Live Review: The Church of Macklemore Comes to NYC

Live Review: The Church of Macklemore Comes to NYCPhotography by Liz Barclay.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis 
Where: New York, New York
Venue: Theatre at Madison Square Garden
On: 9:27 p.m. Off: 10:56
Crowd: Very white, but otherwise spanning age and gender, from young girls packing the front of the pit to packs of fratty Deadmau5 stans. 
Industry Presence: Moderate. The first of three nights, but still one of the hottest stars on the planet.
Spotted: Peter Rosenberg, Elliott Wilson.
Overheard: Nothing notable, but there was a bro in a tank that read "COLD ASS HONKY" in the Run-D.M.C. font (???).
Basically: Polished and engaging show that went to great lengths to position Macklemore as not your Average Rapper.

Written by Jordan Sargent (@jordansarge)

Macklemore’s appeal is simple: He is not like other rappers. From his hometown, to his sound, to his collaborators, to his subject matter, and to, yes, his race, he has achieved massive success making hip-hop while running parallel to the culture. He offers up agreeable yet singular pop music that is recognizable as rap but comes from a different angle entirely. How you feel about all of that is, of course, personal preference. But the Seattle star’s Wednesday night show at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden (the first of three) made it clear that people—lots of people—love Macklemore because he is different from other rappers. And he is not shy about making it known.

[Ed. Note—Macklemore did not play the Stadium at MSG, which Paramore was actually playing while he was playing the Theatre. Big difference between the Stadium and the Theatre.]

This show, too, was recognizable as rap, but it more often felt like an especially spirited day at church. Where most rappers flip through songs rapidly, doing bits and pieces of choruses and verses, Macklemore did as much talking as rapping, addressing the audience at length in-between songs. Sometimes this was just typical crowd banter (he told the crowd it looked beautiful, while noting that he didn’t say that in Iowa) and sometimes it was a canned intro to get everyone hyped up.

Before “Otherside” he spoke about how becoming addicted to marijuana and alcohol sapped him of his creativity and his desire to make music. He prefaced the bit by noting that this is not what other rappers are preaching.

Before “Thrift Shop” he told a winding story of swimming in the Hudson River naked before getting his clothes stolen and needing an old woman to carry him to—guess where?!—a thrift shop. And before the second rendition of “Can’t Hold Us” at 10:45 p.m. he teased the crowd by saying the show was being shut down due to curfew, which I’m nearly positive was a lie.

But he also delivered speeches that felt legitimately like sermons. Before “Otherside,” he spoke about how becoming addicted to marijuana and alcohol sapped him of his creativity and his desire to make music. He prefaced the bit by noting that this is not what other rappers are preaching, giving a story of personal triumph a distinct anti-drug bent that also explicitly reminded his audience of something: Macklemore is different. While he spoke of how he makes music—sober—vs. how “other rappers” make music, a man behind me in the crowd shouted, “Respect! Respect!”

Before “Same Love,” he made an obviously genuine and even angry plea for equality, legitimately seething as he talked about breaking down the barriers (both legal and societal) that keep gays and lesbians from marrying each other. As he stopped to gather his thoughts, audience members yelled, “We love you!”

Setlist
"Crew Cuts"
"Life is Cinema"
"Thrift Shop" (with Wanz)
"My Oh My"
"Otherside" (a capella)
"Starting Over"
"Same Love" (with Mary Lambert)
Freestyle
"Can't Hold Us" (with Ray Dalton)
"White Walls" (with Hollis)
"Wing$"
"And We Danced"
"Irish Celebration"
"Can't Hold Us" (with Ray Dalton)

Where rappers like Lil Wayne or Drake have followed in the footsteps of Jay Z by touring with bands that push their music closer to stadium rock, Macklemore was backed by a brass band, a violinist, and a cellist (plus, you know, his producer and DJ, Ryan Lewis). Standing on a large platform covered in fake foliage (the Northwest!), they looked like they should be backing Taylor Swift but they sounded like they were backing Sufjan Stevens. Nonetheless, they sounded fantastic all night, giving an organic thump to a song like “Thrift Shop,” closing out “Same Love” with a beautiful and hopeful trombone solo, and adding a poignancy to “Starting Over” with a tasteful string arrangement. Macklemore also layered on the production values, shooting confetti and streamers multiple times and sliding in a mocked-up living room for “Same Love.” The show felt more like a Macklemore VMA performance than Macklemore’s actual VMA performance.

Though he reminded us often that he’s not a regular rapper, Macklemore also allows himself to dabble in rap tropes when he sees fit. Towards the end of the set he played his latest single, “White Walls,” were he raps about owning a Cadillac despite the fact he's from Seattle where "there’s hella Honda Civics." He closed his encore with that second run-through of “Can’t Hold Us,” except this time his backup dancers twerked, going face down, ass up and, for a moment, making the quaint little stage into something more like Diplo video.

For most of the set, he wore a John Starks Knicks jersey and spoke in awe of selling out Madison Square Garden, or at least the 5,500 capacity theater. But this didn’t feel like a normal New York rap show, either. Though Big K.R.I.T. and Talib Kweli opened, Macklemore revealed no guests and called in no favors. This felt like a statement, too—but, then again, after all his prosthelytizing could he really have brought out French Montana?

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