On September 7th, rapper and musician Mac Miller died in Los Angeles, California after an apparent drug overdose. Here, one contributor details the joy of watching Miller’s art evolve.
During a 2016 Vogue interview, Mac Miller sentimentally reflected on how Prince’s death and its aftermath affected him. “It was hard for me to sit there and see someone who was obviously very private be turned inside out after his death.” Mac, born Malcolm McCormick, was sensitive and thoughtful that way. The people who knew and loved him remember him as a gentle soul who remained a beacon of light in their lives, even during times when he couldn’t be that for himself. Throughout his almost 10-year career, Mac never stopped evolving and his creativity never signaled any bounds.
Only a few days after the official release of his fifth studio album, Swimming, Mac delivered a memorable performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series. His 17-minute rendering of the album is emotional and intimate. Between songs, the band rearranges itself so the spotlight falls solely on Mac. He appears nervous, fidgety, easing his apparent discomfort with playful banter, sinking into a familiar boyishness. He avoids eye contact with the crowd and nervously giggles, like a guilty youth who is charming himself into forgiveness. The music comes back on, and he immediately relaxes—his obvious sweet spot. His delivery is sentimental and mature.
In a moment of introspection, Mac once said, “I’ve always wanted to sing. I don’t think I have a great voice, but I just think that I get the emotion. It’s very authentic. Whatever emotion I’m feeling, I can sing it and you can feel it.” And he was right.
Mac Miller performed the way only someone who has intimately known grief and torment could—his affliction palpable to anyone who watched and listened.
The steady pathos of his voice is checkered with occasional sweet grins, as if he’s attempting to reassure the audience that he’s okay, even as he sings of loneliness and oppressive thoughts.
Rewind to 2010, when a fresh out of high school Mac dropped the mixtape that, at a lightning speed, would elevate him to permanent celebrity status. K.I.D.S. featured a wide-eyed, eager Mac who was primarily concerned with dreams of fame and the grandeur associated with it. His most popular tracks “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza” and “Nikes on My Feet” were odes to a college freshman mentality—early attempts at a style that was then out of his reach. Much to his irritation, he was quickly labeled a “frat rapper.” And if K.I.D.S. had established Mac as the voice of a reckless, hedonistic white middle-class youth, Blue Slide Park solidified that sound.
Though his debut album broke records as the first indie album to go number-one in over 15 years, music critics weren’t impressed. Despite the artist’s youth and gentle demeanor, media outlets didn’t shy away from tearing his project apart. But in truth, maybe Blue Slide Park was simply a feel-good album because that spoke to Mac’s reality at the time. He was always good at that—delivering himself through his art exactly as he was.
Mac reflected on the harsh response to his first piece of work in a 2013 interview with Complex. “It wasn’t just that the reviews were horrible. A lot of the reviews were more on me as a person,” he said. “To be honest, that was even worse. You’re 19, you’re so excited to put out your first album, you put it out—and no one has any respect for you or for what you did.”
As if this particular time in a young person’s life weren’t already corrupted by uncertainty and dread, Mac’s experiences were multiplied by the pernicious nature of celebrity. He often talked about this period of his life as a particularly dark one. Demons he battled with led him down a path of substance abuse and neglect. In that same Complex interview, he said, “I was not happy, and I was on lean very heavy. I was so fucked up all the time. It was bad. My friends couldn’t even look at me the same. I was lost.”
Fast forward to 2016. Mac had moved to Los Angeles and his home had become an artists’ nook, à la the Shakespeare and Company bookstore for The Lost Generation writers or Joan Didion’s L.A. residence in the 1960s. By this time, he had put out projects like Macadelic and Watching Movies With the Sound Off that had, if nothing else, earned him the respect of some of his generation’s most venerated rappers and musicians—including Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Thundercat, and Anderson .Paak.
On the eve of his fourth studio album, The Divine Feminine, he did an interview with Vogue in which he appeared to be in a much clearer headspace, gushing about his mental clarity and sobriety. He said, “There is a health aspect, of course, but it’s more about being present and having real emotions. Knowing what’s going on, and embracing it and flourishing in it, rather than trying to put it away in some dark corner.”
The Divine Feminine was a maturation of his experimentation with soft jazz sounds and mellifluous croons—a style we were first introduced to on the 2012 EP You that he’d dropped under the pseudonym Larry Lovestein. At the time, The Divine Feminine was the most cohesive and methodical album he had put out. It was an exploration of Mac’s musings on love and its place in the universe.
The project reestablished him as someone who was too committed to growth in his artistry to ever get too comfortable in any particular style.
While his outward expression of the divinity of feminine energy was soulful and tender, his newest project, Swimming—released just over a month ago on August 3rd—echoes the darker themes in his earlier work with more sophistication and a distinctly sharper technique.
Mac’s visual for “Self Care,” his last music video released on July 12th, depicts him lying in his own coffin, oddly unflappable about the fact that he’s been buried alive. It manages to feel claustrophobic and assuring at the same time. He calmly pulls out a cigarette from his shoe and carves “Memento Mori” into the wooden crate as he raps of existential predicaments and confusion.
The song, like the entire album, feels older—like it comes from a person who is finally able to accept the permanence of chaos, and feels ready to create new meaning within it.
It is devastating that we will never see how that new perspective would have manifested, but we can continue to celebrate and be comforted by the art that Mac Miller gifted us. To put a spin on Mac’s words from the day Prince died, “We listening to [Mac] all day.”