The Ones of the ’10s: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us” (feat. Ray Dalton)

In The Ones of the ‘10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.

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Macklemore & Ryan Lewis- “Can’t Hold Us” (feat. Ray Dalton)

HIT #1: May 18, 2013

STAYED AT #1: 5 weeks

There’s something funny about “Can’t Hold Us,” a song where Macklemore essentially celebrates his rise and hard-earned success. At the time in 2013, a song like this made sense as he and his producing partner had just broken through in a big way with the goofy yet enjoyable #1 “Thrift Shop” which went on to become Billboard’s #1 single of 2013. This was after several years spent together building up a fanbase without support from a major label. They certainly deserved to let the world know how hard they had worked to get to where they were now at the center of the mainstream. Yet after “Can’t Hold Us” the duo would find that their mainstream breakthrough wouldn’t last much longer as it shortly came crashing down. Great song though.

The origins of “Can’t Hold Us” go way back to even before Macklemore & Ryan Lewis became a local sensation in Seattle. According to Macklemore, Lewis had originally come up with the beat around 2007/2008 likening it to a soccer anthem. Feeling intimidated at first, Lewis got Macklemore to write an early draft of the song with a different chorus than from what we know. The duo then went on tour performing what they had of their future hit. But a stronger hook was needed to get this song to its full potential.

When it came to recording the song, Macklemore & Lewis recruited like with “Thrift Shop,” a local singer to sing the hook only instead of a local legend like Wanz, they got a young up-and-comer Ray Dalton. Dalton had grown up in Seattle singing in a gospel choir and working as a tennis instructor. (The #1 song in the US when Dalton was born was Roxette’s “Joyride.”) After “Can’t Hold Us,” Dalton has kept a low profile continually releasing music to not much impact and I can’t find any other information on what he’s been up to since.

It was Lewis who came across Dalton after hearing him sing on another artist’s song. Immediately a fan, Lewis reached out to Dalton over Facebook inviting him to work with him and Macklemore on a couple of songs including “Can’t Hold Us.” Dalton was specifically instructed to come up with the song’s hook and as he explained,

“What happened was we were looking for a hook and it had no hook. There was just space; there weren’t even words. So when Ryan was testing my levels, I started humming them a melody, and that melody is what is now today the ‘Can’t Hold Us’ song. Then Ben (Macklemore) was like, ‘Say this.’ And I was reading the words to the melody that I made, and that’s just how it happened.”

The song was initially released in August 2011 and like their other singles at the time, it made little impact outside their local fanbase. After the massive success of “Thrift Shop,” some of their earlier singles began to chart with “Can’t Hold Us” becoming the obvious follow-up hit. When the duo along with Dalton performed “Can’t Hold Us” on an episode of Saturday Night Live in March 2013, it boosted the single’s sales helping it to land in the Top 10 shortly after the performance on its way to the top.

Learning about this history, it’s weird for me to think that “Can’t Hold Us” was created before Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ mainstream breakthrough cause the song definitely sounds like the kind of victory lap an artist does after they’ve broken through. Lewis’ production goes all out sounding indeed like something you’d hear at a soccer match with its stomping percussion, hard-hitting piano, and blaring synths and trumpets including a triumphant horn solo as a bridge. As for Dalton, it makes sense for someone like him to be the hype man of the song using his gospel singing style to deliver a very effective and catchy transcendent hook complete with soulful vocal runs toward the end. 

Lyrically, “Can’t Hold Us” is nothing but Macklemore celebrating his success translating into a sports-like anthem. He celebrates him and Lewis’ independent success while comparing himself to figures from the former Price is Right host Bob Barker, who I just found out is Macklemore’s step-grandfather, and Roman dictator Julius Caesar. Amidst all his bragging, Macklemore also remains humble to his musical partners and fans in his Seattle hometown. While some of these self-congratulatory songs can often feel egotistical, Macklemore through his humble yet celebratory tone makes you want to get in on the celebration. It also helps that his rapping is really good bringing lots of fast speed and personality alongside the fun anthemic production.

While the music video for “Thrift Shop” was an entirely local affair, the “Can’t Hold Us” goes all out matching well with the overblown bombast of the song. Directed by Lewis along with Jason Koenig and Jon Jon Augusta, they film Macklemore, Lewis, and Dalton dragging an American type flag with the name of The Heist album across the world through various terrain to the top of Seattle’s Space Needle. In between, we get shots of Macklemore celebrating with a big crowd on the Revolutionary War era tall ship Lady Washington along with crowd surfing and a marching band performing the horn solos. It’s a fun video to watch that like the song makes you want to join in the fun and adventure with Macklemore and crew.

As I pointed out in the beginning, the ceiling didn’t hold Macklemore & Ryan Lewis for long. After scoring two #1 hits in a matter of months, the duo wouldn’t make the Top 10 again but got close with their next single, the somber piano-driven gay rights anthem “Same Love” which peaked at #11. All of this chart success caused an uncomfortable feeling with many over the fact that a white hip-hop duo managed to be the biggest hip-hop crossover act of 2013, a year in which no lead Black act hit #1. Now, this feel-good story of a group that managed to get big without major label support began to unravel.

All of this came to a head at the 2014 Grammys where Macklemore and Lewis won four awards including Best New Artist. But the award that got the most attention was when The Heist won for Best Rap Album against among others Kendrick Lamar’s highly acclaimed major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city quickly becoming one of those moments people like to use to highlight how out of touch the Grammys are. Macklemore posted a picture of his lengthy text apology sent to Lamar expressing his frustration, “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you.” Instead of fanning the flames, the apology only further put Macklemore under a bad spotlight one that he’d never recover from. (Kendrick Lamar will eventually appear in this column.)

After the enormous high of 2013, their next effort, 2015’s This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, was a failure with its lead single, the glorious throwback jam “Downtown,” peaking only at #12. And that’s been it in terms of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis as they announced a hiatus in 2017 but both are still around. Lewis has been around writing and producing for other artists notably co-writing and producing Kesha’s triumphant 2017 comeback single “Praying” which peaked at #22. Macklemore for his part put out a solo album, Gemini, in 2017 that managed to peak at #2 though it didn’t have much success in its singles with the highest-charting one, the Kesha collaboration “Good Ole Days” peaking at #48.

The ceiling may not have held Macklemore & Ryan Lewis for very long but they both seem to be doing fine after their 15 minutes of fame burned out.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Can’t Hold Us” playing during a scene in the 2016 film Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the flashback scene in a 2018 episode of the ABC show A Million Little Things where a couple of characters sing along to “Can’t Hold Us” in attempting to comfort a hospital patient: