The last time Macklemore was gearing up to release an album, the world was so radically different to the point of almost being unrecognizable. The Trump Administration was only a year old, COVID was still two-and-a-half years away. In his personal life, Macklemore was riding high after topping the charts in 2016 with This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, his collaborative album with Ryan Lewis. The project peaked at No. 4, and commercially, was a worthy follow-up to the duo’s first album together, The Heist, which featured “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us.” Macklemore has achieved things most rap artists can only dream of, but as he prepares to release his upcoming album BEN, he once again feels like he has everything to prove.
“At a certain point, a long time ago, I was just like, ‘You know what? I’m going to be honest with my music and in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable, in a way that might be telling too much, in a way that might leave myself vulnerable,’” he tells SPIN. Sure, the desire to top the charts again or have the No.1 album in the country still interests him, but the MC has returned to his roots, namely, creating art to satisfy something deep within his psyche. “It’s for the sake of my own spiritual process through music,” he says.
That vulnerability is apparent in his recently-released single “Faithful,” which features NLE Choppa and chronicles Macklemore’s journey with recovery and his struggles with relapse.
“There’s always potential for shame and for guilt around relapse. And you just feel bummed out. You’re like, ‘Damn, how did this shit happen again?’ Like, ‘I said that the last time was the last time. I said No matter what,’” he explained to SPIN.
After 14 years of sobriety and relapses interspersed throughout, Macklemore has learned to give himself grace through his own spiritual practice and through the shedding of his ego. “The other massive component of mental health for me is being of service to others, which is also part of the recovery process,” he says. “It’s the quickest shortcut to get outside of your own way and to think about others. We’re so used to thinking about what we need, what we want, and how we’re going to get it in the immediate moment. And the quickest way out of that is service.”
For Macklemore, this philosophy is congruent with his approach to recovery. There’s a mental aspect, a physical aspect, and a spiritual one. Music constitutes the latter. As such, BEN is a piercing look at exactly where Macklemore is now, as a father, friend, musician, and man in recovery.
SPIN: “Faithful” is perhaps the most vulnerable you’ve been on record. How did you get to that place?
Macklemore: If I’m withholding shit and not truly being transparent in my art, then I’m doing not only a disservice to the people that listen to it, I’m doing a disservice to myself. It’s therapeutic. Why am I hiding from my therapy?
It’s been a while since you released an album. Why did it take a long time to get together?
COVID kicked everyone in the dick. I was about to put out an album two-and-a-half years ago, which is what I normally do. COVID said, no, not now. I care about albums. I care about an album rollout. I care about the album artwork. I care about the arc of an album, the beginning, the middle, and the end. I think that there is a linear sequence that still matters.
Music is getting boiled down. I had to figure out how to reconcile with this industry. We’ve turned five-minute songs into three-minute songs, into two-minute songs, and into 10-second snippets. I don’t know if I want to play that game because when I try to, the game is like, ‘Well, keep going. You might get the ticket, you might get your lucky lottery ticket.’
It just feels like bullshit. I just want to make art. We’re competing as musicians against so many different people. Seventy thousand new songs are uploaded every day to DSPs. That’s fucking insane. It’s beautiful that so many artists have a platform, but it’s harder than ever to get people to pay attention because we are so inundated with so many different forms of media.
It’s a lottery.
Knowing what I know, you make a song, you put it out, and you move on. You make a song that you want to shoot a video for, and put it out. Maybe you do a little EP, maybe.
Fuck the game, fuck playing in this world that it’s going to kill me even if I win it. I just want to be an artist. I want to put out art. The flight of the independent artist, particularly now, is almost realer than ever. Sure, you could make a song and go viral on TikTok immediately and you can just be in your house and be no one that anybody knows. But in terms of actually getting the people’s attention in 2022, it’s harder than ever for everyone.
Does that make you nervous about the new record? Or at this point, are you kind of just like, “Fuck it.”
I’m the second one. That’s exactly what I am. And it was even before I started to put out music, I was like, “Oh, this is different.” And I wasn’t on TikTok. I wish that I had been just from the standpoint of not starting from zero, but I have to come back to, like, why did you start making music in the first place? I’m up until five o’clock in the morning, I talk to you. I finish my coffee, I get to figure out what the album cover looks like, and I get to approve some music videos and I get to take some insert pictures for the record. I get to make art for my job. This is fucking amazing. That’s what I always wanted. And I become miserable when I’m like, “Why is my TikTok not going? Why did this reel work and this reel doesn’t?”
It is such a fictitious world of artificial happiness that we are stuck in. And all signs point to, you have to do all of these things to even have a shot, to even be able to afford the lottery ticket that you’re probably not going to win. I just don’t want to die praying that my reel went viral.
It’s so interesting though, because you are someone who has had multiple songs at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and you still feel that if your song doesn’t go viral if you don’t get this, you don’t get that, it’s deemed a failure in some way.
I would say that I care because I am competitive. I don’t care because of optics. I mean, there’s definitely a percentage that cares because of optics. It’s nice to fucking flex and be like, “Hey, I got the number one record in the country. Look at what I did,” and pat myself on the back. That’s an element. But that’s not the driving thing. The driving thing is what it feels like to bust your ass, work harder than everyone, and it works.
It’s not that I have given up on that by any means. I’m working harder than ever in a certain way. But it’s not that I’ve given up on that. I’m happy with the art that I’ve made. I think that the music is just as good as it’s ever been, and it will reach who it’s supposed to reach. And if you can leave it there, then you’re going to be content with the art you make. If you keep on the pursuit of no number is great enough, run it up. You’re going to be miserable.