Rocked Out: Macklemore VS. Ryan Lewis

The local MC teams with a producer and fellow perfectionist to create a new sound with familiar beats.

Local lyricist Macklemore asks a few simple if obvious questions in a song titled "B-Boy" on his 2005 debut, Language of My World: "In the end, what's classic?/Radio bubblegum? Or a voice filled with passion?" Nothing new here, of course—the contest between commercial interests and artistic intentions has always packed enough tension to snap a bridge cable.But if you consider these lines in the context of Macklemore's long-delayed follow-up EP, VS., dropping Friday, Nov. 27, then that trio of interconnected queries becomes illuminating rather than yawn-inducing. This time out the MC, born Ben Haggerty on Capitol Hill 27 years ago, decided to forgo the rainbow coalition of producers he employed on his first disc for Ryan Lewis, a largely unknown local beatmaker he met three years ago via MySpace.The result is seven sophisticated songs that combine Saul Williams–style experimentation with Kanye West–style melodrama, most of which are looped around samples from rockers, including the Killers and Arcade Fire. In other words, VS. is heavy on the passion and light on the bubblegum.Macklemore shares album credit with Lewis, an increasingly common practice in one form or another in Seattle hip-hop and beyond. (The latest local release to do so is Grayskul's Maker-produced GrayMaker.) More important, the fact that Lewis' name appears alongside Macklemore's is an acknowledgement that the aesthetic ties that bind here aren't the lyrics but the beats—something Macklemore himself admits."The main force behind it, the kind of glue to it all, is the samples that we chose—the contemporary kind of rock vibe," says Mack-lemore. Of his decision to share credit with Lewis, he adds: "The producer in hip-hop has oftentimes been left out of the loop. But it's equal. He put in as much time [on] this if not more. I wanted to give him the recognition."Yes, time has been an issue. The duo started VS. last summer, but they finished mixing it in their just-opened north-end studio only a week ago. VS. endured a number of fits and starts, such as Lewis' six-month jaunt abroad in the middle of recording and the duo's tendency to revise until everything is perfect—which of course means they had a hard time finishing anything. ("It's never gonna be perfect," Macklemore says.)It's a habit Macklemore calls a "character default," one that prompts this stringent analysis from Lewis. "The large majority of the time we see...eye-to-eye stylistically, but sometimes we don't, and we just have to deal with that. We both ultimately just care a lot. Oftentimes it's about stuff that nobody will notice but us, and I think that's what really defines someone as a perfectionist. It's ultimately a good quality, but extremely exhausting when you're doing the music."Although the EP has a definite rock bent, Macklemore and Lewis avoid the tired rock/rap mashups the late DJ AM helped start, not to mention earlier Limp Bizkit-ed mutations. Macklemore's protean delivery (he can easily shift from spoken-word soliloquy to battle rhyme) and Lewis' carefully edited beats (save for an uninspired Red Hot Chili Peppers loop on "Otherside," the samples don't dominate the pace of each track) allow them to walk a tightrope most would've fallen off."Irish Celebration," carried by Macklemore's stentorian tone and Lewis' aggressive reworking of Beirut's "Scenic World," is an ode to the Irish whose production adds a fresh twist to its source material. Lewis says: "What sold us on this beat when I finished were the synthesizers. That brought it from sounding like some Irish-sampled drumbeat to being more an electronic Irish banger." Later a live trumpet and violin were added—a bit of complexity that enhances Macklemore's history lesson–meets–barroom toast to his heritage.The best song on all levels, however, is closer "The End," which would've been as out of place on Macklemore's debut as an orphaned baby on a stoop. Antony and the Johnsons' melancholic "Another World" undergirds a metaphorical tale about Mack-lemore's love affair with music; though anyone who knows the gut-wrenching original will recognize it immediately, Lewis develops it into a hip-hop beat via understated drums and aching horns.With all these samples, Macklemore and Lewis know they can't release VS. without running into legal trouble. So they've opted to offer it on a donation basis, a la Radiohead, on their as-yet-unproduced Web site (natch) in an attempt to appease any bored attorneys. But for Macklemore, the the real point of the project was the experience of expanding his writing and his sound with Lewis: "For the most part, I was never really exposed to these artists that Ryan was showing me. It's just crazy how much the production can change the vibe of your lyrics."

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