REVIEW: Macklemore pumps the Cadillac brakes at the Warfield

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SAN FRANCISCO — It took Macklemore only a year and a half to follow-up 2016’s This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, an album that saw him descend from the soaring heights of Grammy-winning The Heist. The Seattle rapper tried to come to terms with his success, part of which credited to white privilege—he clearly didn’t believe his own work should have beaten Kendrick Lamar to a Grammy.

Rather than sit on Unruly Mess, he got right back to work on Gemini. His new album, released a couple of weeks ago, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Rap Albums Chart. And Macklemore obviously believes in Gemini, as his set Wednesday at the Warfield leaned heavily on the new material.

Gemini was recorded without longtime producer Ryan Lewis. While Macklemore has shown that he can create solid material with other collaborators (the new record features Lil Yachty, Kesha and more), there was still a big hole on stage where Lewis used to stand. Macklemore performed with a two dancers, a brass section, guitarist and, at times, other rappers and even Foxy Shazam singer Eric Nally. Even then, it felt like there was a lack of star power on stage. The other hangup came in the form of Macklemore’s extended story-telling between songs. Occasionally, it was effective transition between songs. Oftentimes, it killed the flow.

Macklemore kicked things off with Gemini opener “Ain’t Gonna Die Tonight” as a video screen flipped back and forth between clips of JAY-Z, Freddie Mercury and Michael Jordan, along with some tropical locales. It was followed by a 5-minute talk about Macklemore feeling like Oprah and about treating Wednesday nights like Friday nights.

“I came here to celebrate life,” he said.

Great. Moving on. “Firebreather” was a low-key rock jam with a guitar sample, set in front of a video of erupting volcanoes, and “Marmalade,” with the aforementioned Lil Yachty feature, finally got the crowd moving like a Friday night. After that track, Macklemore again paused, this time to talk about how he discovered autotune in the studio and finally decided he could try to sing. The talk transitioned to a song where no autotune was used: “Thrift Shop.”

That kicked off a three-song block of The Heist, but not without some speechifying. There was a story about how he likes to drive along the coast whenever he’s in California, even if he gets “two to seven” tickets. That led to “Cadillac.” Then there was a talk about the state of the world today. While Macklemore took a break from talking about politics and social causes on the album, it was still a memorable point at the show.

“We are living in very decisive times … in an era where every single week the president of the United States does something to keep people from connecting,” he said. “I wanna say … this, right here, is what resistance looks like.”

“Same Love” and Macklemore cover of YG’s “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” followed. The former was a highlight. Whenever Macklemore and his group reigned it, they let their pop side shine.

The “Oompa Loompa” theme from Willy Wonka transitioned into a song called “Willy Wonka.” Macklemore donned an outlandish outfit, top hat and all, prancing around the stage to deliver another of the new album’s goofier highlights.

Following “Drug Dealer,” about the pull of substance abuse and the lives it has taken, and Gemini piano ballad “Intentions,” Macklemore turned up the bass for “Corner Store” with rapper Travis Thompson, “Levitate,” set against a video of clips from Saved by the Bell and other classic ’80s shows, Unruly Mess single “Dance Off,” in which two fans came onstage to dance, and The Heist single “Can’t Hold Us.”

This stretch of songs worked really well because the group, and the crowd, finally built some momentum together.

A four-song encore included the Kesha feature, “Good Old Days,” “Excavate,” and “Downtown,” the melodic pop banger from Unruly Mess that should have been bigger than it was. At this point, as Macklemore began introducing his band, his producers, and talking about how he was able to return to the top without major label support, it would have been acceptable to believe the show was over. But those who stuck around the roughly seven minutes were treated to another standout Gemini track, “Glorious.”

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