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Macklemore on the inspiration behind his new album 'Ben'


MACKLEMORE: (Rapping) They told me that I vanished. They told me that I had it.


Macklemore is back five years after his last album and more determined than ever.


MACKLEMORE: (Rapping) They can't take my talent. They can't take my stripes. They can't erase my hours. I'm from the underground - anything above ground is a mountain. I'm done trying to impress anybody but the heavens where I'm headed. You don't get to hold on to your flowers. I am in my zone...

SIMON: Macklemore, of course, became famed in 2013 with his catchy lyrics and unique take on hip hop. He has since become one of the most successful contemporary musicians in the world - nearly 13 billion streams, four Grammys. This week, his third solo album comes out. It's called "Ben." Macklemore joins us now from New York City. Thanks so much for being with us.

MACKLEMORE: Thanks for having me, Scott. I appreciate it.

SIMON: Ben is your first name - your full name, Benjamin Haggerty.


SIMON: Why title the album "Ben"? What are you declaring here?

MACKLEMORE: Well, for one, Scott, I'm horrible at naming albums, so I just went with my name.

SIMON: (Laughter).

MACKLEMORE: But if I'm really answering it and looking for some actual meaning here, each album is a process of self-discovery. So "Ben" is a return to my origin story, which is making art for the sake of art, making music because I love the creation of it - not because of the music business, but because of music itself.


MACKLEMORE: (Singing) Standing in line - standing in line - as we wait outside - waiting outside. The rush, the high - the dance floor's open, waiting for us to collide.

SIMON: Let's ask you about some of the songs - one of the first, "1984." Even to this day, "1984" - a lot of people think of Orwell.

MACKLEMORE: You know, I have read "1984" multiple times to about the halfway point and then I pick it back up about seven years later. And I've continued to do that. But the idea of the past has always been one that's interesting to me. And what was happening in New York, what was happening in the underground scene, what was happening in in dance culture, what shifted culture to who we are today.


MACKLEMORE: (Singing) I want to do this forever - you dancing in my arms.

That electronic London vibe has been something that I've always been inspired by.


MACKLEMORE: (Singing) Like it's 1984, like it's 1984.

SIMON: A lot of stylistic variety on this album - '80s pop, old-school hip hop...


MACKLEMORE: (Rapping) All right. All right.

SIMON: ...Modern trap. How do you balance and work with different genres?

MACKLEMORE: I am someone that has never stuck to one sound. And parts of that have led people to be confused about like, well, what is this? What do I do with this? What box do I put this in? And I make music for the people that get it. I make music for myself.

SIMON: Let's listen a little bit to the song "Heroes."


MACKLEMORE: (Rapping) Back in the days, hit the Boulevard on Broadway, before the downtown turned to a big All Saints, I was rolling around with a 40-ounce of malt drink, posted up in front of the 7-Eleven all day. My heroes didn't look like yours. My heroes didn't look like yours.

SIMON: Tell us about the people you're singing about here.

MACKLEMORE: I was brought up by the rap music that I was listening to as a kid. Those were my teachers. I think that if you listen to "The Message" by Melle Mel, you're like, damn, that sounds like 1982 in New York or Nas talking about "N.Y. State Of Mind." That's a record that paints the picture of what it was like on the park bench in Queensbridge. People that really took you on that journey - those were my heroes. They still are my heroes.


MACKLEMORE: (Rapping) My clique is too great.

SIMON: I've got to ask you - I know it's come up before - you talk about the importance of authenticity in your work. There are some people that find a white hip hop artist to be inauthentic.

MACKLEMORE: I think that if I was to ever let someone else's perception of me and my authenticity dictate how I felt about myself, then that would probably be a pretty clear indicator that I wasn't being authentic. If I'm letting that sway what I'm doing in the studio, then I am not living up to my highest self.

SIMON: Did you have a tough pandemic?

MACKLEMORE: I assume that you're referring to the relapse.

SIMON: Yeah.

MACKLEMORE: Yeah. That - the disease of addiction was resurrected. And part of my disease is just wanting to turn my head off, turn the world off, just escape. And the pandemic kind of did that. You know, it was like, oh, well, now you don't have a job. Now you don't need to go tour. Now, you know, your kids aren't even in school. You can escape. This is your chance. And that voice kept getting louder and louder the longer that I was away from my 12-step meetings that I go to in person multiple times a week. Zoom wasn't doing it for me the same way anymore. And when that happens, it's only a matter of time until that voice gets loud enough in my head that I decide to listen to it.


MACKLEMORE: (Rapping) Feel like I'm running out of time. Know the sun won't shine forever, forever. I got my mind on my money...

For addicts in particular, I think routine is so important in terms of just waking up and knowing what to do, and I really lacked that at the beginning of COVID.

SIMON: What brought you out of that tailspin?

MACKLEMORE: My wife - she always knows. She was just like, yo, what's going on? You're not being honest with me. And it was painful. It's still difficult to talk about. More importantly, it reminded me. When you're clean, and you get some days under your belt, life starts to have the same hues. When those colors come back, when the words come back, when that connection to the heart comes back, you're reminded that life is worth living and that whatever you're doing to try to escape isn't working and it never has worked. The only way to show up is to face yourself, to face what you are trying to hide from and to show up.


MACKLEMORE: (Rapping) I need you right now, Mack, to wake up more than ever. Ain't no more weed, alcohol and popping pills, et cetera. I know these days getting rough, but they get better. It's a cold world. Let's go to the Gucci store for a sweater. Feel it deeply in my heart. You need this letter. So I pour my feelings out to you before I go and mail it. I don't know what I'm sensing, but I can smell it. When you write me back, just tell it. I'ma (ph) soak it up, inhale it.

SIMON: I'm just going to guess it's not too difficult to get you to talk about your family.


SIMON: (Laughter) Recently had your third child, I guess - a son, right?

MACKLEMORE: Yeah - son, yep.

SIMON: Your daughter Sloane, I gather, is 7. And...


SLOANE: I have something that's going to be challenging for you. You're going to dye your hair.

MACKLEMORE: No, no, no. No.

SLOANE: Get out of your comfort zone.

MACKLEMORE: No one's touching this.

SLOANE: You don't know if you're even going to have hair for much longer.


SLOANE: Be the change that you want to see in the world.

MACKLEMORE: Not having it.

SIMON: ...Your best critic.

MACKLEMORE: The most honest critic. There is no restraint of tongue with that child. She tells it how it is. And outside of brushing her teeth and maybe faking some sick days, Sloane's pretty honest.

SIMON: Well, that's what you want. Although it's painful sometimes for a parent, isn't it?

MACKLEMORE: Completely.

SIMON: Let me ask you about your last song on the album, "Tail Lights."


MACKLEMORE: (Rapping) The light - it was always on glow. When I was lost, I was on the right road. Tail lights ahead as I drive slow. Just a right turn, then I find my way home. (Singing) I see a fork in the road. I don't know what path I'm taking.

SIMON: What's the fork in the road you see?

MACKLEMORE: It's right, it's wrong - self-will versus God's will, control versus letting go and realizing that we're powerless. Of course, we have those big moments in life where we know this is a big decision. Do I want to push into fulfillment and meaning, or do I want to push into comfort and ease?


MACKLEMORE: (Singing) I'll follow your tail lights.

There's really only one way. Do the work, show up and keep pushing forward because this is where life feels fulfilling, like it has real purpose and intentionality behind it. And when I get in that place, then the universe starts to make sense.


MACKLEMORE: (Singing) I don't want to dance with a maniac, 'cause the moment we touch, it's a heart attack. You know I love you, honey, but you got me running, yeah. I could give a damn. You're a maniac...

SIMON: Macklemore making a lot of sense. His new album is "Ben." Thank you so much for being with us.

MACKLEMORE: Scott, you're the best, man.


MACKLEMORE: (Rapping) I fell in love with her moonwalk, dancing in the kitchen in her tube socks. I should have saw the signs, but refused, dog. How am I supposed to ever move on? Why is this so complicated? You said that you didn't love me. Said you working on yourself. You ain't been to therapy since 2020. Something isn't right. See it in your eyes. Always give advice, never taking mine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.