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Album Of The Year Write-Up #10: Mac Miller - Circles

Artist: Mac Miller

Album: Circles

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Background

Malcolm James McCormick, known professionally as Mac Miller, had cemented himself as a major player in the music industry through a strong run of projects during the mixtape era of the early 2010’s. Most notably K.I.D.S., which was his first project to garner him a wider audience and the snowball which is his career truly starts here. With songs like “Knock Knock”, “Nikes on My Feet”, and “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza” gaining tremendous views online, he managed to carve a lane for himself in a very cluttered time for the internet. While some criticized his music for being shallow white boy raps, many gravitated towards his music because it was just plain fun. His music was lacking in mainstream attention and radio play, but his presence on the internet was soaring. He capitalized well off of this attention, releasing another free project titled Best Day Ever nearly half a year later. With even bigger viral hits such as “Donald Trump” and the titular track “Best Day Ever” he reinserted himself back into his audiences playlists before they had a chance to forget about him. This project was also well received, and gave him even more momentum to build to his biggest breakthrough yet.

8 Months after the success of Best Day Ever, he released his debut album Blue Slide Park independently and topped charts, reaching number 1 on the billboard 200. The album itself performed well but critics still gave mixed reviews. It didn't seem like he had stepped too far out of his comfort zone, and through the lens of his music it was still glaringly obvious that he had some growing up to do if he were to be taken seriously by music critics, despite his ever growing audience. He clearly had charm, and despite what his music would tell you, he wasn't simply a white kid from the suburbs that wanted to rap. He grew up loving music and playing instruments from the age of 6, and while his pursuit for fame was through rap music, he was actually a true musician at heart.

After the success of his debut, the years afterwards gave him the time to grow musically and experiment with other sounds. Macadelic was released in 2012, with a slightly heavier and psychedelic turn in instrumentals, he still rapped over the songs but few tracks included him singing and exploring more poetic approaches to his lyrics. Despite his lyrics in all his projects up until this point being about drugs, women, and fame, it was at this point that he developed an addiction to lean. He was quite open about his drug use, and was seemingly very self aware of the detriment to himself that he was causing.

His sophomore album Watching Movies With the Sound Off delved further into this exploration of music, with even more experimental instrumentals and more vulnerable vocal performances. In the years between then and now he released a strong amount of EP’s, mixtapes, and albums, that each served as an artistic exploration into new styles and territories for Mac. The mixtape Faces gave a very dark window into the mind of Malcolm, he was struggling more with drug abuse and he made it abundantly clear that he was not doing well mentally. He himself stated that the final song on the project “Grand Finale” was intended to be his last song before his death. For fans, the music was incredibly well received as his talents had grown and refined, but it was also bittersweet due to how clearly unwell he was at the time.

In 2015 Malcolm signed a record deal with Warner Bros. and released the album GO:OD AM, which displayed a return to form of sorts. His rapping was more focused and clear, and his lyrics showed a happier and healthier version of himself, confronting his darker thoughts with more positive reflection and a drive to push forward. With lyrics such as “To everyone who sell me drugs, don't mix it with that bullshit I’m hopin' not to join the twenty seven club” and “They don't want me to OD and have to talk to my mother, telling her they could have done more to help me, and she'll be crying saying that she'll do anything to have me back” he was very open about wanting to put his substance abuse behind him and change the course of his life. The album itself showed greater lyrical skills in his rapping and a more subtle approach to his singing, which he was still easing us into but more effectively at this point. His next album The Divine Feminine gave us much more of his singing, and instrumentally was very jazz and funk inspired. He was clearly making an effort to distance himself from his rapping and focus on making music that could be more widely appreciated.

The album “Swimming” was announced in 2018 and the single “Self Care” was released. For Mac, it seemed to mark a distinct turning point where he wanted to better himself, the music video featured a visual reference to the film Kill Bill, with Malcolm punching his way out of a coffin in a triumphant moment of glory. What was once a powerful moment of renewal for him at the time, became a haunting visual soon after. The album was a pivotal moment for his discography, where he managed to create tracks that had many of his rap undertones but were predominantly fused with more classical pop ideas and formulas. It was a beautiful blend of Mac Millerisms and easy to digest jazz, pop, and funk elements. He displayed his singing abilities even more in many of these tracks, in fact, there was not much direct rapping to be found on this project. The lyrical substance of the album, while still influenced by the troubled times in previous years and his battle with substance abuse, was much more positive overall. For many, this is what makes the album more difficult to process now in hindsight.

On September 7th, Malcolm was pronounced dead in his california home, and it was later announced that his cause of death was an accidental overdose from fentanyl in his system. For many people, myself included, his death was incredibly hard to process. Many fans felt close to him, and for many it's a strange feeling to feel like you know someone so intimately despite not actually knowing them. The growth in his music and his open dialogue about drug use and mental health issues had opened a door to many to connect with him, and for many fans that had listened at the start of his career until Swimming, they grew up and matured alongside him. When I was getting tired of partying and wanting hype music, he would deliver more introspective albums, and after years of self reflection he would deliver an album like swimming, which would serve as a point of emotional maturity that I was at a point in my life to try to achieve. His passing recontextualized all of his music in a grim sweeping moment. It was painful to hear lyrics like “Life couldn't get better, this gonna be the best day ever” or “I wish I could tell you that I didn't see this coming but I'm ready for it all to end, die before tomorrow's trend”. Many of his songs that were so clearly a warning, littered with references to overindulgence in drugs and a deteriorating mental health, are incredibly difficult to get through. Happier songs that are looking forward to a brighter future I found even more difficult to process. I couldn't listen to any of his old music for very long before I was overwhelmed, and for a while that was the case, until Circles.

Album Review

In January 2020 Malcolm's family took to his social media to announce directly to his fans that the album swimming was only one half of a pair of albums that were thematically linked, and that he had made a good deal of progress on the second album before his passing. Producer Jon Brion had worked with Mac on the creation of Swimming and Circles, and the family had reached out to him to ask him to piece together Circles as true to Malcolms vision as possible. Part of me was worried, mostly because my only context for posthumous releases has been from recently passed artists that have had their work milked dry, and ultimately muddy the waters of their discography, but the core difference was the family's direct involvement in pushing out the album, and the confidence that they had in Jon Brion to faithfully piece this together. Despite the worries, I was overcome with emotions with the news that there would be a new Mac Miller album.

Circles starts off the album with a very light and passive instrumental that Mac sings over in a half spoken half sung manner, that does a really great job set the tone for the rest of the tracks. Not very lyrically dense, but what is there is powerful. “This is what it looks like, right before you fall” Is the opening line, and as the first lyrics we’ve heard from him since his passing it’s a tough pill to swallow, but one that he immediately asks you to. There are many lines that allude to his passing and it's quite haunting to hear, he seemed to have always thought it was right around the corner no matter where he was in his life. To hear it now though doesn't feel as daunting as before, instead it begs you to accept it for what it is and enjoy the music despite his passing. “And I cannot be changed, I cannot be changed, no. Trust me I've tried I just end up right at the start of the line, drawing circles”

The next song “Complicated” instrumentally sounds a lot like swimming but its quite tame lyrically. The tracklist delves into many other sounds as it progresses but this helps keep the pacing grounded and keeps the tone parallel to swimming for the time being. “Some people say they want to live forever, that's way too long, I'll just get through today”. Ive found that the tracks later on in the album “I Can See” and “Hands'' provide more of this tonal padding to the album, helping to leave threads spaced around the tracklist that keep it grounded with the context of swimming, while other tracks depart from this sound entirely in their own right.

Blue World is the first moment that I truly smiled while listening to his music in a very long while. The production from disclosure is other worldly, and Mac glides over it effortlessly. He oozes confidence on this track and it's a firm reminder that this album does not exist just to dwell over somberly, it's here for us to enjoy, that's why he made music and that's why we’ve loved it.

This high is followed by the emotional Good News, which was the only single to be released prior to the album. It's a beautiful track where he breaks down his mental state over a delicate instrumental, it's a quite literal representation of his understanding of his own mental health by analyzing it over a subtle and warming melody. There are more brutal allusions to his death with the lines “Why can't it just be easy? Why does everybody need me to stay?”. The song itself displays a lot of what I took from the album, the plead from him to accept that he may not be the picture perfect image of mental health, but to understand that he is just a person with issues like the rest of us. “Good news, good news, good news, That's all they wanna hear. No, they don't like it when I'm down.” “There's a whole lot more for me waiting on the other side, I'm always wondering, if it feel like summer” the song ends with a beautiful outro where he sings about an afterlife, whether it's good or bad, whether he belongs there, and its moments like these that act as the emotional anchors for the album. Admittedly, if you weren't a fan of his music before this album, there are still going to be songs on this that aren't your cup of tea, but the major point of connection for listeners is the demand for empathy from the troubled lyrics of a man who is no longer with us.

The song Everybody is a cover but it's really a beautiful rendition. Thematically it's earned its place in the album and sonically it's one of the tracks that I think best represents my favorite parts of Circles. His singing on this song is my favorite of any singing he's done before, and this may be a hot take, but he's not a great singer. It's one of the reasons I love his singing so much. He has dropped a lot of random loosies over the years, some of them covers, that feature him primarily singing, and I love them so dearly. His cover of First Day of My Life is one of my favorite pieces of music, and it's because he's not an amazing singer. His voice is kinda raspy and you can tell it's weathered a bit from the concerts and cigarettes, and he definitely doesn't have a voice coach, and it's just so goddamn charming. If he was an amazing singer I would not like this album as much. Lyrically it would still pack an emotional punch, but I just wouldn't be as drawn to it as I am otherwise. With that said, his singing has gotten so much better, but it's not perfect, and that's exactly where I want it. “Because everybody's gotta live and everybody's gonna die, everybody's gonna try to have a good, good time. I think you know the reason why” The chorus of the song is simple, and is a really nice break from the heavy lyricism that's littered the album prior to this point. He really showcases his love of music with this piece, it's folk and blues inspirations aren’t shunned away in an attempt to try and repurpose the song as his own, instead he wears these influences on his sleeve as he does his best to do right by the original. It serves as a confident step towards performing music with a more broad appeal.

The song Woods takes a dip towards a more spacey tone, the instrumental providing an open and forgiving atmosphere for him to loosely string along thoughts. “Yeah, things like this ain't built to last, I might just fade like those before me” on the surface these words feel like an empty call to a void about whether his legacy has been cemented or not, but after diving further into the song it becomes clear that this is about a relationship and whether or not he has made a lasting imprint on the other person. This is a quickly passing moment but the context is always crucial with this album. A simple line at the beginning of the song entirely changed in meaning based on his passing, and so much so that it took me many listens to even read further into the themes of love in the song.

Hand Me Downs is another example of where I feel he shows best his singing and songwriting abilities. The lyrics are beautiful and the instrumental is soft yet commanding. It allows his verses to jump out with purpose compared to the chorus, which is sung gorgeously by Baro, who has the only feature on the album. They make for a wonderful pair, and allow for a nice break between Macs lyrics, giving a greater sense of importance when we cut back to them. This is one of the best moments on the album, really allowing his clumsily endearing singing to take a step forward on a track that compliments it so well.

That’s On Me is a somber display of emotions, while not very lyrically dense the feeling of guilt and remorse comes through quickly and thoroughly. The piano and guitar on this track are a great showcase of the departure from hip hop and show another moment of his confident step into a more general approach to songwriting. With that said, it's by no means generic, the chords on the song are sharp and jump to the ear, while lyrically he wallows in regret.

Surf comes in to really emphasize the newfound influences on his music. A stripped down guitar track that builds up to a laid back chorus with a sharp riff. He glides over the plucky high pitched notes with ease and really lets the instruments shine, showing again his appreciation for the process and love for the new sound he is stepping into.

Circles closes with the song Once A Day, a soft and subtle piano accompanied by an old school synth gives us the bare minimum to move the song along, because it's really about the lyrics. His songwriting abilities are strongest in this true grand finale. It's a strong end to the album because just as quick as the song has started, it ends. Not abruptly or out of place, he said what he wanted to say, but it's over now, and that's okay.

Circles, for me, has recontextualized Mac Miller's discography in a new way. As opposed to his death having washed over his old music with a sense of grief, misfortune, and pain, Circles has now stepped in to act as his new final moment. I can't speak for everyone, but having had close family pass away in my lifetime has proved that closure is not a real thing, all you can do is get better at being upset about it, and that just takes time. The songs on this album still contain many of the depressing themes and allusions to his passing that his previous work had, but the tone here is much different. I think that context is everything, because hearing this was so unexpected, that to hear it at all felt like a victory lap. I'm not going to pretend that every song on here is perfect, or that the album is perfect either, but for me it acts as a highlight reel of his career, displaying all the directions musically that he spent a decade building up to and all the different directions he was prepared to take his music. Reality is harsh and unforgiving, like Macs death, coming suddenly and cutting short the complete thought that Swimming and Circles were attempting to flesh out. Now having the other piece of the puzzle gives us a chance to put a bow on his life and his career, as opposed to dwelling on what else he had to show the world, we now have a glimpse.

Favorite Quotes:

-”'Fore I start to think about the future, first can I please get through a day?”

-”So tired of being so tired, why I gotta build something beautiful just to go and set it on fire?”

-”Get away to a place with a lake, such a great view leave the bank, a couple hundred thou'. I made it, but hate once I build it I break it down it might just break me down.

-”Yeah, well, sometimes I get lonely, not when I'm alone. But it's more when I'm standin' in crowds that I'm feelin' the most on my own”

-”But everybody keep rushing, why aren't we taking our time? Every now and again, baby, I get high”

Discussion Questions:

  • How does this album compare to the rest of his discography?
  • How has this album aged since its release?
  • Do you think it was worth using the songs that were left to make and finish this follow up?
  • What do you think would be different about this album if Mac was alive to make the final cut?
  • Do you have any thoughts on possible future posthumous releases coming out?
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