I promised a review of this exceptional EP back when they released it back in December. I apologize for the delay...unfortunately it was released during finals and it slipped to the back of my mind until I finally got a physical copy of the project earlier this week. Hit the jump for the review:
Ben Haggerty has been through hell and back since the release of his 2005 LP, The Language of My World. His struggles with drug and alcohol have been well documented (I recommend reading Todd Hamm's very moving article in City Magazine) and it is his substance abuse and rehab that provide the backdrop for the material of the album.
Macklemore's tale of redemption is enough to draw us in for a listen of The VS. EP, but it is the interaction of his superb storytelling ability with Ryan Lewis' production that makes the project one of the best seven-track runs that this listener has ever heard. VS. proves to be a very contemporary album that samples current indie rock artists from The Bravery to RHCP to Beirut and was one of my favorite projects last year.
"Vipassana," so named for the form of meditation that has helped Haggerty restrain himself from reacting to his cravings, sets the stage for the album with a sample of Caribou's "Subotnick"that has a quiet intensity that emphasizes Macklmore's lyrics. Haggerty alludes briefly to the drug use that will be a predominant theme of the album, but the song is really about Macklemore finding himself, as he rhymes, "I was put here to do something before I'm lying in that casket/ I'd be lying on the beat if said I didn't know what that is/ The world's a stage and we play a character (I found him)/ It took me twenty-something years and a bunch of shitty soundchecks." With "Vispassana," the listener immediately realizes that The VS. EP is going to be something special, and the next six tracks fail to disappoint.
"Crew Cuts" features Macklemore sharing the mic with fellow Step Cousins member, Xperience. The sample of The Bravery's "Believe" and the scratches by DJ Zone provides a late 80's-esque beat as well as an opportunity to showcase to Macklemore's humor as he reminisces over a bygone era:
Daydreaming in class, ya know I'm zoning out (and)
Rosie Perez's titties are right were my mouth is.
Who says that white men can't jump, they were hella wrong.
Alright, they were right, but I was really good at teatherball.
The EP shifts into a more serious tone with "Life is Cinema," an artistic song that doesn't feature Macklemore as much as it showcases him frantically talking about his troubles with drugs and relationships over a mashed up sample of the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done." This isn't a song for the lover of traditional rhyme schemes, but serves as a important transition into the heavier material of the project, and drives at one of the main messages of the release--that when things are going wrong, you can't look to anyone but yourself to change your situation.
"Otherside" proves to be the most powerful track on the album. A ballad about the battle with addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers sample provides Haggerty with a haunting and uplifting backdrop to exercise his demons.
The EP then shifts into the epic, grandiose "Kings" (on which guest artists Champagne Champagne nearly steals the show) and the catchy, party-anthem "Irish Celebration," before concluding with "The End," a song addressing a loved one who helped save Haggerty (or perhaps hip hop itself).
The Vs. EP may very well be the best seven-track that I've ever heard. With this release, Macklemore may have supplanted Slug of Atmosphere as the king of emo-rap. VS. represents a distinct maturation in Haggerty as an artist. Though he has always been a conscious emcee, his hardships over the past few years have markedly changed him--his personal struggles have made his lyrics all the more real. We can eagerly look forward to his full-length release with Ryan Lewis in the coming year.