This article first appeared in The Cherwell on 3 June 2016.
The year was 2013. Justin Timberlake, after a long absence from pop music, released his long-awaited comeback single, the high-class ‘Suit and Tie’. It was a smash hit. Or rather, it would have been, had it not been kept off the number one spot by… well, technically by ‘The Harlem Shake’. But also by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ breakthrough hit ‘Thrift Shop’. The two songs formed a mirror image of each other. Both focused on the power of fashion, and were infused with an extremely cocky swagger. But the boys from Seattle won through for two reasons: firstly, they simply had the better song. Where Timberlake’s offering was twinkly and just a bit slow, ‘Thrift Shop’ was catchy and energetic, its main sax riff instantly recognisable. Secondly, they had a sense of humour – where Timberlake banged on about his own attractiveness, Macklemore rapped about the joys of wearing second-hand clothes, so it’s not hard to see which of the two was the more likeable. Thus began a career full of promise.
Their last flash of relevance came in 2015, with the magnificent ‘Downtown’. Once again, this song had an obvious counterpart – namely Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ smash-hit ‘Uptown Funk’. But where ‘Uptown Funk’ was polished, ‘Downtown’ was an odder beast. The verses are slipshod but funny – opening with Macklemore getting ripped off by a moped salesman, the song presents a bizarre odyssey about the coolness of mopeds, with undertones of sixties pop and eighties rap. It’s a self-indulgent joy with a more accessible vision of cool than the exclusive ‘Uptown Funk’, precisely because it is so uncool.
‘Downtown’ shows Macklemore and Ryan Lewis at their best. Melodious, strange, and self-aware enough for the humour to work, it’s unlike anything else. The two deliberately stuck out at an odd angle from the rest of the pop scene, a fresh voice adding a touch of levity to an all-too-ponderous music industry. Following the release of their second album This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, I hope they do stick around. But I really can’t think of a better way to go out.