As the Alcoholics Anonymous saying goes, “The first step towards recovery is admitting that you have a problem.” For Seattle MC Macklemore (real name Ben Haggerty), admittance is a part of expression. When the hype of his debut album The Language of My World fizzled amidst his addiction to alcohol and cough syrup, Macklemore channeled his attempt at sobriety through his music. On 2009’s The Vs. EP, his first release with producer Ryan Lewis, Macklemore triumphantly embodied the confident, eloquent artist hinted at in his past releases. His Red Hot Chili Peppers sampling track “Otherside” tells the chilling story of losing time, opportunity and, ultimately, life, to addiction. The humble admittance of guilt, coupled with stark realism, gives Macklemore’s music a mature and fearless quality. His brush with addiction does not define him, nor does it oversaturate his music. Instead, it provides a background for his wisdom and for his observations.
The Heist, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s new LP, is fearless. Haggerty’s lyrics about sincerity, consumerism, and aging flow effortlessly over Lewis’s arsenal of upbeat productions. “Same Love,” a heartfelt gospel supporting same-sex marriage, proves that the duo actively defies the conventions of the rap game. With its accompanying music video and expression of support for Washington’s Marriage Equality Referendum 74, “Same Love” is the battle cry of the album, simultaneously providing a context of sincerity while demanding the listener’s attention.
The quiet secret about The Heist, however, is that the album’s most poignant, most startling, and ultimately most cathartic moment comes late in the album, after the bounce of “Thrift Shop” and the grit of “Wings” have faded away. “Starting Over” is the 14th track on the album, nestled between the airy, smooth “Gold” and the nostalgic, twanging “Cowboy Boots.” “Starting Over” might drift by unnoticed the first time through The Heist—maybe even the second as well. In time, though, its sparse, muted syncopations and pointed strumming (courtesy of Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwall) pervade the senses.
Macklemore starts with the disarming words, “Those three plus years I was so proud of / I threw them all away for two styrofoam cups.” This line reads like a confession to the listener, and Macklemore seems to forgo context out of desire to get the sin off of his chest. From there, he recounts the story of his own relapse using an array of perspectives. First he focuses on his public image (“Made my sobriety so public there’s no fucking privacy”), condemning the position he put himself in. This doesn’t last long, for he succumbs to self-doubt and worrying as he wonders, “Will they think that everything that I’ve written has all been fake.” As a soulful piano melody enters, Macklemore thinks of his family and his girl, before finally focusing on himself—“Feeling sick and helpless / Lost the compass where self is.” Throughout the entire first verse he expands on his unique lens. Where “Otherside” was a descriptive, broad narrative of the syrup culture’s detriments, “Starting Over” is an immensely personal and strikingly immediate account of Macklemore’s break from sobriety. As the song progresses, so does his state of mind. He drifts from disappointment to insecurity and on to remorse and hopeless confusion.
Macklemore tactfully uses the second verse to tell a story, painting a picture of himself at a support group, where he is approached by a fan who found solace in his music. With this anecdote as a background, he delivers a steady mantra twice before exiting the track: “If I can be an example of getting sober / Then I can be an example of starting over.” The power of Macklemore’s hushed tone over the resurfaced piano melody conveys the steady mindfulness of the statement. Even the structure of the line itself conveys logic, using traditional “if, then” reasoning. The clarity and rationality of Macklemore’s words make it clear that he is speaking to himself as much as, if not more than, the listener. The solace created by this repeated affirmation closes the book on Macklemore’s seemingly unedited thought process.
The beauty of “Starting Over” lies in its fearless admittance of fault and its willingness to confront relapse. As Macklemore emotes about his lowest point and his subsequent dedication to reinvention, his potential as an artist seems limitless. By channeling pain and suffering through the microphone, Macklemore captures true catharsis in a way that triumph, glory, and success cannot. On the majority of The Heist he is outgoing and smooth, the picture of a self-assured MC. “Starting Over” is the work of a frightened and introspective man; one who can’t even finish a song without talking himself through it. The personal imperfections represented in the lyrics are what humanize and ground the song itself. This is Macklemore’s power as a musician: in his darkest moment, he can confront fear through his honesty. Not in private, not in general, not in theory, but in reality and in public.