The aftermath of a musical duo going their separate ways will often reveal who wore the artistic trousers in their relationship, so to speak, and sometimes the outcome will be surprising. Despite the thought of Kesha releasing a record without the assistance of Dr. Luke at the boards seemed likely to yield somewhat shaky results, given that so much of her identity as an artist arose from her DJ’s unique ear for sugary pop melodies, her latest album, Rainbow, proved to be her most mature and charming full-length project to date, even if it was unequivocally inconsistent due to the hodgepodge of producers who were enlisted in lieu of Luke. However, in the case of GEMINI, the first studio album from Seattle-born MC Macklemore without the assistance of long-time partner Ryan Lewis since they broke out into the mainstream with their viral hit Thrift Shop, the prospect of the rapper pulling through this solo stint with one of his more successful projects seemed unlikely. As was the case with Dr. Luke in relation to Kesha, it was never a secret that Lewis provided the backbone of his musical relationship with Macklemore, with his flashy, brass-wound production style setting the MC up with all the instrumental expanse and hook-centred song progressions he could ever need, yet Macklemore always stole the spotlight, and not for all the usual reasons of such a partnership. Of course, it’s to be expected that the rapper would be the face of a hip hop duo consisting of an MC and a DJ, but Lewis remained perpetually underrated as a producer, in my opinion, and a great deal of this can be likely chalked up to Macklemore’s presence in the media as a white man who so desperately wants to fit in with the social justice community, yet always manages to catch flak from both sides of the aisle. Just as the rapper came under fire for criticising the unhealthy portrayal of same-sex relationships in mainstream hip hop and the media on his pre-breakout single with Lewis, Same Love, his subsequent support for struggles for social equality in his music have received heat from the audience to which he is trying to appeal, due to his, let’s say, less than artful commentary on such issues. Indeed, Macklemore’s sociopolitical commentary has seldom pushed past the point of superficiality, which has led to an arguably unjustified backlash from people on the social justice side of the political fence, calling the MC out as being a try-hard who’s simply signalling his virtue in order to score progressive political points. Although Macklemore is surely not deserving of the vast majority of derision he receives for his oversimplified portrayal of certain social issues, the artist does little to aid his plight when he continues to misunderstand the current political climate and pass corny comments on problems that seem beyond him, such as his recent apology for the fact that many of the men who took part in the recent alt-right protest in Charlottesville sport a similar hairstyle to his. Unfortunately, as a result of the MC’s extensive media presence and his unique and somewhat controversial personality as a lyricist and celebrity, Ryan Lewis’ abilities as a producer and his foundational contributions to his material with Macklemore are often overlooked, to the point that it may not have occurred to many people just how risky a move GEMINI is. Although Macklemore may have the personality to justify a solo endeavour at this point in his career, he would need to have devised a clear direction for such a project in order to make up for the lack of Lewis’ definitive approach to hip hop production. Oddly enough, however, for the most part, the production across GEMINI seemingly attempts to recreate Lewis’ unique style, leading to questions as to why Macklemore decided to ditch his DJ, as the album offers little more than pale imitations of the sound that put the rapper on the map in the first place. With the MC also coming through with some of his least charismatic performances and lyrical undertakings to date, whilst there are numerous instances of notably misplaced guest features as well, GEMINI seems to exist as undeniable proof that, without the pillar of Lewis’ production propping up his stylings, Macklemore struggles to bear the weight of an entire project.
Looking at GEMINI on the surface, the fact that Macklemore scores himself some horn-driven beats with a heavy emphasis on grand instrumental swells could make it seem as if the artist is sticking to his guns in a way that would at least be unlikely to procure any particularly poor results. Indeed, at the very least, the production across such songs seldom seems completely unsalvageable, but for the most part, they also amount to some considerably less inspired impersonations of that which Ryan Lewis could have executed with a whole lot more punch and passion. All too often do these tracks simply lack the forcefulness in their expanse, leaving many of the refrains across the record feeling dry and dull, or the texture in their timbre to feel especially fleshed-out or sonically satisfying in general, with the end product ultimately coming across as a faceless parroting of Lewis’ past contributions to Macklemore’s music. The opening cut, Ain’t Gonna Die Tonight, is a typical affair for the MC, with the instrumental’s plinking pianos, rumbling horns, smooth bass lines and a marching drum beat striving for the same uplifting fanfare of previous Macklemore songs, but the various components of the production aren’t organised in such a way as to elicit any sort of pay-off in the build-up. Instead, it’s almost impressive just how flat the beat manages to sound even after all the horns and guitars that one could ever want are piled on top of one another. By the point of the bridge, which seems to have been set out to be the most tense point in the track, the fact that most of the instrumentation cuts out leaves this passage as the only section in the cut that’s of a considerably different volume or timbre and, as a result, renders it completely blunt and ineffective for achieving any semblance of the emotional impact for which it seemed to be aiming. Instead, with even Eric Nally’s initially shrill shrieks over the hook being substituted for a more suspenseful delivery, this bridge comes as a completely jarring tone shift, and not in a way that could be said to be striking or dramatic, but merely in such a way as to squander any sense of tension that the song had already struggled to snowball up until this point. The following cut, the piano-driven and gospel-inspired lead single Glorious, is similarly lacking in the well-worked textures that Lewis would typically bring onto a track, whilst its transition between the constant thud of the kick drum on every crotchet beat during the verse to the half-time at the beginning of the chorus, once again, kills any of the tension or swell that the song seemed to be attempting to build up. What’s perhaps more conspicuous about these first two cuts, however, is just how misplaced their outside artists seem to be, and this is an issue that recurs across much of GEMINI. Employing a glam rock singer for the attempted arena rap anthem of Ain’t Gonna Die Tonight is undoubtedly a questionable decision on paper, and the results are no more convincing, with Eric Nally of Foxy Shazam seemingly mistaking being as loud and as piercing as possible for sounding impassioned. To be fair, taken out of the context of the song, Nally’s performance would perhaps work over a flamboyant rock tune, but attempting to appropriate the over-the-top theatricality of a glam rock vocalist into a pop rap anthem like Ain’t Gonna Die Tonight simply seems horribly misguided. Slightly less overtly unsuitable is Skylar Grey’s performance during the hook of Glorious, but even still, the tone of the singer’s voice is simply too thin to match the grand gospel expanse that the instrumentation seems to be attempting to pull off.
There is, however, a conscious effort made on a great deal of GEMINI to not solely stick to the luscious, funky instrumentals that one would normally expect from a Macklemore album, but this unfortunately rarely amounts to much more than hopping from one trendy style of hip hop production to another, to the point that specific songs to have climbed the charts recently seem to have been completely ripped off at points. The most brazen example of this would unquestionably have to be Marmalade, which, since its release as the second single from the record, has routinely been compared to D.R.A.M.’s hit single from last year, Broccoli, and for good reason, with both songs featuring the same chinking, staccato piano chords, bubbly trap bass line, a reference to food in the title and even a guest appearance from Lil Yachty. As such, it’s hard not to place the two side-by-side and, in doing so, Broccoli is far more successful than Macklemore’s derivative Marmalade. The excessive bounciness to Broccoli is what gives it such an infectious charm, which is boosted by the fact that both D.R.A.M. and Lil Yachty are oozing charisma and chemistry in their performances on the cut. Marmalade, however, simply seems like a poor man’s version of Broccoli. The instrumental is deficient in the same loveable buoyancy, with the production, in general, being far less full, deep and rich, whilst Macklemore’s monochrome, disinterested delivery doesn’t hold a candle to the heights of D.R.A.M.’s soulful crooning, just as Lil Yachty is incorporated like any other feature, without any thought given as to how to make the most of utilising such a unique personality. As GEMINI rattles on and Macklemore continues to lift ideas from his contemporaries, there seems to be an odd conflict of self-awareness present on the more derivative tracks on the album. Despite rapping on Firebreather that “there’s no father to [his] style”, the MC seems to at least be aware that he’s blatantly pulling influences from other hip hop artists. For example, the fact that Offset of Atlanta trap trio Migos appears on Willy Wonka seems to be a nod to Macklemore being aware of his adoption of a flow and delivery similar to that of Migos and other trap rappers on this song and other cuts, such as the featureless Ten Million. Likewise, with a title like How to Play the Flute, it would seem as if the MC is aware of just how similar this track is to fellow flute-driven trap hits such as Future‘s Mask Off or Drake‘s Portland, but he does absolutely nothing interesting with this self-awareness to justify so clearly riding on the coattails of this contemporary zeitgeist. Indeed, it’s not as if these explicitly imitative cuts offer anything of a higher quality than the songs from which they are so heavily taking cues, instead often suffering from a comparative lack of personality, so this self-awareness comes at no benefit to these endeavours, and only works to clash with Macklemore’s aforementioned claim on Firebreather.
This does, however, bring us to the lyrics across GEMINI. The lyrical content across any record from Macklemore has continued to be the most disagreeable and yet oddly likeable aspect of his artistry. Although the rapper’s cursory commentary on the current sociopolitical climate of the United States has remained consistently lacking in depth or interesting observations, his previous explorations of his own alcoholism and his criticisms of the music industry have often provided a level of insight that one may mistakenly view him as incapable of offering based on his political tracks alone. Likewise, although Macklemore has unequivocally earned his title as the king of corniness in hip hop, he has often managed to strike a strange, almost dopey charm in his lyrics at times that, although undoubtedly ineffective on a lot of people, has worked to his benefit in securing a somewhat endearing persona. These qualities, however, are seldom present on GEMINI, with the MC’s lyrical undertakings over the course of the record, for the most part, amounting to his most insipid, uninspired and perfunctory to date. Although the attempted relatable or populist angle of Macklemore’s lyrics has rarely been executed with much in the way of profundity, such songs on GEMINI reach previously unattained degrees of desultoriness for the artist. Intentions bears the brunt of this new level of vapidity, as Macklemore finds himself weighing his ideals against his reality, which amounts to nothing more than the artist proclaiming his desire to have one thing, before acknowledging that his actions work in contradiction to this wish. At the most mind-numbing of times, this merely leads to the MC repeating himself in bars such as, “I wanna be sober, but I love gettin’ high”, “I wanna get exercise, but I’m too lazy to work out” or, “I wanna eat healthy, but I’ma eat this DiGiornos”, whilst his desires of self-affirmed justice in lines like, “I wanna be a feminist, but I’m still watchin’ porno”, miss the point of why exactly he wishes for this in the first place, instead unnecessarily resorting to mindless self-flagellation. Other cuts across GEMINI witness Macklemore display an unhealthy narcissism that has rarely shown up in his lyrics this flagrantly in the past. His tale of a broken relationship on Over It, for instance, in which his ex-girlfriend has moved on but he has not, sees the MC display a worrying sense of attachment, to the point of stalking his ex’s social media accounts, and an unjustified feeling of resentment towards her, even comparing this woman to a terrorist. Meanwhile, Corner Store offers little more than a smaller scale version of Thrift Shop, whilst Zara witnesses Macklemore list off traits of his partner in a way that seems as if he’s trying to convey her singularity to the listener, but with the rapper largely naming banalities, like her shopping habits and reading preferences, without offering any witty turns of phrases or humorous comments, he fails to convey the degree of endearment for which he seems to be striving. With Willy Wonka offering only platitudinous braggadocio, whilst the saccharine sentimentality of Good Old Days runs no deeper than the starry-eyed nostalgia that one could infer from its title, GEMINI cultivates the worst and most generic lyricism of any Macklemore project thus far, with the only morsels of charm being confined to the final three cuts of an hour-long, 16-track record.
Although GEMINI is far from completely inexcusable or irredeemable, the salient issue with its production, its performances and its lyrical content all circle back to what comes across as an intrinsic lack of inspiration or enthusiasm. Given the artistic stakes of the album, with it being Macklemore’s chance to prove that he’s not entirely dependent on the bedrock provided by Ryan Lewis’ production, the MC should have had all the motivation in the world to prove his worth on his own terms, but the record comes up short on all fronts in this regard. Whilst there are stand-out moments on both an instrumental and lyrical basis, in the cases of Levitate and Excavate respectively, such moments are overshadowed by the astonishing mediocrity that engulfs the rest of the record, with there barely even being present any of the musician’s usual goofy charm to guide him in his state of treading stylistic water. Indeed, Macklemore has unfortunately proven that he struggles to fend for himself without the support of Lewis’ extravagant and glossy production style, with GEMINI not necessarily displaying growing pains for the artist, but a complete inability to grow in the first place.
The Vinyl Verdict: 4.5/10