Review: The evolution of Mac Miller's music

Echo writer Vaishalini Sitaraman analyzes the work of the late rapper Mac Miller

Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller died on Sept. 7, 2018, just after he released his album "Swimming." His final album, entitled "Circles," was released posthumously on Jan. 17, 2020. "Swimming" and "Circles" are part of an incomplete album trilogy

The finality of this goodbye hit me as I listened through a new Mac Miller album for the very last time. It's an experience that I have cherished since I first discovered Miller years ago. "Circles" weaves a beautiful finale, produced at the talented hands of Jon Brion. A far leap from the sound of his very first album, Miller's evolution between each release is perhaps the most magnificent evolution the industry has witnessed.

"Everybody’s gotta grow up sometime,” Miller said in a 2016 interview with The Fader. The clip, smattered with offhand jokes, provided one of the earliest deeper looks into his life. As he grew from a goofy 15-year-old with massive untapped talent to a 26-year-old expressing his battle with depression and addiction through his music, his evolution as an open-hearted, inspiring artist illustrates one of the greatest paths for up-and-coming musicians.  

His early music was hailed as the “soundtrack to high school days” by many late 1990s and 2000s kids — not only did he have a relatable goofy image, but he was around the same age as his fan base. Many of his fans grew up alongside him. 

Miller originally went by the name of "EZ Mac" for his first mixtape, "But My Mackin’ Ain’t Easy."  His nonchalant vibe was further exemplified in the cover art for his mixtape "The High Life" and his album "K.I.D.S." While most of his early releases were classic party tracks, there were a few mellow pieces that stood out. Though these songs weren't as popular as others, they were the first suggestions of a new genre that Miller would begin to explore. 

His music videos also began to rise in popularity on YouTube, just five years into the platform’s launch. The entire project fit right into his frat-rap niche, providing the perfect breakout into the music industry. The project also included Miller’s token twist; his song “Traffic in the Sky” featured the same mellow sound that was present within the stand-alone pieces of his earlier mixtapes. 

He went on to release his next mixtape, "Best Day Ever," featuring fellow Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa and including his arguably most famous song, “Donald Trump.” His feud with Donald Trump following the song’s release garnered massive media attention.

Miller’s critical success came to a sudden halt after his first album release, "Blue Slide Park." Released in November 2011, it sold 144,000 copies in the first week. Yet, while the album was the first independently distributed album to top the charts since 1995, it fell dramatically the following week.

As Jordan Sargent put it harshly in an infamous Pitchfork review, “Pittsburgh rapper (Mac Miller) is mostly just a crushingly bland and intolerable version of Wiz Khalifa.” Sargent rated the album a 1.0 on a 10-point scale.

The songs fell right into his frat-boy aesthetic, proclaiming his love for women, fame, money and drugs — but the music industry was suddenly uninterested in any of that. Miller’s one redeeming quality as a musician was that his album had no features from other artists, a rare quality for a No. 1 rap album.

The failure of his initial album brought his career to an abrupt plateau. A couple of his singles from his 2012 mixtape "Macadelic" gained popularity, but otherwise, Miller’s prospects for musical fame had fallen out of sight, and Miller retreated into himself. 

He became more focused on the musical beauty within his work, drawing from his life experiences to create music that felt real. Miller started producing his own music and worked with numerous collaborators, becoming a true star in LA’s rap scene. His studio was home to many major underground artists such as Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples. He completed an entire album under his producer alias, Larry Fisherman, with Vince Staples, entitled "Stolen Youth."

His mental health took a sudden turn as he moved from marijuana to hard drugs, which he openly rapped about on his new music. In his interview with The Fader, Miller described his dependency on drugs as stemming from his loneliness, boredom and constant need to try something new.

“Kinda just sitting there by myself all the time ... it becomes toxic," Miller said. "It started by me just sitting inside all day, and then you get bored, then you’re like ‘well, I could just be high. I could have a whole adventure in this room.’” 

His wealth gave him a near-endless access to drugs — coupled with his openness to trying anything, this allowed him to continue using drugs even when he didn’t feel the need to.  

In November 2012, Miller released the project "You" under his alter ego, Larry Lovestein & The Velvet Revival, in stark contrast to anything he had released previously. The project landed in the epitome of experimental, but its release was the first of many under his various alter-egos, and seemed to be the beginning of his love for jazz that saturated his 2016 masterpiece, "The Divine Feminine." "You" was by far the most creative work Miller had ever released, described as a “stunning creative flex” in a posthumous review on DJBooth.  

That same year, he worked on his second studio album, "Watching Movies with the Sound Off," released in June 2013. The album was massively influenced by horror movie aesthetics and was also incredibly different from anything he had released before. It featured a cryptic and psychedelic sound — songs like “Goosebumpz” featured lyrics surrounding the rap obsession with drugs and women, laying them down to a dark and crude musical style that differentiated it from its mild counterparts. 

Other songs like “Watching Movies” and “S.D.S” brought out the horror movie aesthetic that unified the unique project. The record also included tracks such as “REMember” and “Someone Like You,” which were dedicated to Miller’s late friend. The album included bonus tracks featuring up and coming artist Tyler the Creator, continuing to celebrate Miller’s indie style. 

Suddenly, Mac Miller was actually an amalgamation of a lot of weirdness set to music. Earlier criticism in Pitchfork of "Blue Slide Park" was overshadowed as the publication released a glowing review of the new album. The record, however, was not otherwise critically detected, partially because it was released on the same day as Kanye West's "Yeezus" and J.Cole’s "Born Sinner." 

It was around this time that Miller began using harder drugs as a way to “numb” himself from his battle with addiction, paranoia and depression, which continued as he held onto the hope of getting better.

In 2014, Miller released "Faces," which was his deepest self-examination yet, created under extreme duress and depression. Afterward, he faded from the spotlight, with little interaction with the outside world except for reports of his struggles with addiction.

He came back the next year with his third studio album "GO:OD AM," a beautifully animated album that expanded on the musical elements he had successfully employed before. It was the perfect opener to a new era of authenticity. 

"The Divine Feminine," released in September 2016, was Mac Miller’s soulful ode to love. Miller's deep understanding of soul, funk and romanticism lead to an incredibly well-received album with a rare discussion of love that celebrated femininity. It included features from strong R&B artists like Ariana Grande, CeeLo Green,  Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar

"The Divine Feminine" remains my favorite album in existence years after its release. It's rare to see a male rapper take such a romantic and open approach to sexuality and love. It is a true journey, going from “Dang!” featuring .Paak detailing the struggle of losing the one you love, to “God is Fair, Sexy, Nasty” with Lamar, which ends with a simple love story narrated by an elderly woman who has found her “soulmate."

Miller’s final album before his death, "Swimming,"  was supposedly the first in a trilogy, followed by "Circles." The titles came together to mean “Swimming in Circles” — details about the third project were not revealed. The album was exactly that — a restless rapper pushing himself to resurface after his greatest battle yet with his mental health. His music hit the peak of personal connection as he contended with mortality and addiction. 

Miller died from an accidental overdose during one of the happiest and most successful stages of his life. Miller often expressed his fear of overdose within his music, including an uncanny prediction of how he would die. On his song “Brand Name,” he rapped, “To everyone who sells me drugs / Don’t mix it with that bulls--- / I’m hoping not to join the 27 club.” 

In the same 2016 interview with The Fader, Miller explained how his continued battle with addiction stemmed from his fear of overdose. 

“Overdosing is just not cool," Miller said. "There’s no legendary romance. You don’t go down in history because you overdosed. You just die.”

His true final album, "Circles," was released last month after its completion under producer and composer Jon Brion. In an interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, Brion describes Miller’s writing about finding his way out of loss as a "lyrical wonder of honesty." Circles, simply put, was an ode to the circular quality of life. 

Miller’s greatest strength, albeit a time-consuming one, was his attention to detail. His ability to find the smallest mistakes or gaps within his music pushed him to create songs that reflect precisely on his personality and the feelings he wanted to communicate — a trait that also leaves him brooding on every single performance and every song he writes for such long lengths that one might consider it unhealthy. However, his constant introspection seemed to help him in his battle with addiction. 

“When you stop making excuses for myself, that’s when I stepped out and look at how this looks to someone who... just walks in and looks at the situation ... I am just in control of my life (now),” Miller said in a 2016 interview with The Fader.

Miller’s success as an artist with a distinctive sound is rooted in his talent as a musician. At an early age, Miller taught himself how to play piano, drums, bass and guitar, engraining a deep understanding of music within himself that was waiting to be explored. His talent coupled with his newfound openness in 2013 and 2014 was what propelled him from a burnt out frat rapper to a musical and lyrical genius. 

He aligned himself with people who appreciated music to the same magnitude that he did; one can only imagine the beauty that came from jam sessions with the likes of .Paak as they experimented with the plethora of instruments and production both of them had mastered. 

“It’s nice to learn about yourself by sitting down and picking up a guitar and just playing,” Miller explained in an interview with Fender. “It’s a whole entire journey of self-exploration, because it’d be so easy to just throw a beat on and rap and call it an album. But I have to expose some part of myself that I’m uncomfortable with every album.” 

Miller’s story is not one of sudden and constant success, but rather an inspirational one pushing artists to endeavor for conversation and introspection rather than just popularity. Exploration, it seemed, was the true root of his career — something all musicians and artists should aspire to. 


Reach the reporter at vsitara3@asu.edu and follow @_vaishalini_ on Twitter.

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