Macklemore is the king of accessible, radio friendly hip-hop, and we’re pretty sure he knows it. It’s been half a decade since he and producer Ryan Lewis set the global charts alight with “Thrift Shop,” the tongue-in-cheek hip-hop diss about $50 T-shirts that propelled the duo towards cultural and commercial relevancy. Since then, they’ve inadvertently become the millennial poster boys for white men making hip-hop, probed by journalists about their sweep of the Grammy’s rap categories – traditionally a space for celebrating black art – a few years back, and the strange way Macklemore’s haircut became a talking point in the far-right, fascist debate.
Despite the criticism of their success, which the lads have thoroughly addressed already, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have continued to produce songs that poke fun at themselves; goofy, light and made for the masses. They’ve respectfully carved their own lane and hustled hard to make sure they owned it. Perhaps that’s why it was so surprising when news broke that Macklemore would part ways with Lewis for Gemini, his first solo album since his 2005 debut, The Language of My World.
As a July-born Gemini, Macklemore is expected to be vivacious (tick), enthusiastic (tick) and witty (tick) in character. But he’s also thought to be a little lazy, and all of these qualities make sense when you think about this belated sophomore effort. Bursting at the seams with his inimitable energy, Gemini is laden with slick, sardonic, confident rhymes and poppy production, but it’s hardly one for the history books.
The record opens with the triumphant, yell-a-long “Ain’t Gonna Die Tonight” featuring Eric Nally, followed by the Skylar Grey collab that acted as the album’s lead single, “Glorious.” Together they act as an engaging duo of empowering pop-rap; typical Macklemore songs, but they’re swiftly forgotten about as soon as you reach the much livelier tracks that follow.
It’s here, in the album’s sugary-sweet second act, that you’ll find Macklemore at his peak. Here, he’s having fun with his music rather than trying to come across as an emphatic or insightful lyricist, something his genre peers undoubtedly do better. On the record’s second single “Marmalade,” he collaborates with Lil Yachty to deliver a sparkling homage to his home city, Seattle. Heavily auto-tuned and blessed with a tinkering toy piano production, it’s a cocky, childish, no-fucks given track that might be the best thing Macklemore’s done in quite some time. “Watching Toy Story 3, that’s a great fucking movie,” he raps gleefully, before listing off his home town’s most famous residents: “Jimi, Kurt, Quincy… Eddie, and Bruce Lee”.
It’s followed up by “Willy Wonka,” an Offset-starring track that sees Mack compare himself, again in a cocksure manner, to the world’s favourite fictional confectioner. There’s nothing particularly unique about it – it’s got a Klaxon-filled, trap beat heavy production – but it’s where the rapper’s flow (“I’m a mother-fucking icon, boots make of python”) feels most confident, genuine and impressive.
With “Intentions,” Macklemore hits peak problematic, as he contemplates how to be an honorable dude in 2017 while indulging in the things that make us all shittier people. “I want world peace, but I wanna watch World Star,” he says, before admitting that his willingness to be a feminist is hindered by the fact he still watches a lot of porn. Before long, the song’s self-indulgent format winds up becoming repetitive – and the sappy chorus provided by Dan Caplen doesn’t do it many favors either. This is the kind of track that comes on shuffle at daybreak during an afterparty, but nobody has the energy to get up and switch it over.
As the record approaches the halfway mark, it becomes clear that Macklemore’s penchant for a pop chorus is one of his biggest downfalls, and they plague the rest of Gemini with intermittent levels of effectiveness. For an artist with as much ambition, flare and willingness to make fun of himself, his endless reliance on a twee verse from an indeterminable pop vocalist is a little disappointing and predictable.
But thanks to its inventive sampling of pan flutes and sneezes, as well as a killer feature from a obscurely low-key internet rapper, the appropriately titled “How To Play the Flute” injects life into the record’s otherwise unambitious second half. As of press time, collaborator King Draino has 21 followers on his Youtube channel, 12 on SoundCloud, and just 66 views on this video of him in the studio with Mack. His hook on “How To Play the Flute” is one of the record’s most memorable – “Shazam! I’mma have to David Blaine her. Emoji hands! I’m praying for them haters” – so props to Macklemore for somehow discovering him and potentially making this internet oddity a star.
The final third of Gemini is peppered with fine rap tracks, most of them, as expected, geared towards the radio crowd. From the money-flaunting filler “Ten Million” to the forgettable “Zara” (a song about taking a girl to Prada, but “she say those clothes expensive, so we end up in Zara”), it becomes clear that Macklemore’s heart is in the right place, but his standard of execution is too shaky to let his music become something greater and more memorable. The trilogy of closing songs all merge into one snoozy venture about the ways in which he’s grown as a man and a father, but you find yourself crying out for a little bit of fun somewhere amongst them.
Macklemore’s most loyal fans are still twenty-something, sugar-fed frat boys, and sometimes, listening to Gemini feels like chugging a three-liter bottle of Sprite; it’s sweet and energetic, but at times a little sickly. Don’t feel bad for enjoying it, because there’s still a lot to like, but we’re hardly going to say that it’s a brilliant, genre-shifting masterpiece. Because it isn’t. And Macklemore knows that himself. Instead, look at it like a hip-hop rendition of a sunny, optimistic popcorn movie that you can switch off during, and still manage to find pleasure in.
For more of our reviews, read our take on Lil Uzi Vert’s ‘Luv Is Rage 2’ right here.