Call it the "difficult" third album from Seattle's Macklemore, or the second LP from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, but however the discography is counted, This Unruly Mess I've Made is the release that follows the Grammy-winning, massively successful The Heist, the one that introduced this pop-rap rapper/producer duo to most of the world, meteoric rise and all. That platinum albatross started hanging off the duo early on, and Macklemore's declaration that Kendrick Lamar should have won the Grammy instead certainly foreshadowed how LP two, or three, was going to be "difficult," but Unruly is surprisingly good at dealing with guilt and expectations, exorcizing its demons in a way hardcore fans can enjoy, and casual listeners can avoid. Put the needle to the record and "Light Tunnels" featuring Mike Slap takes the listener on an elaborate, unrelatable journey through music award shows and the hypocrisy of fame. It's big, bold, and will be considered cloying by anyone who bristles at Macklemore's emo-ish excuses for doing well, but its main fault is taking on too much and winding up too busy. Same can be said for the closing "White Privilege II," where the rapper does the numbers and wonders why his brand of love and understanding sells so well to the public but rarely gets a "yes" vote at the polls. A mom/fan is even confronted in the song, and the lyrics bounce between the mindsets in a manner that's fascinating more than it is riveting. In other words, the bookends of the album address what needs to be addressed, and the end user can endure, adore, or accept them with the option to skip on return visits. That said, the middle of the album is The Heist all over again, and maybe even better, as the significantly improved writer Macklemore displays on the masterful freestyle session "Need to Know," where he drops the excellent "I swear rapping make it easy to lie/But secrets don't make it easy to write." "Kevin," featuring a beautiful bridge from Leon Bridges, skillfully tackles the overprescription of drugs as it watches a friend die at the hands of big pharma addiction, while the sublime "St. Ides" offers the empowering "I know the devil fancy me/But that don't mean the muthf*&ka get to dance with me," making that Grammy more deserved than ever. "Growing Up" is a moving tribute to fatherhood with Ed Sheeran on the assist, but there's a vibrant Lewis production-powered party in here as well, with the throwback-loving "Buckshot" ("My city's known for garage flannel butt rock, and a buncha Sub Pop/I was on that buckshot!"), the swagger-fest "Brad Pitt's Cousin" ("My cat's more famous than you ever will be" after counting his pet's Twitter followers), and the golden-age banger "Downtown" (rap godfathers Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz, and Kool Moe Dee join an album where all the guests are utilized to their fullest) all equaling the infectious thrill of the previous LP's "Thrift Shop." The bookends are tracks that aim to be masterworks and fall just one step short, but everything in between is delightful, stunning, or both, making the album's title less than one-tenth apt, and Macklemore & Lewis both emo under-promisers and Grammy-worthy over-deliverers.
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AllMusic Review by David Jeffries