After years of building a following through self-released singles and music videos, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis finally recorded their first full-length album The Heist (the followup to 2009’s The VS. EP). Teeming with bravado and originality, The Heist is more than a debut LP; it’s a proclamation. The Seattle hip-hop duo has officially arrived, moving beyond the comfort of its rabid Northwest fanbase with a top ranking on iTunes and a debut at no. 2 on the Billboard charts.
The Heist centers on rapper Macklemore’s kinetic energy and doesn’t shy away from anthems. Each track is a chance for Mack to offer his humble perspective on life with a mix of inverted MC swagger and contemplativeness. He can spit cocky rhymes with the best of them, but he’s doing anything but the stereotypical bling-based bragging. On The Heist’s first track “Ten Thousand Hours,” he crows about nearing the 10,000 hours of practice needed to become a master of his craft, an idea laid out in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. When he’s talking up his style on “Thrift Shop,” it’s all about second-hand clothes that reek of urine instead of designer labels. Macklemore is equally apt at more serious, somber topics, whether it’s his internal struggle over rapping about race as a white MC (“A Wake”), letting alcohol become his religion (“Neon Cathedral”), Nike’s corporatized selling of an image (“Wing$”), or a beautiful ode in support of same-sex marriage (“Same Love”—the most effective protest song in years). Each issue is handled with a deft touch: personal and poignant without being too preachy.
For his part, DJ-producer Ryan Lewis crafts a diverse mix of original music arrangements that help keep things fresh. Unlike The VS EP, there isn’t a sample to be found on The Heist. And while he can come up with a banging beat for the up-tempo numbers, it’s his ability to lean on the keys and horns to seamlessly ease into downbeat, melancholy compositions that gives the record texture. It’s not every day that a hip-hop album closes with a country-tinged track featuring a boisterous men’s chorus (“Cowboy Boots”). The album’s unifying thread is the element of guest choruses. Since Macklemore tends to sit the chorus out, these guest spots become the duo’s calling card of sorts. It works because the chosen artists fit the tracks, whether it’s traditional hip-hop swagger from Wanz and Eighty4 Fly or stirring emotional turns by locals Allen Stone and Mary Lambert.
As a kid, I fondly remember making mix tapes to try to get friends to dig a band or artist I liked. It would be a collection of the best tracks across albums—a conversion mix tape. The Heist is a conversion mix tape unto itself. It may jump a bit from track to track, lacking some continuity, but there should be at least one song for everyone that strikes a chord.