you look down and you have that choice: 'Am I going to take this jump into fame? Do I really want to take this plunge?' And I do, and I get shot with an arrow. And that's the other side of what this industry is."
He credits Lewis with the idea to fill the pool with copies of Rolling Stone. "I thought that was genius," Macklemore says. "Obviously, to get the cover of Rolling Stone is such an iconic milestone in anyone's career. Your life will never be the same once you take that plunge. I remember when that issue came out, walking around an airport and seeing my face all over everywhere, and being like, 'This has changed now. Once you go this far, you can't go back.'"
Despite the somber imagery of the "Arrows" video, Macklemore says he's learned from his experiences over the past two years. "It's definitely challenging when the world misunderstands what your intention is, but I wouldn't trade anything that happened," he says. "It gives you another layer, a callus, that forces to you to go internally and figure out some of your wiring that you might not have been forced to do had you not been put in that situation."
While he has another month or so of overseas shows booked, Macklemore is looking forward to getting back in the studio with Lewis in September. "We're definitely working on the next album," he says. "Ryan's got a lot of beats, I've got a lot of writing. Obviously there's a ton of pressure – it's a sophomore album, and we never thought The Heist would be as big as it was. Now we have to live up to that."