While living in Seattle I saw with my own eyes how many, if not all, of the area’s successful music releases find their legs in the Emerald City. It’s simple: release a great record in Seattle and your local listeners will support you. People in the Sea-Tac genuinely love the arts and, probably more than any other city in the U.S., there is a huge record collector culture. And, of course, a vibrant live music culture. So I wasn’t at all surprised to see a new release from Seattle’s own Ben “Macklemore” Haggerty heavily promoted in a recent Best Buy ad. The record, titled The Heist, is a neu hip-hop gem featuring Mack on vocals and Ryan Lewis on production. The record, which features a number of already-beloved Seattle hip-hop classics from the duo’s past local releases, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling an impressive 78,000 copies during its first week of release. Not bad for an album that hasn’t even yet been added to the Metacritic or Allmusic databases. And not too big of a surprise, really, when you consider that there are well over 3.5 million people currently living in Seattle metropolitan area.
At first glance The Heist could be hastily written off as a neu rap take on the Atmosphere model. A white emcee and a white producer framed in a hipster-meets-classicist-hip-hop veneer. A thrift shop emcee. Simple beats, a simple rhyme style and a lot of big, memorable hooks. And sure, that’s fair enough, but there’s more going on here than phoned-in impersonation. Mack playfully emulates Slug’s style in the same near-Xerox manner in which Action Bronson takes on the Ghostface vibe. Like Bronson, Macklemore is, at the moment at least, a much harder working emcee than his inspiration. He’s recording a whole lot of songs and putting an incredible amount of thought into his lyrics, performances and releases. So much so that I feel safe saying that Mack is maybe already more of a songwriter than Slug has ever been – if only because he clearly works harder on his writing. Slug came first, and when he’s on, he’s superior, but Mack has much to offer on The Heist’s 15 tracks, and he’s lucky to have found the perfect producer for his laid-back, storytelling style.
Ryan Lewis, whom, like most hip-hop producers, I can’t find a while lot of information about, is much more musical in his approach than his Atmosphere equivalent, Ant, was for the first 10 years of his career. But unlike Mack, Lewis doesn’t take a whole lot from Atmosphere. His compositions, to my ears, sort of feel like a hip-hop equivalent to Spoon or even Wire. Lewis makes big productions in a smart, minimalist way that beg me to believe that he’s either (A) a clear-headed visionary, or (B) a very good self-editor. Lewis never once falls into the safety zone of break beat-riding, nor the jazz riff pit of obviousness. He’s a key-based producer whose compositions seem like the perfect fit for the kind of indie rock listener who, from time to time, likes to really dig in on a hip-hop record. The sound is big when it needs to be and sweet and subtle the rest of the time. It’s a great fit for Mack, whose presence is quite obviously the center of attention on The Heist.
Lead single “Same Love,” backed by a snazzy video and a Mary Lambert-sung hook, has crossover written all over it, Macklemore talking about equality in a way you probably haven’t heard in hip-hop music. The song is simple – a piano loop, a whole lot of rap-talk words, a horn lick here and there and, of course, an enormous R&B hook that’s held high by a notably epic handclap/drum arrangement. A great track. That said, “White Walls,” is frustrating. There’s are great things about the song, like the oddly catchy production, and some wholly tasteless moments, like the Hollis-sung hook and the guest verse from ScHoolBoy. I could pick apart everyone song on The Heist in such a fashion, but what would get boring. What you need to know is that: (1) Macklemore is an interesting emcee who, if listeners can get stomach his similarities to Slug, just might be a Next Big Thing candidate; (2) Ryan Lewis is the rare producer who makes neu-style hip-hop that doesn’t feel cheep and tinny; (3) This is a good enough record that’s maybe a little too long and has, ohh, about nine too many guests; (4) If you like indie music, you’ll probably have a good time picking apart and getting to know Lewis’ oft-brilliant backdrops. We suggest you get the record, rip it to your computer, cut the stinkers and spin this fun, solid national debut from Seattle hip-hop heroes Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.