Last January, I, and the world alike, were given what I thought we would never get to experience again: a new Mac Miller album. It was called “Circles” — the companion project to Miller’s previous project, “Swimming.” A gift to the still-grieving, the release of “Circles” was a testament to not only Miller’s talent, but his inherent empathy for the world around him. “Circles” is a sublime encounter with the way in which life and death interact with musical legacy, and as Sept. 7 marked the two-year anniversary of Miller’s death, both the legacy and the evolution of his music are things that won’t leave my mind.
As he began to find his place in rap at 14, music has always been something that belonged to Miller’s purpose. And it was a passion that could be felt completely. At 18, Miller signed with the independent record label Rostrum Records and released the mixtape “K.I.D.S.,” a confident introduction into Miller’s commitment to his artistic craft. Miller’s earlier music was alluringly rowdy, yet full of warm nostalgia. The mixtape muses through parties, hometown memories and ambitions featuring hip-hop samples, and songs like “Kool Aid and Frozen Pizza” and “Senior Skip Day” that solidified Miller as the friend we all grew to know from afar.
The following year, Miller released his debut album, “Blue Side Park,” an album that followed similar motifs as “K.I.D.S.,” furthering the vibrant, youthful aura of wanting to make it big. It is a project that celebrates the shenanigans of an 18-year-old, exploring relatable narratives of growing up that felt warm and familiar. It was the music you listened to on the brink of adulthood, on the nights you felt were the beginning of something special.
The evolution of Miller’s music tells the story of finding oneself while managing to remain true to one’s roots. As Miller grew up, his unfiltered love and passion for creating music and art as a whole became abundantly clear. In 2013, Miller released “Watching Movies With the Sound Off,” an album that Pitchfork referred to as “a quantum leap in artistry” from his previous full-length release. Producers ranged from Pharrell, Earl Sweatshirt and Jay Electronica — initiating the beginning of Miller’s blend of the unlikely.
Miller’s friendships with other musicians were another aspect of his evolving styles, and it’s another aspect of his persona that reached so many. Most notably, his friendship with musician Thundercat brought Miller’s sound into a new era. The heavy balance of learning to find joy among deep sadness was something that began to center itself throughout his discography as Miller became more vulnerable with his audience. Once lighthearted and carefree musings became symphonies of jazz melded with hip-hop, artful collaborations that told intricate stories of growth, change and loss. In 2013, Miller released “Faces,” a mixtape that toyed with jazz sonics and portrayals of addiction and its relationship to morality. Rolling Stone rated “Faces” as the 18th best rap album of 2014.
The subject matter of Miller’s work grew darker, including more frequent images of heavy drug use. Alongside this came lyrics that considered his own death. Miller’s third album, “GOOD:AM,” contemplated dying, while also approaching his inner demons with an enduring form of optimism. The album reckons with addiction and Miller’s experience within the limelight, exploring introspection in the journey of recovery. A review published on HipHopDx wrote, “If Miller’s second album was a stepping stone that allowed him to climb above his partying past, ‘GO:OD AM’ serves as a wakeup call for those that think his music is still best suited for frat parties. With a bright future ahead of him, Miller has positioned himself for career longevity, so long as he can keep his demons behind him.”
The release of “The Divine Feminine” marked a turning point in Miller’s evolution. The album shifted away from the boisterous wonderings of a young kid and instead examined the emotional dynamics of love. Featuring collaborations with Thundercat, Anderson .Paak, CeeLo Green and Ariana Grande, “The Divine Feminine” signaled a complete change in his musical style that was alluded to in previous works, diving deeper into jazzy blends of funk and hip-hop. This change demonstrates the ways in which Miller’s emotional maturity began to contextualize itself within the production of his music. “The Divine Feminine” encompassed the beauty of growing into oneself and the ability of artistic expression to help one learn from the past.
Miller continued to navigate the ache of sobriety alongside the complexity of adulthood, particularly in response to his success as an artist. One month before his death in 2018, he released his fifth album, “Swimming.” His pain is heavy, but familiar. “Swimming” grapples with persisting through pain, full of orchestral layers of both doubts and hopes for the future. In “So It Goes,” Miller raps, “Okay, well, you could have the world in the palm of your hands / You still might drop it / and everybody wanna reach inside your pockets, so it goes / It’s like, in every conversation, we the topic / This narcissism, more like narcotics, so it goes.”
Despite the somber elements of “Swimming,” Miller was purportedly doing better. In an interview with Rolling Stone, longtime friend Thundercat said, “The happiness was there, man. I could see it in him. And it wasn’t fake.” Thundercat and Miller planned on going on tour after the debut of “Swimming” but on Sept. 7 of 2018, Miller died of an accidental overdose.
Despite the content of Miller’s projects, his death was a complete shock. Miller was someone who was committed to understanding complexity, understanding the way immense sadness coexists within life altogether, and his loss is still being mourned.
Then in January of this year came the posthumous release of “Circles” that was meant to interact with “Swimming,” exploring the idea of swimming in circles. In the first single off of the album, “Good News,” Miller sings, “There’s a whole lot more for me waiting / I know maybe I’m too late, I could make it there some other time / Then I’ll finally discover / That it ain’t that bad.” The album further explores Miller’s perspectives on life, wandering through optimism that is met with the heavy reality of circumstance.
Mac Miller always felt like a friend, someone that I grew up with. His music tells the same story, as his earlier projects bask in adolescence that eventually transforms into reflections on the human condition. The evolution of Miller’s music reveals the way in which an artist can change without losing themselves, along with Miller’s ability to extend so much depth, creativity and empathy to the people around him.