Ben Haggerty knows a thing or two about hard work. Taking a note from Malcolm Gladwell, who preached “the key to success is practicing a task for 10 thousand hours,” Haggerty pours himself into The Heist, his debut studio album.
Haggerty, better known by his stage name, Macklemore, raps about what it took to compile The Heist, which he and producer Ryan Lewis recorded between 2009 and 2012. “I put my skin and all my bones in everything I record right,” Macklemore raps in the album’s second track, “Can’t Hold Us.”
The independently produced, 15-song album is moving and autobiographical, ranging from Macklemore’s obsession with clothing to his former drug addiction (he went to rehab in 2008). In his song “Wing$,” Macklemore raps about his battle with consumerism. His opponent: his first pair of Nike Air Macs. Macklemore says the shoes empowered his 7-year-old self to feel “like Mike”; however, the same brand that elevated him isolated him from his less financially stable peers. The song’s refrain — a chorus of children singing about broken dreams — is as haunting as his memories.
In “Starting Over,” Macklemore raps about his relapse from his three-year drug-free stint: “And you know, what pain looks like/ When you tell your dad you relapsed and look at him directly into his face,” he recounts. The steady rhythm and repeating chords illustrate the cyclical nature of his journey to recovery.
Macklemore, a white rapper from Seattle, also tackles other social issues in the hip-hop culture, ranging from homosexuality to racial equality. In “Same Love,” Macklemore acknowledges the stigma the word “gay” has in hip-hop: “If I was gay/ I would think hip-hop hates me.”
And in “A Wake,” he could be describing himself: “It’s always so refreshing to hear somebody on records/ no guns, no drugs, no sex, just truth.” It’s refreshing that Macklemore avoids degrading women in his rhymes and that his lyrics are about equality rather than misogyny.
Macklemore’s clearly enunciated words are poetic if not spiritual. “Neon Cathedral” compares the bar to a chapel; the ritualistic sharing of the wine becomes the routine trip to the bar, drinking “one or two more.” The transformation from a simple bar crawl to a prayer is as transcendent as the Pascal mystery.
Meanwhile, Lewis’ instrumental mix adds another layer to Macklemore’s words and rhythm. “Thin Love” sounds like multiple dial tones giving off different frequencies. “Make the Money” opens with what sounds like an echoing siren, before a repeating piano ostinato keeps tempo. The guitar in “Cowboy Boots” gives the track a Celtic feel while Macklemore sings about drinking at the bar — which is fitting to his Irish heritage.
Providing social and political awareness, The Heist is empowering. It shows a reformer who overcomes past regrets and the “10 thousand hours” it takes to achieve them.