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The Professor Is In

Want to see them?

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis come to Buffalo this Saturday, November 9, to perform at the First Niagara Center.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis bring one of the smartest shows in hip-hop to the First Niagara Center

It’s okay if you’re confused by Macklemore. A white rapper from the Seattle ’burbs rocking thrift shop threads and addressing same-sex marriage in his songs might not fit the mold of what you think a rapper looks like or sounds like.

But behind the white boy swag that has made Macklemore one of the most prolific rappers in the game is a gifted storyteller with a big heart and even bigger ideas.

Macklemore, formerly Professor Macklemore, born Ben Haggerty, looks at the world through a different lens—a world that is particularly unsettling when it comes to equality, hatred, and greed—and addresses our fucked-up planet head-on in his thought-provoking, quick-witted lyrics. In what seems like one quick minute since he and musical counterpart/producer Ryan Lewis took over the scene with their acclaimed album The Heist, Macklemore has changed the way people see and listen to hip-hop, where it comes from, and what it can do.

Considering that the guy found nearly every possible way to screw up his career, it’s no surprise that Macklemore has a fresh perspective. He’s dealt with alcoholism, drug addiction, and all the excess that come with pursuing fame in the music business—all before hitting 30 years old. He went to rehab in 2008, cleaned up, and relapsed in 2011 on prescription cough syrup. He had been making music since 2000 and was still virtually an unknown in the industry.

For a period of time, Macklemore couldn’t escape himself, but sobriety and accountability prevailed. “It’s very important to go into the rooms of AA, smell the shitty coffee, and be reminded that without sobriety, I would have no career,” he told Rolling Stone.

Macklemore has worked with producer, collaborator, and friend Ryan Lewis since 2009, and he owes much of his success to Lewis’s ear and business savvy. The duo got busy, putting out The Unplanned Mixtape and The Vs. EP in 2009, followed by The Vs. Redux in 2010, which reached No. 7 on the iTunes Hip Hop chart. With Macklemore’s ferocious lyrics and Lewis’s knack for creating imaginative beats, it was only a matter of time before the combo blew up.

Then came The Heist.

Released in October 2012, The Heist is an ambitious, 15-track coup d’état of the hip-hop genre. The fact that it was independently produced, recorded, and released by Macklemore and Lewis, and reached No. 1 on iTunes within hours of being launched, is groundbreaking in itself. Content-wise, the album succeeds in being catchy without all the poppy filler, and socially conscious without being preachy. The Heist opens with “Ten Thousand Hours,” a testament to the dues Macklemore has paid over the years, where the rapper boldly announces that he has indeed arrived: “About damn time that I got out of my basement/About damn time I got around the country and I hit these stages/I was made to slay them.” Macklemore/Lewis follow up with their radio hits, “Can’t Hold Us” and “Thrift Shop,” both insanely infectious and fun tracks. Backed by a driving piano beat and Ray Dalton’s soulful chorus, “Can’t Hold Us” is one of those sing-a-longs that sticks to your brain. Billboard-topping “Thrift Shop” is probably the song you heard before you knew who Macklemore was, and despite being one of the more overplayed radio songs in recent history, it is nonetheless loveable as it harkens back to Macklemore’s early days parading around town in velour jumpsuits and slippers.

If you caught the Video Music Awards and heard Mary Lambert belt out “Same Love,” then you already know that Macklemore isn’t one to shy away from controversy. His pro same-sex marriage stance is refreshing and pertinent: “I might not be the same/But that’s not important/No freedom ’til we’re equal/Damn right I support it.” It’s the kind of important, memorable track that hip-hop has been sorely lacking, and undoubtedly contains one of the most powerful messages on the album.

A song with a title like “Make That Money,” may sound like any other predictable rap song about bling and whips that every other predictable rapper is putting out these days. But Macklemore cleverly uses it as his anti-rap declaration and, with Lewis’s unique production, crafts a song that’s about as far away from conventional hip-hop as you can get. “Starting Over,” featuring Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses, delves into Macklemore’s addiction and struggle with sobriety: “And you know what pain looks like/When you tell your dad you relapsed then look him directly into his face.” It is a vivid and heartbreaking line, and Macklemore’s honest and sincere confession is simultaneously hopeful and uplifting when you consider how far he’s come.

Killer hooks from Lewis and masterful lyrics from Macklemore aside, each song on The Heist is about something. Whether it’s God, gay rights, addiction, or bargain shopping, Macklemore has a remarkable way of opening eyes and turning heads. He’s the kind of artist who exists in exactly the right time and place, delivering more substance in one album than some rappers manage in their entire careers, and saying what needs to be said without any apologies.

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