From the beginning of the album, Ryan Lewis' production is top-notch. These beats don't sound like anything else I can think of, yet, at the same time, they don't sound alien. They sound familiar without sounding derivative or stale, which is one of the best sets of feelings a group of beats can evoke, I think. Add to that the complexity and original style that Macklemore delivers on each track, and you're in for something good.
The first song, "Ten Thousand Hours," is a perfect lead off track for a hip hop album. It doesn't cover much new territory, it's about making it in the game and the hard work and new ideas that Macklemore is bringing, but the fact is that he IS bringing new ideas, so the song gives a fresh take on the familiar.
Saying that "Can't Hold Us" is my least favorite single off the album isn't to say that I don't like it, just to say that I don't think it's as good as the other singles, as good as it is. And keep in mind that a lot of people disagreed with me, since they sent this song to #1. In terms of the album, it really just builds off of the first track, continuing those themes, but taking it up a level in terms of the rhetoric, as if this song was written quite a while after the lead track.
There isn't much to say about "Thrift Shop" that hasn't already been said. It's a perfect single, seeming like it's a gimmick song, but not really being a gimmick, since it's credible and its not just making fun of its subject, it's embracing it in a way that no one thought of first, yet in a way that so many people identify with. That's what great writing should do and there are few songs that do it as well as this in recent years.
"Thin Line," is, once again, a surprisingly original take on a well-worn subject in hip hop (and music in general for that matter), the battle that the performer faces in trying to balance the career of an artist with relationships that have normal expectations about what someone is supposed to contribute to that relationship. Again, nothing really original in the topic, but it all sounds original in Macklemore's voice and lyrics.
"Same Love" is most notable not because it's a pro-gay hip hop song, it's most notable for the very personal and accessible way that it tries to convince people of its key message. It isn't preachy and it doesn't talk down to the listener, something that is easy to mess up with such an important topic.
By the time we get to "Make the Money," the topics start to get a bit redundant on "The Heist," with yet another song about the game. Not much is added here that we didn't already hear in "Ten Thousand Hours" or "Can't Hold Us." Going in a new direction, for this album, at least, is "Neon Cathedral," which gives Macklemore's story of his own personal fight against addiction. And, again, the words here are more creative and original than most rappers these days, giving a new take on an old topic. "BomBom" is an odd instrumental interlude that shows that Ryan Lewis' compositions work better with Macklemore's voice than they do on their own.
"White Walls" is an odd interlude on the album, not only because of the guest appearance by Schoolboy Q, but because it's the only song on the album up to this point that engages in misogyny (mostly because of Schoolboy). The guest rap isn't poorly performed, it's just that the lyrics don't make a lot of sense in the context of the rest of the album or with Macklemore's overall image.
At this point in the album, "Jimmy Iovine" leads one to wonder why, if Macklemore is so good at writing the individual lines in the songs--and his lyrics are some of the best I've seen in years--why he's so bad at coming up with original song topics. "The Heist" almost seems to have a checklist of "official rap topics" that it is checking off. As noted above, most of these songs are better than most of the songs they follow in topicality, but wouldn't it be more interesting to write interesting takes on new topics, not just the same old stuff rappers have been talking about for decades? Another case in point is the next track, "Wings," which is one of the best shoe-related songs I've ever heard, but it's still yet another rap track about shoes, so we once again have an artist who really could help move the game forward taking a path that minimizes his ability to do so. And yes, I know that "Wings" is deeper than just being about "shoes," but shoes are the centerpiece of the song, so my point is still valid, I think.
The self-examination is a key to "A Wake," where Macklemore takes a look at his place in the national conversation on race as a white rapper. And, it seems, his reflection is not only a good look at his internal struggle, but a good look at the struggle that artists who care about issues that they aren't personally harmed by. As with "Same Love," Macklemore comes out on the right side of the issue and he does so in a way that should give quite a few others room to think and improve themselves as well.
The extended "Gold" metaphors on the next track are interesting and explore both materialism and the ideal world of the average rapper, but ultimately, the message of the song isn't exactly clear. I'm left wondering what the point is. "Starting Over" is exactly the opposite, where the message of recovery, relapse, rebirth, falling off the wagon and how one individual, even if he gets famous, doesn't have all the answers, no matter how much fans want them to, is not just clear, but powerful.
"Cowboy Boots" is a great closer, and one of my favorite songs on the album. I was originally pulled in by the "PBR" chorus, but the powerful nostalgia, not only of a certain time in life, but with a part of Seattle I visited a few times when I was working there, was what really kept me on board. This is a great song, one of quite a few on this album.
Flow: 10. Mackelmore has an original voice that is amplified by the fact that he takes a very original approach to delivering his lyrics.
Lyrics: 10. His lyrics are some of the most creative and original rap lyrics of all time, even when he's talking about tired topics.
Message: 9. On most of the songs on this album, it's clear what Macklemore is talking about, but he doesn't do all the thinking for you, he lets you come to your own conclusions.
Technical: 9. If you've tried to sing along to any of these songs and even remotely get close to Macklemore's delivery, you've probably failed a lot.
Production: 9. I don't think Ryan Lewis' stuff is the greatest in the world, but it's certainly better than most of what's on the radio and it matches up very well with Macklemore's flow.
Versatility: 6. There is some repetitiveness on this album that is forestalled a bit by the originality of the lyrics.
Collaborators: 10. While this group is mostly underground an unknown, Macklemore and Lewis did an amazing job of choosing people that complimented the songs. A lot of these people will go on to be more famous.
History: 10. These songs are dripping with history on many levels -- Macklemore's personal history, hip hop and music history, broader history. This is an artist with something to say and he's saying it well.
References: 9. Another area that Macklemore excels at is weaving historical and cultural references into his songs. There are so many of them in some of these songs that you have to have Rap Genius up to know what the hell he's talking about.
Originality: 10. Total originality. It won't be long till we see a bunch of imitators of this, since there isn't really anything like it already in existence, there's a lot of room for biters to copy it without being too derivative.
Total Score: 92. This really is an original statement and something new in hip hop, which is relatively rare these days when it comes to radio-friendly albums. One of the best of the last decade and beyond.