21 January 2011

Review: Macklemore The VS EP (Not a book)

Usually you can expect to find book reviews here at Metro Marginalia, but I think I'm going to open things up a bit every now and again. And right now, I've got some music that I'm dying to talk about.

Macklemore, a rapper out of Seattle, first came to my attention with this post on my favorite baseball blog. It's his tribute to one of my favorite people ever, the voice of the Seattle Mariners, Dave Niehaus. The announcer passed away a few months ago, and to say it shocked me and others is an understatement. When I thought about it, Niehaus has to be one of the five or so voices I've heard most in my life, and he was really the voice of growing up for me. There was nothing better than turning on a Mariners game and getting to hear Dave spin a story.

Well, Macklemore and his producer Ryan Lewis got around to releasing the video for "My Oh My." And it's amazing. Take a look for yourself.


And if that was all Macklemore had ever done, I'd think of him pretty fondly. It's an amazing tribute to an amazing man. But, a cousin of mine was raving about the rapper over Christmas, so I decided to delve a bit more deeply. After all, it'd be pretty great to discover a good rapper from Seattle. 
I found out you could download a free copy of his The VS EP on his myspace page (scroll down just a bit, it's the second thing on the far right side). I gave it two full listens today, and I highly recommend the thing. All of the tracks are pretty darn cool, but a couple really stand out in my mind.

"Crew Cuts" is a tribute to growing up in the 1980s, and begins with a driving guitar riff, that pulses throughout the whole song. After Xperience drops his first verse, Macklemore chimes in with some humorous talk about how street he was... when he was younger than 10. It's some pretty amusing stuff, but Ryan Lewis's production really shines here. At the end of the track, some excellent scratching accompanies the guitar riff decaying into an overdriven power-chord line. The scratching really adds something, and it's great to hear that style used effectively. 

"Life is Cinema" relies on another overdriven sounding riff. This time, the disco style bass line fuels a relentless drive throughout the song. When it drops out, you can't help but want it to come back in. Using some samples from the "I've got soul..." chorus in The Killers "All These Things That I've Done," Lewis makes what seems like a sick bridge, but actually turns into an extended outro. Macklemore doesn't always have the best flow, but on this track his rapping really shines.

Like many other rappers, Macklemore struggled with alcohol and drug abuse in his career. For a known quantity like Lil Wayne, this is something that can be overcome. The label is willing to put up with shenanigans, so long as the artist keeps selling. Is it wise for an artist to screw themselves up because they can? Not at all. But it's even worse if you're an unsigned musician, as Macklemore is. He attributes alcohol abuse to a prolonged period of unproductivity, but has now been sober for over two years.

"Otherside," the emotional peak of The VS EP, is Macklemore's PSA for living a life on the straight and narrow. He raps over a Red Hot Chili Peppers' sample, and identifies with people using "Drank" or "Syrup" and other drugs. What's really interesting he is his ability to say "Yeah, I understand why you like it, but here's why you shouldn't." I wonder if the "voice of experience" angle will be enough to dissuade others from starting to use the things that derail so many careers. If ever there was a chance, this track is it. I've never used any of these things, but the track was absurdly powerful nevertheless. 

I have to give some props to "Irish Celebration" for using a sample from Beirut's "Scenic World." Beirut is one of my favorite band's in the world, and hearing a sample of their music in a rap song instantly made me smile. Macklemore's song is a bit tough to identify with, as I'm not Irish, but the lines "We put our glass to the sky and lift up, and live tonight because ya can't take it with ya. So raise a pint for the people that aren't with us, and live tonight because ya can't take it with ya" are pretty fantastic regardless of heritage.

Appropriately, the album closes with "The End." Here we get Macklemore proving his slow jam chops. It's a pretty gorgeous number, and I can't get over one haunting line:
Don't you love music? It's such gift and I'll give it to ya.
That's a hell of a motto. 

Now, the album is far from flawless. Like I mentioned, Macklemore can trip over his tongue every now and again, but it's not crippling. And Ryan Lewis has produced this album phenomenally. I love the beats, I love the samples (he uses the string line from "Empire State of Mind" at one point, and makes it amazing by totally thwarting your expectations of where it'll go), and the way he can break some things down shows promise. But throughout the album, I wish he had played with the levels a bit. I often get the feeling that beats are coming from a bottle, or are too tight somehow. You never get the feeling that things open up. He crafts some brutal (in a good way) beats, and they never really get to breathe. 

But overall? It's one of the better albums I've listened to in a while. It's no My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but what is? There's something intimate about this album, and yeah, I'm prejudiced in it's favor. I want to see a successful Seattle rapper. And if it's the guy who can do such a good job memorializing Dave Niehaus, even better. But The VS EP is very much worth checking out. Don't let the fact that he's pretty unknown outside of Seattle stop you. I promise you won't regret the time spent with it.

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