Review: Macklemore, Without Ryan Lewis in Gemini

By Niy Birden


When they first stepped onto the scene, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were quite an interesting combo: DJ/producer/photographer meets a rapper, both from Washington with an interest in hip hop. They curated a close-knit audience soon after with their first two EPs, The VS. and The VS. Redux, and sealed in the deal with their chart-topping hits such as “Can’t Hold Us”, “Thrift Shop”, and “Same Love”, all to be included on their debut album The Heist.

With their first bit of discography, aside from being an obviously white male duo, they had gained a lot of recognition for their massive success as indie artists. This is an especially noteworthy part of their career, considering their influence with The Grammys and other mainstream music platforms.

With their second album they started to show a reputation for making viral videos, but suddenly, as of earlier this summer they have since gone on a hiatus, which of course caused a major shock to their loyal fanbase. But separation seems to have been a quite amazing thing for the both of them, with Lewis snatching himself another hit for his work on Kesha’s comeback hit “Praying”, and Macklemore having lined up pop and new R&B hitmakers with his sophomore album Gemini.

So what does Macklemore (real name Benjamin Haggerty) sound like without Ryan Lewis?

For Gemini, we see Macklemore essentially much more personal than ever. The nostalgic vintage imagery is placed perfectly within the context of the album through songs like “Good Old Days”, and we get a closer look into how we perceive his contradictory views of America, and himself.

The album starts off with an immediate proclamation with the song “Ain’t Gonna Die Tonight” , featuring Eric Nally. Thematically, this is a trope for Macklemore. With Ryan Lewis, they together created a more optimistic and self-empowering voice to include in the rap narrative. And the influence of soul music is always present. This is generally the same with Haggerty, as the piano chord progression paired with the soulful horn section basically illuminate the leading vocals. It sounds very highschool-ish, in a way. Like a classic You Belong With Me school story era.

The perfect follow-up to the song, “Glorious” comes in next, featuring underrated but still prolific singer-songwriter Skylar Grey. Previously, Skylar had helped pen numerous hits, such as Eminem’s and Dr.Dre’s “I Need A Doctor”, Rihanna’s and Em’s “Love The Way You Lie”, and Diddy’s “Comin’ Home”, amongst many others. Although Glorious comes in during a perfect timing, it still sounds like a re-vised version of Ain’t Gonna Die or Good Old Days, mashed together, with a little of Can’t Hold Us. Luckily though, Skyler’s voice adds a nicer touch to it, and makes it more singing-inspired.

A bouncy piano riff introduces us to “Marmalade”, featuring Lil Yachty. Upon the first listen, this is the biggest surprise coming from Macklemore. His adoption of the trap genre into his album calls for a bit of speculation-what motivated this? Who came up with the song first? What is the end goal? And did Macklemore really have to also edit his voice to match those of common trap artists? It doesn’t sound very genuine coming from Mack, honestly. If he had given any inclination prior to this record that he was interested in trap, it definitely would have matched his brand, but it seems a bit cringeworthy otherwise. And even more, for a guy who had the absolute balls to talk about white privilege in one of his most-criticized songs, he’s got even more gall taking advantage of this particular musical culture.

Same goes for “Willy Wonka”, however you have to give him props for his tongue-twister rhymes coming in like a pro. It definitely catches the listener’s ear, and makes you remember for a quick second that he actually is a pretty good rapper. Offset? Not so much. But hey, appearances. The fuzzy vocal in the chorus was nice, though. It felt very metal. And there are many theories about trap and mumble rap being hip hop’s version of metal.

Intentions featuring Dan Caplan is a genuine look into the contradiction of a conscious rapper. The lyrics from Haggerty are also a bit hilariously sarcastic, as usual:

“I wanna be sober, but I love gettin’ high
Wanna give it a hundred percent, but I’m too afraid to try
I wanna be faithful, but love hookin’ up with randos
I wanna live by the law, but still think like a vandal
I wanna get exercise, but I’m too lazy to workout
I want all the finer things, but don’t wanna go to work now
I wanna go outside, take my family to the beach
I wake up in the morning, first thing I do is look at a screen, at a screen”

And then Dan comes in, absolutely perfecting the song. If this song was an ice cream sunday, he would be the cherry on top. His voice, solemn but passionate, really helps push out the main musical theme. For once though, the horns seem a bit too-overdone. Perhaps it’s because most of Haggerty’s empowerment and socially conscious-filled tunes feature this?

Hearing Kesha’s voice on “Good Old Days” is truly a refresher. Her voice, obviously more soulful than ever, almost makes you wonder why she wasn’t near the top or the end of the album, rather than by the middle. When you get over the awful track placement of the song, you soon realize that if anything, this is the song that really makes Macklemore seem more legit. Or could. Kesha’s growling doesn’t do much for the song-in fact it honestly could be left out-but the belting sure is nice to hear from her again. It also makes you wonder who took the cue to work with Kesha first-Haggerty, or Lewis? It is noteworthy to say though that the song ends off a bit disappointing, but only because it cuts off too short.

A Curtis Mayfield-evoking track, “Levitate”, comes immediately after, with no introduction at all. This song honestly sounds a bit unbearable with Macklemore’s braggadocio voice, but it is easily forgiven with the contribution from Otieno Terry, who along the backing vocals, horns and drum beat, together make Levitate sound like something from a James Brown breakdown.

The next track, “Firebreathin’”, is an even more interesting addition to the album. As a classic 80’s rock tune with a dash of funk in it, the delivery compliments the song pretty well. Macklemore presents an interesting prose, calling out critics:

“Had to take a break and find myself
They put me in a box by myself
The same writers criticizing my rhymes
Are the same writers that gentrifyin’ Bed-Stuy
I can’t even see the hate, I should probably check my eyes”

And with Reignwolf, the song is unstoppable. It’s the kind of song that would sound even more amazing if someone like Gary Clark Jr. and Leon Bridges (who Macklemore and Lewis previously worked with on their final album) also jumped on.

At this point however, it almost seems as if Macklemore is carrying the weight of this album on collaborations rather than being able to carry his own. This isn’t very different from what he was doing while with Ryan Lewis-in fact most of his hits with him are collaborations. But it does seem a bit more forced, especially with the use of mainstream genres, such as the return to trap in the next song “How To Play The Flute”. This song is probably more annoying than Marmalade, because of the looping flute, and the chorus, which features a continued “Achoo” and “God bless you”. The prominent use of the flute once again calls to question, since Future made a wave with his “Mask Off” song earlier this year. And if you really go deeper, it makes you consider that white privilege song again.

Smartly, “Ten Million”, another trap title, follows. Much darker in musical context and instrumentation, this one actually does not feature another rapper. Makes you wonder if Macklemore is fighting to prove his worth in mainstream rap as a white rapper again.

Donna Missal’s telephone voice on “Over It” comes in with an electric progression and perks up the ears a bit. When Haggerty’s voice comes in, the obvious auto-tune at first feels like a disappointment, but when the other elements of the song, such as the strings, and other electric-based sounds come through, it works very well. With a musical theme that sounds similar to Kehlani’s “Gangster”, Donna makes an impressive feature on the song, with her belted vocals at first harmonizing with the main chorus, but then coming into full audio with her “Now I’m free” line. In this song, the growling works impeccably well. The only other person that comes to mind as a close contender for it would be Christina Aguilera, because of obvious reasons. And this time, with the way this song ends, it actually works well. However, it would have been nice to hear more of that belting in a different context from Donna.

“Zara” comes in next, with a new wave R&B sound, and much less of auto-tuned Macklemore. Featuring Abir, it is another questionable but still sonically-impressive track on the album. Macklemore has never touched new R&B at all, and following Over It, is a nice romantic addition.

“Corner Store” however, is a really astonishing one. Sounding like it came right out of Chance the Rapper’s discography, the song is very optimistic and bouncy, like a true Macklemore record. While musically it is a new journey for Macklemore, it still works well. It could be his 2017 solo-version of Thrift Shop. A neo-soul, trap and R&B song, featuring impressive vocals and rhymes from Dave B and Travis Thompson, at this point it makes you contemplate just how many black friends Macklemore had growing up. Only someone ingrained in the deep parts of hip hop would understand how to use the perfect combination of Hip Hop and R&B like this. So what was Macklemore doing when he wasn’t with Ryan Lewis?

On ”Miracle”, the instrumentation and Dan Caplan’s voice once again gives an amazing addition to the album. Sounding like a friend whose dorm room you are sitting in while you listen to them play guitar at 3 a.m in the morning, he gives an honest and raw perspective. At first, you almost forget that this is actually Macklemore’s album, but the reminder comes in with his slightly-rusty voice, which actually compliments the sound a bit. But only a bit. Compared to Dan’s voice, his is a bit more casual and incomprehensible, but with the ambient strings, distinctive harps, and chopped vocals, it brings out the concept of the praying and distressful thinker in a very effective way. If Gemini was to discuss the contradicting and faithful thoughts of a socially-conscious rapper, this song would have been better placed somewhere during the start of the album.

“Church”, featuring Xperience, is next, aptly placed after Miracle. The cool-tone and synthesized piano keys help the nostalgic feel to it, but then the horns come in again, and becomes a bit tiring. Where the horns come in, voices would have probably sounded much better. Or even a guitar. But as usual, all is forgiven with Xperience’s vocal contribution. His addition to the song immediately bears similarity to those of D’Angelo, for its twangy and soulful melodies, and authoritative dynamics. Completely church-worthy.

To end the album, strings filled with staccato rhythms introduce “Excavate”, featuring Saint Claire. The musical and lyrical theme of Glorious and Good Old Days come back in it, but the choir helps carry the sound slightly more than the latter. It isn’t the most note-worthy track in the album, but it does work very well as a closing track. The lyrics make a good round-up of the narrative for the album:

“My greatest achievement isn’t the dollars
My greatest achievement isn’t the followers
My greatest achievement isn’t the accolades
My greatest achievement is my daughter
Wakin’ up in the morning, bein’ a father
Watchin’ the light kiss her eyelids
Hearin’ her sing along to Chance
And bein’ like, “Yeah, that’s my kid”
The light started to glow
And the saxophone from Coltrane started to blow
Tender, laying in the snow, turn on my headphones
Couple miles to go before I run out of road

Fill my lungs up, pour my heart out, peel my bones away
Crack my window, shed my shadow, excavate my pain
And I found peace
And I found peace
And I found peace

Hold me up into the light and study every part of me
I’m an open book, no, I don’t mind, but sometimes I’m hard to read
Just flesh and bone, I’m headed home, but this life is so hard to leave
But who am I when they cut the lights and nobody’s watching me?
Hold me up into the light and study every part of me
I’m an open book, no, I don’t mind, but sometimes I’m hard to read
Just flesh and bone, I’m headed home, but this life is so hard to leave
But who am I when they cut the lights and nobody’s watching me?

So it seems like Macklemore, more than anything, is making a point to show that he can present the same musical and lyrical ideas without the aid of a producer. The result is a good effort, but with the collaborations filling up the album, it distracts from what his actual message is for it. But if Macklemore is anything like the rapper he’s proven himself to be, this will still work in his favor in the end.