Since The Heist, his breakout 2012 LP with Ryan Lewis, Macklemore has been painfully self-aware in his music. He’s conscious of his whiteness, and the way it provides him a leg up on his competitors. He’s conscious of his detractors, who dismiss him as a flash within the pan. He clearly hears the criticism, and prior to now a number of his raps have felt like retorts to varied tweets and thinkpieces. Although he hasn’t returned to the industrial heights of hits like “Can’t Hold Us” and “Thrift Shop,” his fanbase stays sizable and hungry. His new album, Ben, finds him on the opposite aspect of a pandemic-assisted relapse, an underground rapper turned worldwide pop star who’s now extra involved with the opinion of his spouse and youngsters than any critic.
Greater than any of Macklemore’s earlier LPs, Ben has two parallel aesthetics: hovering pop songs with stadium-sized hooks alongside dirty DJ Premier sample-stitched boom-bap. It’s troublesome to reconcile the Ed Sheeran impression of visitor singer Windser on “Maniac” with Macklemore’s snarling bars on “Grime,” a stripped-down quantity with funky horns and strutting bass. “Grime” sits smack in the midst of a three-song run that begins with Premier’s “Heroes” and ends with “I Need,” a sarcastic send-up of the narcissists that thrive in our tradition of conspicuous consumption. As a three-track EP, these songs may need been an eye-opening reminder that the person can nonetheless rap. Wedged between his “living my best life” pop and midlife disaster introspectives, the sequencing is jarring.
So is Macklemore a pop star or a rapper? The 2 are usually not mutually unique, however they really feel distinctly separate inside his catalog. At occasions, Ben sounds just like the work of three completely different artists, maybe reflecting the upheaval of its recording. Macklemore began work on the album earlier than the pandemic shut issues down; at house with no exhibits to play or 12-step conferences to attend, he relapsed for a number of weeks, fracturing his life and household. The album’s scattershot strategy may need labored, too, if the transition from bubblegum pop to East Coast grime weren’t so abrupt. There are some catchy melodies beneath the slick synth-pop sheen of “No Bad Days” and “1984,” however they’re additionally drenched in cheese. It’s juvenile by design, the proper karaoke party-bus jam for his 7-year-old and her pals.
Ben’s extra private angle additionally winds up underselling one in every of Macklemore’s best skills: mimicry. He possesses an innate capability to emulate different rappers’ flows, a talent honed by years of fandom. You possibly can hear it clearly on his earlier album, Gemini, the place he bounces together with Lil Yachty and rolls triplets as fluently as Offset. But with few different rappers featured on Ben, his personal flows appear to fall into two distinct patterns: buoyant exuberance on the hyped-up pop tracks and a morose monotone on the extra plaintive ballads.