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Review: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis energize Tampa's USF Sun Dome with electric hip-hop hits



Macklemore ascended to the stage at the USF Sun Dome Saturday night on a hydraulic riser, in a cloud of smoke, in a military jacket laced in gold lamé, his copper top swished into a tidy little swirl. Of course he did, because really, was there any other way for 2013’s breakout rapper to make an entrance?

In the year of Jay-Z and J.T., Yeezus and Cyrus, Blurred Lines and Get Lucky, it was this independent rapper and his wunderkind producer whose arrival was the most shocking. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis went from Seattle nobodies to platinum-selling upstarts overnight – or maybe it just seemed that way – thanks to debut album The Heist, featuring chart-smashing singles Thrift Shop and Can’t Hold Us. Rising up from nowhere is what they do best.

Are Macklemore and Ryan Lewis here for the long haul? Or are they, as some have argued, too much of a pop novelty to succeed in the long run?

I don’t know much about rockin’ a wolf on my noggin, but I do know this: Saturday’s concert was as over-the-top a pop spectacle as any Tampa has seen this year – silly in some spots, serious in others, but ridiculously high-energy at every turn, with the duo’s funky vision and elaborate theatrics thrilling a crowd of at least 5,000.

Let’s start with Lewis, because no one ever does. He shares top billing with Macklemore for good reason – had the rapper not friended him on MySpace, the man born Ben Haggerty might still be struggling through leaner, messier times, without so much as a sniff of the crossover pop success they’ve shared as a duo.

Lewis manned the Sun Dome Stage atop an elevated riser, working a DJ deck and bashing on cymbals and percussion every now and again, occasionally descending to prowl the stage like a hypeman alongside the duo’s electric band of five – a drummer, two horn players and a two-piece string section – and guest singers Wanz, Ray Dalton and Mary Lambert.

Macklemore, though, doesn’t need much help with the hype. Cocksure and charismatic, he leaped around like a leopard, spitting out lyrics in his signature laconic grumble, spinning lengthy yarns between songs like a born-again motivational speaker. One moment he’s professing his longstanding desire to visit Tampa (“The Tampa Skatepark was one of those skate parks I really wanted to go to”), the next he’s talking about getting clean and sober (“If I got high or drunk, my creativity would completely dry up”).

Little attention was paid to his pre-Lewis days as Professor Macklemore; instead, he gave The Heist’s best songs his best effort amid a wild stage show. For Thrift Shop, he borrowed a Christmas sweater and Davy Crockett hat from fans in the pit (“It smells like it belonged to an old woman who loved malt liquor and Swisher Sweets”); on two separate renditions of Can’t Hold Us, he dodged confetti and balloons and dove into the moshpit from the stage.

There were moments that nearly drifted into self-parody, like when Macklemore donned a western Three Amigos-style suit for new single White Walls and adopted a jokey glam-rock persona for And We Danced. The energy never waned, but it was a side of Macklemore and Lewis that critics probably wish they’d tone down.

But it’s not as if they can’t be real when they want to. Macklemore does desire to be taken seriously as a rapper; his openers, acclaimed Mississippi bruiser Big K.R.I.T. and iconic hipster-rapper Talib Kweli, seemed to have been hand-picked for the sole purpose of lending hip-hop legitimacy to the tour (although if we’re being honest, don’t Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have more in common, musically and culturally, with an artist like, say, Karmin?).

Midway through the set, Macklemore uncorked a whip-smart freestyle built around a looped and the band’s backing jam. The song felt a little too perfectly polished, but even if he did have the lyrics chambered, it was a fun, looping jam that kept you on the edge of your seat.

But then there was Same Love, the duo’s gospelly ode to LGBT equality that has been adopted as a modern gay-rights anthem. Confession time: I love the message, but I’ve never dug the single – something about it felt too laid-back, not rabble-rousing enough, lyrically a little on the nose.

But seeing it live, hearing Macklemore calmly recite verses and Lambert belt out that plaintive chorus, and especially hearing a crowd of thousands rap those unforgettable opening lines – “When I was in third grade / I thought that I was gay” – it was positively chilling, the sort of heart-rending moment you wish could be experienced by those who most need to hear it. The song also featured the most emotional trombone solo I’ve heard at any rap show this year, which is something probably no one ever said before Macklemore and Ryan Lewis came along.

And that’s the thing: Saturday’s show wasn’t Macklemore OR Ryan Lewis, it was Macklemore AND Ryan Lewis, AND Mary Lambert, AND Ray Dalton, AND Wanz, and a full band, AND 5,000 fans who’ve bought into everything they’re selling, from their gooey sensitivity to their goofy sense of humor. Macklemore may be the Rolling Stone cover boy, but “Macklemore and Ryan Lewis” represents something even bigger -- a concept, a community, a philosophy -- and that may be why they've made it this far.

Following Saturday's show, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were going straight from Tampa to Los Angeles to perform on Sunday’s American Music Awards. (Correction: The duo ended up appearing via feed from a tour stop in Miami.) And in two weeks, when the 2014 Grammy Nominations are announced, they could be nominated in all four top categories – Album, Record and Song of the Year, as well as Best New Artist.

This is their year, this is their moment. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are making the most of their time in the spotlight like the ceiling can't hold them. And even if it did, you get the sneaking suspicion they'd bust right up through it anyway.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Sunday, November 24, 2013 10:44pm]


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