Caroline Richards ’22
You almost don’t recognize Mac Miller’s voice in the opening song of his posthumously released album Circles. Miller has always been known for the passive grittiness of his vocals, and contrasted by the loud directiveness of his rap verses, it makes his songs beautifully wholesome (especially in songs like “Jet Fuel” off Swimming or “100 Grandkids” off GO:OD AM). But when he sings, “well, this is what it looks like right before you fall” to open up the album with its title song “Circles”, you can’t help but feel like you’re listening to something secret, or haunted. Though this feels somehow inevitable given Miller’s death by accidental overdose in September of 2018, the gentleness of Miller’s voice adds something intangible. If anything, it demonstrates his growth as an artist to a shocking degree. If you listen to “Blue Slide Park” after listening to “Everybody,” it’s as though you’re hearing a completely different artist–and you are.
Miller’s career was launched by quick and clever lyrics that had a refreshing degree of attitude (in “Smile Back” off Blue Slide Park, Miller raps, “dopest mothafucka since before I hit the seventh grade”). This isn’t especially unique, almost all rap artists come out with their heads banging, bragging about money or “the grind” to catchy beats produced by someone else. What’s unique about Miller is that, unlike many others, he didn’t stick to that mold very long, even though he very well could have. Songs like “Donald Trump” and “Party on Fifth Ave.” were successful to say the least. “Donald Trump,” originally off Miller’s mixtape Best Day Ever and later released as a single by Rostrum Records, was Miller’s first song to chart on the Billboard Top 100. His change, thus, was not a result of poor sales. That’s why in 2012, only a year after the release of Blue Slide Park, when Miller put out Macadelic, no one really knew what to make of the soft boldness in some of his songs. Most notably, “Fight The Feeling,” which features Kendrick Lamar and Iman Omari, plays around with the idea of breaking the “I’m-the-shit” mold that rappers default to, and in some lines completely exits it. When Miller feeds us lines like, “I’m a Beatle to these young kids, but sometimes I be feelin’ like a needle to these young kids” or “it’s hard to have a dream when you deep inside of one,” we get our first taste of the existentialist backdrop that echoes so strongly in Swimming and Circles. Similarly in “The Question,” a dreamy acid-trip song about Miller’s confusion regarding his place in the world (which features an iconic verse by Lil Wayne), Miller moans, “sometimes I catch a buzz just to help me picture love” and “I’m a hostage in my own world.” Already, he’s giving us some of the huge themes that will underlie his later albums: crisis of personality and battling internal demons. Of course, these songs were overshadowed to a high-degree by songs like “Loud” and “Thoughts from a Balcony” that sound like traditional Mac Miller: playfully crass with a chip on his shoulder. But the seed was planted nonetheless.
We don’t really encounter the more profound side of Miller until his 2015 studio album GO:OD AM, which feels like an album he took his time on; the lyrics and experimental electricity that this album presents do not disappoint. Here it seems like Miller finally had the chance to perfect what he had started in 2011. In songs like “Weekend,” featuring the ever-sultry voice of Miguel, Miller is doing some of his best work. With a combination of horns, voice layers, and symbolic lyrics, Miller proved he could sing the songs he wanted, in the way that he wanted, and it could be good. But Miller wasn’t entirely successful with regards to the albums vibe consistency. Songs like “Brand Name” and “Jump” are simultaneously upbeat and bitter, making them uniquely personal and relatable, while songs like “In the Bag” or “When in Rome” are quick to be aggressive and in your face. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to balance each other out in the way Miller hoped they would.
Although, arguably, this lack of all-around tone is further evidence that GO:OD AM was Miller’s true transition album. Especially because its problems are things he later fixed in The Divine Feminine, a gift of an album, released in 2016 about his relationship with Ariana Grande. With a combination of jazzy ballads, Miller enters a completely new realm, one that is uniquely his. And he’ll perfect this world in Swimming and Circles. “Hurt Feelings” and “Self Care” are obvious beauties, both catchy and overwhelmingly wise, but songs like “Dunno” and “2009” are some of his most eloquent works lyrically. Lines like, “I was diggin’ me a hole big enough to bury my soul, weight of the world, I gotta carry my own” in “2009” and “so cute you wanna be like me, wouldn’t you rather get along?” in “Dunno” echo vulnerable sentiments that reveal many of the inner demons Miller battled with throughout his whole life. They’re infused with so much sadness, and bravery in the face of this sadness, that it becomes impossible to miss the genuine pureness of his art. He’s both gentle and critical (if demanding) of himself and his choices as a musician. Circles, as a final album, fits all too well into the documentation and growth of Miller’s life. It reads just like a map, a concrete timeline of art that demonstrates that Miller never stopped changing and moving. Because of this, somehow, Miller could rap about the same things and we would never get bored.