The Knack Music Reviews

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis: The Heist

The Heist is one of the year's big sleeper hits: an indie hip-hop album from a Seattle rapper, Macklemore, and beatmaker, Ryan Lewis, that debuted at Number Two on the Billboard 200. The record has its charms (the single "Thrift Shop," a cheeky ode to second-hand duds) and its virtues (the marriage-equality anthem "Same Love"). Unfortunately, Mack¬lemore's virtuousness overwhelms his far more modest charms: whether name-dropping Malcolm Gladwell and touting his work ethic or boasting about his indie bona fides, the dude's self-righteousness tests, and, eventually, exhausts, your patience. A pity, because his partner's beats are playful and inventive.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis swept the rap categories at Sunday night's Grammy Awards, picking up statues for Best Rap Song ("Thrift Shop"), Best Rap Performance ("Thrift Shop") and Best Rap Album ("The Heist").
A passionate debate about the Seattle rapper's likely win had been percolating on the internet for months. Many pointed to Kendrick Lamar's "Good Kid Maad City" as the LP that should have won Best Rap Album, and to Kanye West's "New Slaves" for Best Rap Song. Part of the controversy focuses on whether Macklemore is more a pop artist than a pure rapper, while others wonder if Macklemore, who is white, attracts the attention of Grammy voters who may not have otherwise paid attention to the category (Grammy voters don't cast ballots for every category -- they can vote for a maximum of nine categories and are supposed to focus on what they know).
The pair was also featured on the cover of this year's Grammy voters' guide.
Macklemore pre-empted part of the conversation by posting a screenshot of his text messages with Lamar. Macklemore and Lewis were set to be joined by Madonna for a performance of "Same Love" while 34 couples get married in the aisles of the Staples Center.

Seattle's Macklemore has a lot working against him from the start. For one, he's a white rapper in a music landscape that still isn't wholly comfortable with the idea. If that weren't enough, he's also one of those "positive" MCs, the kind who wants to tell us what's wrong with the world today while refusing to curse. In many ways, he's the Mumford and Sons of hip-hop: Both acts are sincere almost to a fault, with no qualms about dropping lyrical bombs about faith and truth and triumph. And because of this, too, both acts are frequently used as a cudgel against less "authentic" or "uplifting" acts. All Macklemore needs is a banjo and—wait, no, he's got one of those, too.

There's one more similarity: Also like Mumford and Sons, Macklemore has sold a ton of albums: His latest album with producer Ryan Lewis, The Heist, made it to #1 on the iTunes charts and is projected to sell north of 70,000 copies in its first week—no small feat for an independent artist.

But while his folkie counterparts from London seem comfortable, or even complacent, with their place in the universe, Macklemore is more agnostic. In the 15 tracks of The Heist, the former Ben Haggerty agonizes and philosophizes over what it means to be a well-meaning white rapper in the world today.

Early single "Same Love" has gotten the most attention on this score, and it sums up much of what The Heist is all about. A gay-rights analogue to Lupe Fiasco's "Bitch Bad," the track finds Macklemore openly campaigning for marriage equality over hook girl Mary Lambert's best Regina Spektor impression. As with anyone on a soapbox, it's tempting to take issue with some of Macklemore's more self-aggrandizing pronouncements ("If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me"— hasn't the guy heard of Lil B lately?) but at a time when enjoying the best hip-song song of the year involves excusing a huge amount of homophobia, these are apparently still arguments we need to have. As he raps later, "A certificate on paper isn't gonna solve it all, but it's a damn good place to start.

Case in point: "Wing$," which comes as Macklemore's unofficial rebuttal to "My Adidas," a critique of sneakerhead materialism that could have easily come off as scolding, especially with chorus of children singing about how much they want to fly.
Elsewhere on the album, though, Macklemore walks the fine line between sincerity and self-parody. The noir scenery of "Neon Cathedral" often rings false, while "Ten Thousand Hours" never transcends the TED-talk uplift of its source material. What's missing, too often, is the sense of joy—in wordplay, in performance, in something. He comes closest in "Jimmy Iovine," a crazed fantasy about the sins of major labels that closes with a biting retelling of Some of Your Friends May Already Be This Fucked, but he's drowned out by Ryan Lewis' bargain-basement MMG beat. (It's a rare misstep for the producer, who does admirable work on the rest of the album.) Macklemore's never going to be Nicki Minaj, but he's got the gruff voice and singing ability to be Kid Cudi, at least.

Or maybe he could be something else entirely. Album closer "Cowboy Boots" is a unabashedly silly track that's built around a banjo singalong straight out of the Sufjan Stevens songbook. It's also a refreshing exhale after an hour of earnestness, a simple-hearted ode to the pleasures of PBR and old friends. If Macklemore is going to keep doing this social-realist thing, he should borrow a lesson from the pioneers of country: There is a time for dead dogs, and there is a time for honky-tonks.
Can Macklemore hold it together long enough to rise above the "conscious rap" label? We hope so, but we can't deny that we're worried for him. We all know what happened to the last "positive" rappers to make it big.

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Pharrell Williams: Happy

Pharrell has just been on a roll over the last few years while we've been waiting for him to release a second solo studio album. In 2010, he composed the film score to the much adored Golden Globe nominated animated film 'Despicable Me' and since then things only seem to be getting better for him. He has appeared on three number singles from other artists since he released his last one in 2006, but now he's well and truly back as a solo star in his own right as he releases a brand new single entitled 'Happy' which he wrote for the much-anticipated 'Despicable Me 2'.

There's not a lot you can criticise with 'Happy'; with Pharrell's classic soul voice it has a strong Motown feel - it's simple and archetypal with no embellishments. Unbelievably catchy, it's definitely the kind of song that makes you want to dance and sing along - an important element for any children's film tune. More importantly, it's infectiously cheerful with its summery vibes that ease that seasonal misery winter often brings and it's just so wonderfully innocent - not something often found in your average modern pop song.

It gets a little repetitive after a while, but maybe that's the beauty of it; it's uncomplicated with a very clear sentiment, and see if you don't clap along ("if you feel like a room without a roof...")!

And from The Los Angeles Times, Pharrell Williams, a 'Happy' and busy guy

By Mikael Wood

Late on a recent evening, the singer-rapper-producer was shuttling between two studios at a Melrose Avenue recording complex. In one he was working on music for this spring's "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," which he's scoring along with Hans Zimmer; in the other he was supervising final mixes for his upcoming solo album.

Now Ryan Seacrest's people had arrived to shoot Williams' cameo in a video, set to his song "Happy," marking the 10th anniversary of the radio host's popular morning show.

"You ever get that feeling on a long day," Williams asked no one in particular, "where the only thing that feels good is …" And with that he let his face slacken into a kind of open-mouthed zombie expression.

Always a busy guy - in 2013 he helped create two of the year's biggest pop hits in Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" and Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" - Williams has been in even higher demand lately, thanks in large part to his first Oscar nomination. "Happy," from "Despicable Me 2," is up for original song at the Academy Awards, to be held March 2.

A cheery gospel-funk number Williams said he modeled after Curtis Mayfield, "Happy" serves in the animated movie as a means of humanizing Gru, the grumpy villain voiced by Steve Carell. But it's also done brisk business as a stand-alone single, racking up more than 75 million streams on YouTube and an additional 45 million on Spotify. On Wednesday it sat atop the iTunes single chart and at No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100.

"When you look at the history of songs written for films, the ones that've broken out to have a meaningful life beyond the film are very rare," said Chris Meledandri, whose Illumination Entertainment made both.

Still, "Happy" faces stiff competition at the Oscars from "Let It Go," the sweeping ballad sung by Idina Menzel in Disney's smash "Frozen," and "Ordinary Love," the feel-good U2 song from "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" that last month won a Golden Globe.
So before he began his recent night at the studio, Williams, 40, was up early on the campaign trail, sitting for morning television interviews (wearing the hat he made famous at January's Grammy Awards) and then attending the Motion Picture Academy's annual Oscar nominees luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

On Sunday he sang "Happy" at the NBA All-Star Game, and Wednesday night he did the song at the BRIT Awards in London — each appearance a valuable opportunity for exposure before final Oscar ballots are due next week. He'll perform "Happy" yet again on the Academy Awards telecast.

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Foster The People

"You say, 'Now what's your style and who do you listen to?'" Mark Foster sings on Foster the People's first album, before adding defiantly, "Who cares?" Later, he punctuates "Call It What You Want" with the declaration, "What I got can't be bought." With just a few catchy singles and a reputation for energetic live shows, this L.A. trio already sounds defensive and cagey, as if bristling from some imagined attack. We've heard their sort of scene dissection before, mostly from younger bands entering a fractious pop arena (Arctic Monkeys, for instance), but Foster the People-- at distinct odds with their nurturing moniker-- seem to be daring you to categorize them, assess them, or, hell, even engage with them. By way of introduction, it's a bit off-putting, especially soundtracked by demonstratively upbeat West Coast indie-pop buzzed on disco-infused vodka.

Once you get past the genre paranoia, Torches actually has enough going for it that Foster the People could conceivably make those same points through their music rather than their lyrics. The songs dodge and weave stylistically, avoiding perceived critical jabs by scavenging pop history for new old sounds. Foster's falsetto alternately evokes Jamiroquai and Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue-- surely the only overlap between those two performers-- while his keyboards volley between early-90s radio dance pop and more recent MGMT doodles. Foster the People's proud maximalism also extends cannily to their songwriting. Foster can write a chorus so bold and simple that you can hear it once and sing it for a fortnight, a tactic that has already made minor hits of "Helena Beat" and "Pumped Up Kicks" (the latter of which promotes hipster-on-hipster violence).

Particularly hoisted onto such dense production, the hooks are so big, blunt, and persistent that even my four-year-old niece counts Foster the People as her favorite band. But on Torches that plays as a crutch as well as a strength. For example, the band runs a two-line melody into the ground on "I Would Do Anything for You", never building on it or allowing it to evolve in any way. Still, when this earworm-core works, as on the singles, its pleasures are perfectly modest and enthralling. All of which makes the group's dodginess only more distracting-- no less so considering their rapid successes: a major-label deal, a Billboard top 10 debut, a coveted slot at Lollapalooza, and the devotion of at least one fan who prefers them over the Wiggles or Odd Future. Listing those accomplishments may strike Foster the People as an accusation of selling out, but seriously, relax. As the song that's wedged into my cerebellum goes, "Who cares?"

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