By: Jacob Porter
Popular hip-hop artist Mac Miller, (born Malcolm James McCormick) passed away on Sept. 7 due to a suspected overdose at the age of 26, leaving behind an incredibly varied career in hip-hop and a legacy characterized as much by his growth as an artist as what Ariana Grande described as “demons he never deserved” that ultimately took his life. Miller’s career is one distinguished by his multiple personas, his increasing lyrical depth as his career continued and the use of drugs and fixation on death that began to increasingly color his musical output.
Buoyed by bouncy beats and lyrics depicting the partying and typical frat debauchery that was common during the time, Miller and his collective (referred to as the “Most Dope Family”) rose to stardom on the back of his mixtapes that were released in the late 2000s. While Miller began rapping in high school under the alias “EZ Mac,” his first official tape, “The Jukebox: Prelude to Class Clown” was the world’s proper introduction to Mac Miller. On the tape, the bright-eyed young rapper triumphantly mocked critics on songs like the one this article takes its title from, “Sound Like”: “I sound like yes, I sound like fresh…I sound like the motherf*****’ future.” Singles like “Nikes on my Feet” and “Donald Trump,” especially the latter, became immensely successful for the likes of an independent artist, and catapulted Miller to stardom by the time 2011 rolled around.
This success all culminated in the release of Miller’s first album, “Blue Slide Park,” named after a park in Pittsburgh, Miller’s hometown. In many ways, Miller lived up to the hype–the album debuted at #1 upon release, the first independently released album to do so in almost 16 years–but in many other ways, the album didn’t hold up. Miller was subject to much criticism on the vapidness of his subject matter from professional critics who were already coming down from the high of “frat rap,” and these had a significant impact on Miller’s mindset going forward.
Following the poor reception of “Park,” Miller’s subject matter in his raps began to trend more existential and sad with the release of his 2012 mixtape, “Macadelic.” As Miller sunk further into drugs and depression, the build-up was chronicled in his music. Miller’s second album, “Watching Movies With the Sound Off,” represents a low point in Miller’s life, but a high point for him from critics. “Movies” received better reviews than “Blue Slide Park” and showcased Miller’s artistic growth in a way that earned him respect from the people who had rejected him for so long, but at what cost?
Following “Movies,” Miller’s drug use became heavier. In the Fader documentary, “Stopped Making Excuses,” Miller explains how loneliness in his mansion led to him sinking further into addiction:
“It started by me just sitting inside all day. Then you get bored. Then you’re like, ‘well, I could just be high and have a whole adventure in this room,’” Miller reveals. “It kind of f**** you up when you have a bunch of money because if you try a drug and like it, you can buy a lot of it. I went through about everything.”
This level of loneliness is never healthy, and Miller’s slowly deteriorating mental state had fans wondering where Miller was headed next.
Enter “Faces,” Miller’s jazzy, drug addled, 24-track mixtape that feels more like a bender in musical form than a tape. “Faces” features Miller at his lowest, his most drugged out and existential, his saddest and, in many ways, his most aimless. “Grand Finale” seems to show Miller at a place of suicide, but the line “Rick Rubin showed me transcendental meditation” shows the smallest sliver of hope. After his European tour, Miller moved into a house down the street from Rubin after he told Miller he needed to “get his act together,” and helped him sober up following the constant state of intoxication that painted Miller’s life during the “Faces” era.
The next few years of Miller’s career were spent dedicated to casting aside the image of the depressed druggy. “Ain’t sayin’ that I’m sober, I’m just in a better place,” is one of the first lines Miller raps on “GO:OD AM,” Miller’s third studio album and major label debut. There is some reflection on his past during the album but for the most part it spends time looking toward the future, experimenting with sounds both unorthodox and mainstream. This experimentation continued with Miller’s 2016 album “The Divine Feminine,” a 10-song excursion into funk and soul, partially dedicated to his new girlfriend at the time, Ariana Grande. Occasionally on “AM” and often on “Feminine,” Miller seems to trade in his existential sadness for the lightness and carefree nature that blew him up in the first place.
Following “Divine Feminine,” Miller took somewhat of a hiatus but made his biggest headline in the spring of 2018 during his breakup with Ariana Grande, and his subsequent DUI car crash soon after. In a reply to a viral tweet chastising her for leaving Miller, Grande replied, “how absurd that you minimize female self-respect and self-worth by saying someone should stay in a toxic relationship… Blaming women for a man’s inability to keep his s*** together is a major problem.” This bombshell made things seem much less rosy than they had been during 2017, with an implication that the behaviors Miller chronicled in such repellant detail on “Movies” and “Faces” weren’t completely gone.
The music video for “Self-Care,” the lead single from Miller’s fifth and final album, opens with Miller buried alive in a casket, carving the words “memento mori” (“remember, you will die” in Latin) on the inside. The opening track, “Come Back to Earth,” features Miller singing over solemn chords, “I’ll do anything for a way out of my head,” calling to mind the intro to “Movies.” But in reality, “Swimming” is not a bitter rap album about a breakup, nor is it the backsliding into depression and loneliness that many expected. It is an album about perseverance in the face of adversity.
By the time “Swimming” ends, Mac doesn’t seem to be in such a bad place. Not once on the album does he mention any specific details about his breakup, never does he come after Grande or anyone who has wronged him in the past. “Swimming” is about continuing peacefully, forever, a theme encapsulated by the last line in the final verse of Miller’s career: “My God, it go on and on/ Just like a circle, I go back to where I’m from.” But even there, on album closer “So It Goes,” there is an undercurrent of dread, with Miller reminding the listeners about just how fragile life can be.
Upon Miller’s death, many of the important people in his life posted their condolences on social media, from Ariana Grande, Earl Sweatshirt, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper to Donald Glover. Miller’s life story is as much a cause for celebration as it is a cautionary tale about addiction and fame and fixations with death. But in a way, that cautionary tale and that celebration represent a dichotomy that has always been present in Miller’s music. From 92 to Infinity, from Larry Fisherman to Delusional Thomas, from “Best Day Ever” to “Faces” to “Swimming” and beyond, Miller’s personas, moods, contrasting ideas – each part of his eclectic career is only proof of his incredibly diverse mind, proof that every part of him, every facet of his personality – the good and the bad – deserves to be remembered.