A whole lot can change in four years: a new commander in chief can be sworn in, the Olympic torch can travel halfway around the globe, a kid can go from rank freshman to big man on campus. It's been four years since the release of beloved local MC Ben "Macklemore" Haggerty's sophomore release, The Language of My World, and for him, the time between then and now has been no less transformative.
In hiphop time, four years is an epoch, an ice age; sounds change, political maps rearrange, and hiphop fans—some of music's most fickle followers—can forget your name without a constant deluge of mixtapes and video blogs. Yet Macklemore managed to grow in popularity without releasing new music. Good buzz (a stint as a featured artist on MySpace a couple years back—Tom is a fan—raised his stock), good merchandising (his limited-edition T-shirts are on quite a few kids' backs), and increasingly daring, costume-change-laden performances ("Shit was getting routine," he grins. "And I was sick of doing 'White Privilege' for the 300th time") have kept his profile high in the meantime. Still, the fans clamored for more music—so why the holdup, Mack?
The answer can be found in the song "Otherside" from VS., Macklemore's new EP with producer/photographer Ryan Lewis. On that track, Mack explicitly runs down the cycle of drug abuse, cleaning up, and relapsing that had the 25-year-old MC creatively and emotionally stalled out, concluding, "Syrup, Percocet, and an eighth a day will leave you broke, depressed, and emotionally vacant."
"Substance abuse," Haggerty frankly admits. "That's a big reason why I didn't put out music for four years. I've always had a problem with moderation. Alcohol, weed—I was smoking an eighth of weed a day. It was unhealthy and, for me, extremely unproductive.
"I got prescribed some Percoset for a back injury that I think I faked," he continues. "After those ran out, I flirted with the OxyContins for a minute there. Around the same time, I started experimenting with coke—all of this was in a relatively short time, and it started getting out of hand."
It was during last year's Capitol Hill Block Party that I noticed Haggerty was toting the same telltale Styrofoam cup that Lil Wayne has famously sported—homie was off that lean: codeine-laced prescription cough syrup.
"I had totally cleaned up for like four months," Haggerty explains. "I'd done that on my own, but I was honestly just as miserable as I'd been doing drugs. I had no connection to anything greater than myself, and so I relapsed. Faked a cough, got some lean. That was where I was for a few months—not eating, nauseous, drinking ridiculous amounts, smoking ridiculous amounts, pills, every now and then a little coke, and sipping syrup. It wasn't a lifestyle I could maintain, and it's something that people don't really talk about."
Eventually, after being confronted about his drug use by his father, Haggerty entered rehab. He's now 14 months sober, and he's regained a focus, clarity, and marked spiritual connection that comes through in his music.
Ah, the music. A couple months back, just in time for his Bumbershoot performance, Mack dropped The Unplanned Mixtape, much to his fans' delight. Mostly a collection of his guest appearances over the last few years, it also contains the misty watercolor 206-hop reminiscence "The Town" (and its video by Stranger Genius Award winner Zia Mohajerjasbi is near completion). VS.—on which Lewis crisply flips riffs from Beirut and Arcade Fire—shows Macklemore getting his feet under him again and getting to know himself better than ever. Songs like the frenetic memoir "Life Is Cinema," the proud closer "Irish Celebration" ("I put down the drink/I couldn't drink like a gentleman"), and the epic "Kings," featuring Champagne Champagne and Mad Rad's Buffalo Madonna ("I'm super inspired by those guys these days," Haggerty says), are clearly the work of a better, stronger, more experienced MC—and person.
The candidness of "Otherside," though, is Macklemore at his most daring (even the "Californication"-sampling beat, a should-be-cheesy gamble, pays off), and it reflects something essential to the MC's popularity. "I just wanted to make it something that's okay for people to talk about," he says. "If they're still using, happy using, whatever—one of the things I get out of AA meetings that helps me stay sober is hearing other people's stories, because as they go through their experiences, you see yourself in them. It's connection."