Macklemore is anti- a lot of things.
From the opening number of his This Unruly Mess I've Made tour, he denounces big media and its thirst for inconsequential drama with “Light Tunnels", showcasing his anti-establishment stance. In "Wings" and "Thrift Shop" he speaks about consumerism. In "Same Love", homophobia; in "Growing Up", sexism, and in "White Privilege II" he speaks out against white supremacy.
While he earnestly tackles these seriously tabooed topics in his music, Macklemore also shares what he is all about, the things that he stands behind and the things he celebrates, and with that he does not take himself too seriously. Immediately following that introductory blast of truth, he turns around and humorously introduces the nonsensical club banger “Brad Pitt’s Cousin”. From the very start with these two numbers, it is a pleasure to watch Macklemore perform live. His contagious energy and the admirable level of swagger make for an engaging night.
This man is such a giving performer and has a comfortability with the audience we have scarcely seen before. He wants to be as close to his people as possible - as evidenced during “Can’t Hold Us” when he literally steps into the crowd where he is held by his feet and we all bounce along together scream-singing “NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NAAA!”
There are some people who know how to make music, and some who know how to make that music iconic by the way in which they perform it. Macklemore is without a shadow of a doubt the latter.
Which brings us to the performance of his most famous song: “Thrift Shop”. Macklemore struts across the stage in his fur coat, smilingly offering out the mic to the audience at points he knows we know. While “Thrift Shop” is an extremely playful, tongue-in-cheek jam, it also has quite the anti-consumerism bite to it which ties back to his 2011 song “Wings” (also performed during the set), thus showcasing the continuity and genuity of Macklemore's voice from the start of his career. Both songs force the audience to stop and reevaluate why we think we need those Jordans to make us happy, why we accept “50 dollars for a t-shirt” as a reasonable amount to be spent on clothing. Not only does Mack speak, with finesse and good humour, for those who can’t afford such an extravagant wardrobe, but he criticizes the idea ingrained in our society that we can buy our happiness.
These two moments pull together his early and present career and amplify what makes Macklemore different from other pop and hip-hop artists. Instead of bragging about the things that he has, he sheds light upon why these things are unimportant. As he exclaims in “Irish Celebration”, during which he swings an Irish flag around the stage, “live tonight, ‘cause you can’t take it with ya”.
Macklemore only continues to display his wisdom and social consciousness in his performance of “Same Love”, a track that emphasizes the insensitivity of many artists and fans alike in his own genre. This song is what first made us stand up and listen to Macklemore in 2012. He zeros in upon a truth that often gets overlooked:
“If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me/Have you read the YouTube comments lately?/"Man, that's gay" gets dropped on the daily/We become so numb to what we're saying/A culture founded from oppression/ Yet we don't have acceptance for 'em/Call each other f*****s behind the keys of a message board/A word rooted in hate, yet our genre still ignores it/Gay is synonymous with the lesser”
He next transitions to the 2015 answer to this song, “Growing Up”. Instead of addressing homosexuality, Macklemore now addresses the expectations set upon his not yet born child. At the time of writing this song he did not know the gender his child would be, The ways in which he offers advice to his whatever-gendered child is a truly progressive step toward gender equality. Macklemore sings:
“They say girls shouldn't be tough/And moms should raise their kids at home/But baby, I know that that isn't true/Cause your momma's the toughest person I know/I wanna raise you to be like her/And watch you show the world how to do it on your own/I'm still tryna figure out who I am/I don't wanna mess this up or do this wrong/I'm gonna be there for your first breath/I don't know if I'll be there for your first step.”
He breaks down the stereotypical gender roles, not only by telling his future child that regardless of what their gender might be, he wants them to be as tough as their mom, but by exposing his own uncertainty in not knowing if he is fit for parenthood. That takes a lot of humility. In a special moment that only a live performance can offer, Macklemore, glowing new father that he is, changes the lyric of “I don’t know if I’ll be there for your first step” to “a month ago I was there for your first step” and we all celebrate together the time he has been spending with his year-old daughter. In both “Same Love” and “Growing Up” we hear from the confidently sensitive, wise side of Macklemore of which we may not be aware in his more up-tempo hits. While those songs are what made him famous, these moments of vulnerability are truly magical.
We would be amiss not to mention the uncomfortably soul-bearing performance of “White Privilege II”, in which Macklemore shares his questions about being a white ally in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement without taking away black people’s voices. He is a jumble of questions:
“Should I even be here marching?/Thinking if they can't, how can I breathe?/Thinking that they chant, what do I sing?/I want to take a stance ‘cause we are not free/And then I thought about it, we are not "we"/Am I in the outside looking in, or am I in the inside looking out?/Is it my place to give my two cents?/Or should I stand on the side and shut my mouth?”
The sensitivity of the subject renders the song in itself a bit taboo, but it holds questions with which white allies need to grapple. After Macklemore’s segment of the song, the Kenyan trumpet player, Owuor Arunga, comes out and speaks. A video is shown of Jamila Woods singing the last resounding lines of the song:
“Your silence is a luxury, hip-hop is not a luxury/What I got for me, it is for me/What we made, we made to set us free"
like a chant one would hear in a march. The representation of Jamila and the black trumpet player as black people were deliberate. Macklemore actively takes part in the fight against racism. He knows that hip-hop belongs to black culture and he speaks out about not trying to steal from it as a white privileged man.
After these rather serious moments, Macklemore lightens the mood once more with the very silly song, “Let’s Eat”, by the end of which, he has a plate full of cookies that he throws out to the front rows of the audience. Socially conscious man that he is, he even remarks that it’s not fair for only the people in the front to get cookies so he takes up the challenge to throw one all the way up to a particular man ("that dude back there in the plaid shirt") in the second level. The cookie doesn't quite make it, but throughout the whole business Macklemore makes sly, laid-back jokes that made the audience feel at home.
Branching off of this moment of audience involvement, later in the uproarious song “DANCE OFF”, Macklemore brings up two girls from the audience to partake in an actual dance off! It is incredible to see his reactions to them going all out. He inspires such a complete release of inhibition, starting back with his 2011 hit “And We Danced”. (As he says in that dance-inciting track: "I will not, I will not give a damn who watches me/ I will live, I will live! I will break that a** off".)
For the finale, Macklemore brings it home with the first single off of the This Unruly Mess I’ve Made album, “Downtown (feat, Eric Nally)”: a complete and utter celebration consisting of the actual presence of Eric Nally, yellow and green confetti falling from the heavens, and pyrotechnics blazing on stage behind Ryan Lewis and company.
Overall, the show is quite the fully encompassing package deal. There is no short supply of Macklemore's magnificently quippy rapping, he and his backup dancers' groove-tastic dancing, ample audience participation, and a clear reciprocation of appreciation between audience and performer. Macklemore introduced by name all those who had been on stage with him throughout the night, and sincerely thanked the audience for coming out and “for supporting independent hip-hop music."