I always looked forward to Mac Miller’s release dates for studio albums. To me, his album release date was like Christmas, and each new song was a gift. Each new Mac Miller album provided the soundtrack to each new chapter in life.
Every fan of music dreads the day that he or she bids farewell to a favorite artist. The admiration for an artist, growing with him or her over time, or seeing that artist perform often incites a special feeling to the listener.
On Friday, the world lost a good one in Mac Miller when the 26-year-old died of an apparent drug overdose. The artist’s sudden, tragic death was a first for me, in terms of losing a personal hero of mine, and I still haven’t fully digested it. In the hours since he’s passed, the music community has shown just how much he meant by dedicating shows, tweeting, and posting messages about the late rapper.
Mac, born Malcolm James McCormick, was revered by his fans for mastering the art of being vulnerable while showing legitimate skills as an emcee. He put his heart and soul into his craft, and it showed through pure emotion. I was lucky to see Mac perform live on four separate occasions. He exuded confidence, interacted with fans, and told stories about each song. Each concert was both intimate and intense, and no fan would leave disappointed.
Mac’s development as an artist has been hardly matched during my lifetime— and as a fan of his, it was a true gift to watch him grow through the years. In my eyes, I’ve never seen an artist mature the way he has over time.
The only way I can think to deal with the pain, and perhaps honor him, is to write about his legacy, and do my part to preserve his greatness during his time on earth.
Mac has been releasing music since 2007, with his But My Mackin’ Ain’t Easy and The High Life mixtapes, but made his splash in 2010 with K.I.D.S. (Kickin’ Incredible Dope Shit). K.I.D.S. was the soundtrack for high school and college students across the country, with notable tracks “Nikes On My Feet,” “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza,” “Knock, Knock” and, of course “Best Day Ever.”
The upbeat, happy tracks made a name for the young Pittsburgh native, and it’s where he yielded the “frat-boy rap” reputation. However, unlike some of his predecessors, Mac was more than a one-hit wonder. K.I.D.S. had a healthy balance of party anthems, heavy rap verses, and even heartfelt odes about his family (“Poppy,” for instance, was written about Mac’s late grandfather).
Blue Slide Park, Miller’s first official studio album, followed K.I.D.S.’ success, with tracks like “Donald Trump,” “Frick Park Market,” and “Party On Fifth Ave.” Blue Slide Park is a nod to Mac’s neighborhood, also home to Wiz Khalifa, whom Mac Miller toured with during the early stages of his career.
Then, things began to change with Macadelic (2012) and Watching Movies with the Sound Off (2013).
Mac moved to Los Angeles and underwent the first of many musical transformations. He began to experiment with new sounds, new themes, and hard drugs. In Mac’s discography, Macadelic noticeably strays from his previous works. The beats are no longer playful, the moods are darker, and the lyrics are more serious. In “1 Threw 8,” he morbidly raps, “Dead people on earth after I die/ what’s the weather like?/ and I ain’t perfect but I try/ Hey, I wonder if I’ll maybe get a second life/ This time, I’ma get it right.”
Watching Movies with the Sound Off reaffirms this shift in mood, and it’s blatant. Fans had polarizing reactions to this shift: On one hand, they resented the sometimes odd and unorthodox sounds. On the other hand, he was venturing into an more underground genre, and he’s becoming more creative as a result. In my opinion, this is where Mac showed his genius, his willingness to try new sounds and share his life experiences.
Fans also learned from Watching Movies with the Sound Off that the first line of every album going forward would be the thesis of each respective work. For example, in “The Star Room,” he starts with: “But me I’m still trapped inside my head/ It kind of feels like I’m in purgatory.”
The entire album is about Mac being lost inside his own head, and experimenting in this new lavish, drug-fueled, spotlit lifestyle of his. Mac sprinkles bird noises throughout the album to symbolize this new acquired freedom and experimentation. Not to mention, this was the debut of his alter-egos, Delusional Thomas and Larry Fisherman, who represented conflicts within his conscience. Despite this freedom, it was clear in “The Star Room” that Mac battled depression and was coping through drugs. One of my favorite tracks, “REMember,” is about Miller’s late childhood best friend. REM is capitalized for his friend’s initials, and it’s also the name of Mac Miller’s independent record label.
Then Mac dropped Faces (2014), which exposed the depth of his depression. The mixtape leads with the melancholy lyric: “I, should’ve died already.” Each track is either a representation of a different drug or mental state. The work as a whole is a reflection of Mac disapproval of himself and pessimistic outlook on life.
Despite its unorthodox concept, the tape showcased Mac’s talent as a producer. Almost every song features an old school sample, most of which are jazz. It’s very rare in today’s hip-hop scene to hear someone rap over Duke Ellington.
Two years passed, and Mac Miller released GO:OD AM, one of my favorite albums of all-time. Mac’s artistic craftsmanship had come full circle. Rather than using samples, he’d begun to create sounds organically with instruments and choirs—the sign of true musical inventiveness.
The album opens, unironically, with “Doors,” which talks about how “these doors will close and people change.” Then, the alarm clock rings—and on “Brand Name,” Mac reveals the album’s thesis: “We in between heaven and hell.” In other words, it’s a new day for Mac Miller, and our hero has risen from the flames.
GO:OD AM represented resiliency in it’s purest form. He addressed his drug addiction and the moments that led him to seeking help. It presented us with Mac’s trials and tribulations, his downfalls and epiphanies. The album as a whole was a much needed catharsis and preached self-forgiveness. GO:OD AM is a MUST LISTEN for anyone hoping to dive into Mac’s incredible body of work.
Around the release of the album, I attended a live interview of Mac Miller in Brooklyn with Elliot Wilson, CEO of RapRadar.com. Mac talked about how GO:OD AM is the most comprehensive album of his career: “It’s self aware, but in the sense of looking in the mirror and saying that ‘this guy’s alright.'”
During the interview, Mac was also asked what emotion he wanted to focus on for his next album. His fourth studio album The Divine Feminine (2016) focused on love. A common misconception of the album was that it solely focused on his love for Ariana Grande, his girlfriend at the time. Despite her features on the record, the album is about his perspective on the emotion of love, as well as the vice of lust. In “God is Fair, Sexy Nasty,” the album ends with a monologue from his grandmother. She talks about meeting Mac’s late grandfather, and how in love they were. Mac revealed his depth as a person, not just an artist.
While The Divine Feminine doesn’t stand-out for lyricism, it highlights Mac’s production and newly-utilized singing ability. He even had students from the Juilliard School to perform entire horn sections on the recordings.
2018 brought us Mac’s now final album “Swimming.” This album came on the heels of a very publicized breakup with Grande, as well as a D.U.I. The public narrative about “Swimming” was that it solely a breakup album.
Quite the opposite.
Swimming is about Mac Miller being OK. The album took more than two years to complete, the longest timeframe for any of his projects. Swimming is arguably his most insightful project to date. It’s a nod to Icarus—don’t fly too close to the sun, nor too close to the water.
The album cover shows Mac sitting in front of a door, perhaps of an airplane, shoeless, suggesting that he’s been running. Mac uses flying, climbing, and swimming as vehicles for maintaining his well-being. The tracks suggest this claim with titles like “Come Back to Earth,” Self Care,” “Wings,” “Ladders,” and “Jet Fuel.”
“2009” ties the album together. It’s a surge of emotion about the journey he’s had, about how “it ain’t 2009 no more.” A lot changed in Mac’s life, and he detailed where he was at in 2018. He was doing well, he was happy and healthy and he “knows what’s behind that door” on the album cover. 2009 was when he released K.I.D.S.
That’s why his death is all too numbing. Everything seemed to be on an upward trend for him, but the roots of addiction ultimately took him from us.
His transformation was special, his sound was unique, and he never faltered in being original. Mac Miller was taken from us too soon, but his music and ability to show us what it means to be human will endure. And perhaps Mac put it best:
“The sun is shining, I can look at the horizon. The walls keep gettin’ wider, I just hope I never find ’em, I know. Well, these are my wings” – “Wings” by Mac Miller.