If Macklemore does something good, and no one is around to see it, did it even happen? The performatively woke Seattle rapper has expressed his support for same-sex marriage and Black Lives Matter via treacly, interminable pop-rap tracks. He apologized to Kendrick Lamar after winning a Grammy over him—“It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you”—by screenshotting it and posting it to Instagram. He wants desperately to be seen as a good guy. When Twitter shit-taker @fart called on him to denounce his haircut—the sort of high undercut favored today by Richard Spencer and the other fancy Nazis—Macklemore actually responded, “Got rid of it over a year ago.” Do not even get in Macklemore’s mentions on some Nazi business!
His first video off the new Gemini, “Glorious,” is even based around a trip to his grandma’s house, as if he couldn’t even do that without bringing a camera crew along. The record is being touted as his less fussy, less explicitly political, “back to rap” record. It’s his first in 12 years not created alongside the producer Ryan Lewis, with whom he found stratospheric success rapping over intensely theatrical pop, full of gospel sing-alongs and garish synthesizers; it seems tailor-made for listening to in a minivan along with a pack of screaming toddlers. His 2005 solo debut, sans Lewis, sounds remarkably like an unremarkable 2005 underground rap record, with some tight drum loops and a lot of hot-shit rappety rapping and only the occasional hint of his eventual shift to Facebook politics. But any hope that Gemini would be a scrappy cred claim along those lines is exploded by the bouncy pianos and handclaps of “Glorious,” as well as the bouncy pianos and cutesy singing of follow-up single “Marmalade.” The very first second of the album is a bleeding howl from returning hard-rock hook-man Eric Nally, and it is also accompanied by bouncy fucking pianos.
In other words, this is the same old Macklemore, stuffing all of his songs with drop-out catchphrases and horn solos and minutes-long American Idol-style belting, all starry-eyed and corny in the same way that, say, the music in a Broadway musical is. He’s a nimble rapper, at his best when he’s rapping clearly and slowly but much more fond of every-beat exhibitions of breath-control prowess. His favorite move is to start a verse at a whisper and end it at a televangelist howl, as he does on “Firebreather” and “Over It” and probably most of the other tracks here, if you want to keep track. It’s part of a tendency in his music toward thinking rap isn’t enough, that bells and whistles and dance breakdowns are necessary to maintain the listener’s attention. It’s the same earnest neediness that sinks his well-intentioned progressivism, which here pops up not as full conceptual arcs but in occasional cringe-worthy lines like the aw-shucks Uncle Kracker confessional “Intentions,” in which, among a litany of other sins, he admits, “I want to be a feminist but I’m still watching porno / I want to be healthy but I’m-a eat this DiGiorno’s.” He also equates watching too much TV with hashtag activism, a detailed portal into the problems of being Macklemore.
A few of the 16 tracks point toward the album he likely set out to make. Offset pops up to continue his year-long hot streak on “Willy Wonka,” which takes awhile to devolve into Macklemorian excess via sinister horn blasts and the claim, “Bitch, I’m Willy Wonka!” He evokes Migos more abstractly on the syrupy “Ten Million,” the only track here without a guest spot and by far the most successful. It’d slot in neatly alongside any of the Metro Boomin tracks circling through the radio right now. “How To Play The Flute” aims for the same woodwind-and-bass tension as “Mask Off” and “Portland” and strikes remarkably close, and “Zara” evokes a Boi-1da ambience that Macklemore matches with jokes about Target and quesadillas. Tracks like these make you sort of want to grab the rapper by the shoulders and just say, “See? You can do this, it’s okay.” But soon enough he’s back into the spot-lit, orchestral theatricality of “Miracle,” the whispered self-affirmations of “Church,” the plodding power ballad to his daughter, “Excavate.” His relentless, corny positivity could’ve made Gemini a slightly less successful take on the “you’re beautiful the way you are” rap of Logic, Lil Yachty, and even Joey Bada$$, but the rapper’s sentimentality and kitchen-sink production ethos land the record alongside Katy Perry’s Witness in the post-Hamilton bargain bin.