The last time Macklemore released a solo album, it wasn't ironic to call him a conscious rapper.
The president had ascended to the nation's highest office despite losing the popular vote. The country was embroiled in an immigration debate stoked, in part, by the politics of fear. And a natural disaster in the making would soon highlight the systemic fault lines of race and class in America.
In 2005, The Language of My World touched on all of those social issues and more. It couldn't have come at a more appropriate time — unless it was released today.
Lest we forget, Macklemore was talking about "White Privilege" more than a decade ago, when his original song of that title appeared on Language, before the concept was even a passing thought in white America's collective consciousness. Then, he unwittingly came to epitomize it. He and producer/longtime collaborator Ryan Lewis released 2012's The Heist and — by virtue of its mainstream accessibility characterized by the gay-marriage anthem "Same Love," and diamond-selling pop hit "Thrift Shop" — robbed a deserving Kendrick Lamar of the best rap album Grammy. When the pair returned with last year's This Unruly Mess I've Made, batting clean-up with "White Privilege II," the sprawling, confessional dissertation of a song only made matters worse by critical and commercial accounts. As a white rapper enjoying stratospheric crossover success in a genre where his very presence alluded to cultural appropriation, he was critiquing a system that made him a primary beneficiary. It compromised his voice, as earnest and well-intended as it was, and put him in an impossible position. More than the woke white ally trying to be a bridge, he'd become a wedge as divisive as the issues he was advocating. It's the kind of thing that could be exhausting enough to tempt one to abdicate responsibility altogether, if one has the luxury to do so.
Following that release, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis decided to take an amicable break, leaving the Seattle rapper back in his solo bag. Working mainly with producers Josh "Budo" Karp and Tyler Dopps, he recorded his latest album in his basement studio.
Rather than an attempt to reconcile his two artistic extremes, Gemini, out today, is a reminder — perhaps from Macklemore to himself more than anyone else — that it's OK to revel in his carefree side. On an LP that finds him collaborating with a cast ranging from Lil Yachty ("Marmalade") to Kesha ("Good Old Days"), joy is his most deliberate act of resistance on this album. Yet he forgoes much of his earnest critique of social injustice, at a time when the nation is neck-deep in it.
It's a choice that reflects his own inherent position of privilege. But Macklemore believes exercising a little self-care can be revolutionary, too. More than anything, as he told me when we spoke on the phone last week, he finally feels liberated from the expectation to hold himself to a higher moral standard for the sake of fans. And he's still about practicing what he's always preached, even while piloting his Rolls Royce Wraith around the streets of Seattle.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Rodney Carmichael: Before we talked, I went back and listened to your last solo album, The Language of My World from 2005, back when you were still considered a conscious rapper. What do you think the Macklemore of that era would think if he'd been Rip Van Winkl'ing since then and woke up today to see where you are now?
Macklemore: Damn. That's a deep, great question. It's funny 'cause that era was so different. But I think that the old Macklemore would be blown away at where the music has gotten, how many people the music has reached at this point and the platform I have now. It's interesting because at that time I never thought my music would get played on the radio, or that I would be in venues the size that I am across the world. That would be a big trip to my old self. And I think that there are characteristics of [the new] record that completely line up with what The Language of My World was. And there are some records on Gemini that probably wouldn't. But that's the beauty of art: We get to evolve and create our own path as we go. And as we grow and have new experiences, the art reflects that.
How hard was it finding your center without having your collaborator of the past decade?
At first when Ryan and I decided to take our break, I had some fear. You know, Ryan and I had worked together almost 10 years every single day. And when you hit that 10-year mark, there's definitely a trust and a second set of eyes and ears to everything that you do. So when you remove that it was like, "Whoa, this is crazy. So all these decisions are gonna be on me now?" There was a freedom in that, but it was also scary at the same time. But once I got in the mode of just recording, I was working with Budo and Tyler Dopps — who produced the majority of it — and really getting to a place of trust with them. I had to find the ability to trust the room to be my second set of ears.
At the same time, there was also a liberating part of it. When you're collaborating with someone as a duo, you have to compromise on everything. Every single thing needs to be approved by both me and Ryan, and when it's just my solo album, it's like, "Nope, I'm cool with that verse. Let's run with it." And I worked a lot quicker being able to make decisions without having to go back and forth with Ry.
You cover a lot of ground on Gemini but there seems to be a less overt approach to some of the social issues of the day. Did you feel you were getting a little too heavy-handed after "White Privilege II" or that you were becoming too off-putting to your audience?
That decision didn't come from any criticism. I'm really happy with what "White Privilege II" was and what it did. It was one of my favorite parts of performing on the tour last year. But how many times can you keep saying the same thing? I feel like music is a form of resistance and that doesn't need to come via an overt social message; or, "This is what this song is about. Here you go." Music is something that can uplift, it can inspire, it can pull somebody out of a situation or a place in their life. Music is a tool to heal and it doesn't need to just be spelled out what that healing should look like.
So with this album I want to find a place of fun. I want to get back into the booth. I want to record everyday and I want to enjoy myself. There was such a density to the last album and there was so much processing around "White Privilege II" — which I think was really beneficial. It was really good to have deep conversations about race on a daily basis. It really pushed me in that way, as an artist and as a human and as someone fighting for equality. That was a huge part of This Unruly Mess. But with this album, I don't need to convince anyone that Trump's a racist. Trump has already either convinced you, or if he hasn't convinced you, you're a racist as well. Or, you're not paying attention and you're not going to pay attention to me, if that's the case. People already have their mind made up and I didn't think that I needed to make some political rap to try to uplift the world right now from Trump's doing. I can do that in different ways. I can make "Glorious" and uplift you. I can make a music video and showcase the love I have for my grandma and pull you out of that instead of being like, "OK, now this song is going to be about this political issue."
So that really is your grandmother in "Glorious"?
Yeah, that's my real grandma.
How did you convince your grandmother to not only be in a rap video, but do all the crazy stuff that y'all are doing in the video?
Well, for one, it was a surprise. I just asked her, "Do you wanna go run around the city and do a bunch of crazy things?" And she was like, "Let's go!" That's just who my grandma is. We took it slow. That was over the course of a couple of days. We needed to take some breaks. It was like 100 degrees in Modesto, [Calif.], so I wanted to take it at her pace and not tire her out too much. Shooting a music video is a lot of work for anybody, particularly if you're 100 years old in 100 degree heat. But she had a great spirit about it, loved it and is like a hometown celebrity now in Modesto. People stop her and take pictures and she just thinks it's hilarious.
If I asked her if she's a fan of her grandson's music, what would she say?
Uhhh, she'd probably kinda lie and be like, "Ohh, I think it's great!" But is my grandma bumping my music? Definitely not. She listens to, like, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. I don't think she's bumping any rap music. No.
Who do you see as your audience now? Is it the same audience you imagined yourself in conversation with back in '05. And how has it changed since the astronomical success of The Heist?
I think the audience has definitely changed and it's constantly changing, particularly in America. Outside of America, people have a tendency to hold on to music and artists for longer. In America, there's such a quick turnover rate of what's popping this week or who's the newest rapper in the last two months, that it's tough to see who my audience is in America.
In the era of The Language of My World, I just wanted to make music for anybody that would listen. I didn't have a specific type of person in mind. I still don't. If someone resonates with the art, if they feel like it hits the heartstrings or makes 'em turn up, to me, that's a win. I want to make art for as many people possible.
In an era where dumbing it down has proven successful for a lot of artists, you've never shied away from challenging your audience. But did you feel the need to soften your approach a little bit after the cooler response This Unruly Mess I've Made got?
At the forefront of this album, I wanted to make music that I wanted to listen to — music that I wanted to bump when I got in my car. And as much as I enjoy making the denser music that came on This Unruly Mess I've Made, I didn't find myself listening to it. I didn't get in the car like, "Ooouuu, I want to listen to 'Light Tunnels' right now" — a six-minute song walking you through an awards show. I wasn't going back to a lot of these songs I was making. And I think for the first time in a long time Gemini is an album that I want to bump in the car. I turn it on and I get an emotion from it that makes me turn up or makes me feel cool. I wanted to have fun. And when I was having fun in the studio, those are the types of records that came out. I've already proven, in a way, that I can do those other songs. I want to challenge myself and [ask,] can I make music that I really want to bump. And I did that.
Yet, in a certain sense, you have to be in a position of privilege to even make that artistic choice, especially at a time when there's so much going on in the country politically and racially. You obviously were addressing these issues when a whole lot of artists weren't. But to then say, at this really critical point, "I wanna go back to having fun a little bit more here" — do you see the irony of white privilege in that at all?
Yeah, I do. I think that's a good point. Again, just because I'm not hitting the subject matter on the head doesn't mean that [the music] doesn't have benefit in how it affects human beings. Oftentimes, it might be more effective in uplifting people to not be talking about what President Trump is doing or this social issue at the time. There was so much of it on This Unruly Mess I Made, and so much processing around it, that at a certain point it's like, "You know what, let me take a step away from this musically." Now, that doesn't also mean I've taken a step away from it in my actual life. As long as there's a balance between what I'm doing in the community, where I'm advocating my financial resources, how I'm stepping up for the youth in my city, what I'm getting behind publicly and what am I getting behind privately [and] financially. All of those things equate to me either feeling good about who I am as a human and an artist, or not.
The irony that you speak about is completely accurate, musically. But at the same time, I think music evokes different emotions and different vibes. For this album, if I was to come back and be like, "These six tracks are about these six different issues and injustices happening right now in America," I don't think that's benefiting where the world is right now. At least, that's how I felt in my heart in the studio. When Trump won, I immediately wrote "Wednesday Morning" the next day, 'cause that was what was on my heart. That shift was heavy. I felt that pain, I felt that weight, I felt that scare. I felt depressed; I wanted to capture the emotion. But as the months went on, it was like I want to celebrate through art and I don't need to write a song just because that's what the public might think or expect from me.
Do you ever feel like you're damned if you do and damned if you don't, musically? As someone who's used to taking self-inventory and trying to be honest about whatever faults and failures you might be grappling with, what happens when you reach the point where you get tired of apologizing?
I didn't tap into that feeling. I definitely scrutinized myself and there was a process of trying to dig deep on certain records on this album, but it was personal: What does a breakup feel like? What does being in active addiction and living a dishonest life feel like? But in terms of me breaking myself down like I have in the past, there wasn't a lot of that on this record and because of it I think for whatever reason it is I think I had more fun.
I felt freer, I enjoyed the process more, I didn't feel like I needed to apologize for s***, I didn't feel like I needed to owe anybody anything. I felt free to make the art I wanted to make. If I wanted to stunt on a record, I stunted on a record. If I wanted to rap my ass off, I rapped my ass off. If I wanted to sing in Auto-Tune, I'm 'bout to sing in Auto-Tune. That's where I was, and it's funny to hear you even ask this question because it feels so foreign to me 'cause I haven't been in that place. And again, I've been in that place [before]. This Unruly Mess I've Made, I was so in that place. Even though The Heist had already been made, once that criticism started coming in — once those conversations started happening around cultural appropriation, or [being called] the "Thrift Shop" guy, or post-Grammys and all of that — all of that was super heavy for me. We're years removed at this point. Over time those moments kind of teach you who you are. And I feel like I don't owe anybody s***. I feel like I make art because I love to make art. If you resonate with it, great. If you don't, that's fine, too. But this isn't like some cerebral process anymore, like, "Let me dig into the depths of my soul and try to produce a concept for this record and for that record." If you expect that and you love that, go back to the old music. If you don't, that's fine, too. That's just where I'm at with this. And I think that's why Gemini was probably the most fun I've ever had making and recording an album — and also equates to the music that I want to listen to the most. Because I don't need to hear myself process on that level. I've already done it. Let's move on.
You got a random tweet last month from someone who insisted that you cut and denounce your old hairstyle because it has become a popular style among white nationalists. And not only did you take the time to respond but you answered that you'd already cut it — which goes back to this looming expectation that fans seem to have of you to set a moral tone, especially in terms of social justice, based on your body of work. Has that ever become burdensome?
Well, to answer the first part, I was just telling somebody that I cut my hair. I wasn't denouncing the haircut. I wasn't agreeing with the fact that they were tying it into white supremacists or whatever. I was just stating that I cut my hair and I think that it got taken out of context. But I thought that it was humorous to just respond with, "I cut my hair, like a long time ago." That was not some overarching political statement or anything.
But the other part of it, I have felt that in the past. I have felt the need to uphold, like you said, a certain character and moral standpoint in my music, to speak about certain topics, to jump in conversations and dialogue with the hope to make the world a better place and to speak about issues that other people might be afraid to speak on, and do it in a way that really gets to the core of who I am as a person. And I think that those are genuine things that I care about.
But I think that in a way Gemini is almost more honest than other music that has come out in the past. And that's not to say that anything that has come out in the past has not been true or that it's been contrived; it has come from a genuine place. It has come from a place of soul searching, it has come from a place of what is on my heart. All of those things are completely true. But [on] this one, I embraced all sides of myself. Like, I'm about to go get in a [Rolls Royce] Wraith and go to an AA meeting. From the AA meeting, I'm 'bout to go work with some young people. From that place, I might go stop by the Gucci store on the way home. That is who I am as a human being. And if I leave out that I'm driving in a Wraith to the AA meeting, that's not being real. If I don't touch on the Gucci store, then that's not being real. If I'm just highlighting that I'm in recovery and I'm working with youth, that's not 100 percent genuine. This is me being 100 percent me. It might not be as heavy on the side of social justice on this album, but that doesn't mean that in my real life I'm not prioritizing that. This is all the Gemini. This is all who I truly am. The sentiment of [me] doing this music for myself is through and through on this album. This is what I wanted to create. This is how I wanted to do it. I wanted to do it in the basement of my house and raise my daughter and do it with my friends. And have fun doing it and I achieved that. That's never to say that I'm past the point of scrutinizing myself or trying to become a better version of myself; I do that on a daily basis. But I wanted to show this side of my personality, as well, that I feel like maybe was omitted in the past, because I felt like I had to uphold what the public thought of me. On this one, I let that s*** go.