Last month, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis debuted an eight-minute suite of soaring gospel choruses, somber piano, audio footage and anguished raps in the form of “White Privilege II.”

The sequel to Macklemore’s 2005 track went viral, inspiring innumerable think pieces, interviews with track collaborators Jamila Woods and Hollis Wong-Wear and sympathetic notices from activists such as Delray McKesson, one of the principal organizers behind #BlackLivesMatter.

‘White Privilege II’ is a messy, stately and impassioned search for redemption by attempting to force societal change

Meanwhile, a choice lyric, “The culture was never yours to make better/You’re Miley, you’re Elvis, you’re Iggy Azalea,” drew an aggrieved response from Azalea and visible annoyance from another “white rapper,” MGK. The song was an advance warning for the imminent arrival of This Unruly Mess I Made.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5htzSZOYbV4

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis fled their urban Seattle surroundings to record “This Unruly Mess I Made.”
“White Privilege II” is a messy, stately and impassioned search for redemption by attempting to force societal change. It’s reflective of Macklemore’s talent as a painfully self-aware lyricist: He notes his racial similarity to the police officers overseeing his activist friends of color and wonders whether his privilege makes him complicit in America’s ongoing discrimination against people of color. He wonders if he has unduly benefited as a “white rapper,” and he knows some hailed The Heist, his 2012 breakthrough with Lewis, as a pure-as-driven-snow antidote to the unchecked depravity of mainstream rap culture.

In our ongoing and somewhat-reductive debate over Macklemore’s privilege, we often forget that he contributes a worthwhile voice to the rap discourse

This Unruly Mess I Made would be a tedious bore if the Seattle duo stuck to “White Privilege” testimonials or, worse yet, another apology for The Heist’s controversial ascent up the charts, landing atop Billboard’s Hot 100 with the much-debated “Thrift Shop” and the jaunty, less topical “Can’t Hold Us,” along with The Heist memorably beat out Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City for Best Rap Album at the 2014 Grammy Awards.

Instead, Macklemore separates the “white rapper” myth from his reality: a musician, a father, a recovering addict and a hesitant, but ultimately grateful, Christian. His relationship to God is a persistent theme. “I never believed in God/Things got so fucked up that I had to pray,” he tells us on “St. Ides.”

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
On the set for the hit single, “Thrift Store.”
When Macklemore addresses his tumultuous rise to fame, it’s in the form of “Light Tunnels.” Featuring impressive arrangements by Lewis, he opens with a swooping string ensemble that follows Macklemore’s description of taking a limo to an awards show, shifts to a orchestra crescendo as a makeup artist “covers up my freckles, concealer on my chin,” then peaks with tremolo drums and guest Mike Slap’s airy chorus.

As Macklemore tells his story of career achievement, he picks at our collective expectations of what achievement means. “Most artists I know don’t get invited to this show,” he raps. “Success determines our value…the ratings come down to who’s popular now and the song of the hour.”

But he’s not above boasting, either. On “Brad Pitt’s Cousin,” he yells out, “This shit didn’t happen overnight.”

Give Macklemore and Lewis credit — no other Billboard chart-topping rapper from this decade is paying respect to early ‘80s old-school pioneers like they do

Further evidence that Macklemore and Lewis’ orbit has expanded beyond the somewhat idealistic world of Northwest backpackers lies in This Unruly Mess I Made’s starry cameos. Leon Bridges delivers homespun soul on the chorus for “Kevin,” which is addressed to a friend who dies from a drug overdose. Ed Sheeran adds a raspy melisma to “Growing Up,” a cloying but sincere open letter from Macklemore to his daughter.

And give the duo credit — no other Billboard chart-topping rapper from this decade is paying respect to early ‘80s old-school pioneers by bringing them onto their albums, as Macklemore and Lewis did for the album’s lead single “Downtown.” Lewis’ arrangement opens with a delicious bass line reminiscent of early ‘80s NYC classics like Grandmaster Caz and Chris Stein’s “Wild Style Theme Rap,” then shifts into Eric Nally’s mono-pop homage to Petula Clark’s “Downtown” while Caz, Kool Moe Dee and Melle Mel deliver an enthusiastic backing chorus.

More impressive is “Need to Know,” which pairs Macklemore alongside Chance the Rapper and underscores how much he shares in common with that soulful and eternally optimistic Chicago artist. He’s comfortable when rhyming alongside Bompton gangster YG on “Bolo Tie” and the men’s lyrics about playing the music industry like a chess board thread easily together over Ryan’s imaginative mix of Southern trap rhythms and guitar-pop melodies. When KRS-One chimes with a boisterous closing verse on “Buckshot,” he sounds like an elder imparting wisdom as Macklemore reminisces about his youth as a hip-hop fan and graffiti writer in a city that’s “better known for grunge, flannel, butt-rock and a bunch of Sub Pop.”  

On This Unruly Mess I Made, Macklemore gives us his full humanity in awkward and revelatory songs, with Lewis’ beats guiding him

In our ongoing and somewhat reductive debate over Macklemore’s privilege, we often forget that he contributes a worthwhile voice to the rap discourse. His ponderousness, whether he’s about to win an award on “Light Tunnels” or when he’s supposed to have fun at a nightclub on “Dance Off,” is part of what makes him both aggravating and fascinating. He’s constantly deconstructing the world around him.

Kendrick Lamar can be high-strung, too. But Lamar is better at communicating pure joy, as well as masking his thought processes behind a flurry of incandescent wordplay. By contrast, Macklemore always confronts his issues head on, with nothing to distract us from the collision. It’s a strength and weakness: Sometimes, he should just let go and lose himself in the music instead of telegraphing his every move.

Macklemore’s strengths and weaknesses aren’t stereotypically “white rapper” traits. His neuroses are his own. And on This Unruly Mess I Made, he gives us his full humanity in awkward and revelatory songs, with Lewis’ beats guiding him.

In fact, the album is a bit light on those cheery hits that made The Heist such a smash; “Downtown” and “Dance Off” fit in that mode, but not much else does. Perhaps that’s just as well for those of us that much prefer The Heist‘s deep-cut examples of the duo’s prowess as engaging and thought-provoking storytellers, like “Jimmy Iovine,” “Wing$” and “Make the Money.”

With This Unruly Mess, Macklemore and Lewis chose that instead of chasing platinum success, they emphasize the qualities that make them one of the most unique groups in hip-hop.