Macklemore: ‘The Only Mistake That I Can Make Is Not Telling My Truth’

3 March 2023 | 1:30 pm | Tyler Jenke

“I use my art as a means of not only performing and getting out in front of the people, but figuring out what the fuck is going on with me."

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Five-and-a-half years ago, the world was reintroduced to US hip hop artist Macklemore (born Benjamin Haggerty) as a solo artist. After years spent in the spotlight with frequent collaborator Ryan Lewis, the Seattle native was once again going it alone with the release of Gemini

Though not his biggest commercial success, it showed he could stand tall as a lone wolf in the world of music, with even bigger things yet to come. Unfortunately, those bigger things were put on hold when the world followed suit at the start of 2020.

“Right as COVID started, we were thinking that we were at the tail end – the last 15, 20% of an album,” Macklemore explains via Zoom. “Little did we know that we had a good three years to go before this music would see the light of day.”

The delay was caused by a rich tapestry of reasons: COVID, the birth of his third child, some personal demons, but most importantly, the uncertainty of the touring circuit. 

“I’ve always been a strong proponent of if I'm going to put out music, it has to have a tour accompanied,” he explains. “I put way too much life into my music to have it be a 48-hour news cycle at best on Twitter.

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“That's not why I'm gonna make art. I want to make art for people to be moved by it, to fall in love with it, to find meaning, to dance to it, to find joy, but then to go celebrate that emotion in person with those people around the world.”

In November 2022, Macklemore made his return to Australian shores, touring as part of the Fridayz Live concert series. Accompanied by an array of new singles, these tunes were tasters of his third solo album, the aptly-titled Ben. Vulnerable in its naming, it's a record that sees the hip hop legend going deep, delivering some of his most personal and confronting lyrics to date.

“As human beings, the process of life is not to add on,” he explains. “The process is to strip away, to reduce, to get rid of the clutter, the spaces that don't serve us, and find out who we really are and why we're here for this precious, finite amount of time.

“I use my art as a means of not only performing and getting out in front of the people, but figuring out what the fuck is going on with me,” he adds. “It has served as a therapist in my darkest hours, it served as an outlet in moments where I've felt completely alone, and it has brought me back to the present and reminded me of what is important.”

These darkest moments are a visceral component of his new record. Having embraced sobriety since 2008, Macklemore has been open about his relapses, with the most recent occurring during the COVID pandemic. It’s this incident which features in the track Faithful, with the level of honesty and vulnerability at play becoming an important part of the album’s creative process.

“It's part of the process and I think that one thing that happened in these five years of making this album is that more life was lived, so there was more opportunity to put different moments into the album as a whole,” he explains. “I am extremely fallible, I make mistakes daily. The only mistake that I can make is staying a secret. The only mistake that I can make is not telling my truth.”

Focusing on heavy topics has never been something Macklemore has shied away from. While he found fame with 2012’s The Heist and global hit Thrift Shop, it was songs like Same Love that showed his dedication to topics such as same-sex relationships, and activism towards overcoming opioid addiction that has cemented a focus on healing. 

Despite this though, he asserts that his music is never intended to be a comfort to those who need it.

“I've never really planned to write any record [of comfort],” he notes. “The ones that I have would never see the light of day because they were contrived; they weren't authentic. 

“I think that the mantra of my recording experience, for the last 25 years, is ‘What do I want to say?’” he adds. “I can't be like, ‘Oh, it's time to write about recovery.’ I'm like, ‘No, I'm going through pain’; I'm feeling that emotion, or I'm remembering what it was like to have alcohol be everything.

“I haven’t been drinking alcohol in 15, 16 years, but I still remember that feeling of what that first drink gave and that feeling of finally feeling relief and shutting off my mind for the first time at 14 years old,” he recalls. “I'm still able to tap into that, but I'm not able to tap into that if I go into it like, ‘What will sell well?’”

Finding the balance between lyrics that are often starkly honest and music that won’t alienate his fans is undoubtedly a difficult task. While Ben boasts tracks like the Tones & I-featuring Chant, or the DJ Premier joint Heroes, it also offers up Maniac – a track about a toxic relationship whose video takes influence from Outkast’s Hey Ya!, which famously also married upbeat hooks with darker lyrics.

Heroes wrote itself, that was so easy to write. That's completely my wheelhouse; I've written thousands of those types of records throughout the last couple decades,” he admits. “Writing a song like Maniac was way more challenging.

“You're trying to communicate an emotion, a tense emotion,” he continues. “If you're just looking at it on paper, it's a toxic relationship that you can't get out of, but there is a lightheartedness to the track. It's a pop song. There needs to be the earworm of the hook, the pre chorus – there's a structure to it that's already in place.

“How do you keep it light enough but yet also have topics? How are you relatable? Do you have melody in your verses? All of those things feed into the best version of what that song could be, and it just takes time versus ‘Rap about growing up in the ‘90s over a break beat’. Easy, all day long. Maniac, it takes months to make a record like that.”

Though it remains to be seen whether Ben will one day be considered a classic of the modern hip hop genre in the same way 2012’s Ryan Lewis collaboration, The Heist, has since been regarded, Macklemore’s newest release is one of catharsis and honesty, and one earmarked by the satisfaction that despite the clutter that clouds our lives and upends all sense of normality, Ben Haggerty is still telling his truth.