I’m writing this while listening to Mac Miller’s Circles, which dropped after the untimely and tragic passing of an artist who sometimes got it and sometimes didn’t. I think it’d be unfair to my Mac Miller story to pretend he was always my favorite artist. My relationship with his music came and went. In a way, it grew as his music grew.
It changed as he moved from the off-the-cuff style of Blue Slide Park, to the more nuanced, diffuse music he released later in his career. I remember loving him in high school, especially when I started going out. Nothing hit quite like “All Night” , on the way to a house party you’re not supposed to go to. Nothing ever will, really.
“Missed Calls” was one of the songs that got me through my first big break up.
“It’s so hard to pretend that it’s like it was way back when/I thought you used to be the one/I guess you don’t have time,” Mac said.
To a kid finding out for the first time what it means to feel and lose love, those lyrics hit. And I mean they HIT. I felt them in my chest, laying up at night, feeling lost on the top bunk of my friend Hannah’s bunk bed, I can feel myself walking into a new, less certain world. Those were the moments, even at the beginning of his career, that Mac Miller seemed to understand better than anyone else. Mac knew that to have a silver lining, you needed a cloud too.
Swimming pulled me back into Mac Miller. I’ll always remember where I was listening to that first song for the first time. The soft intro, the words whispered into your ears, not necessarily softly, but certainly not with the bravado of a younger Mac Miller.
“My regrets look just like texts I shouldn’t send/And I got neighbors, they’re more like strangers/We could be friends,” he said.
Senior year of college hit me like a brick wall. I felt like every problem, every failure of mine was coming to bear. Every moment was riddled with anxiety. I felt like I was drowning. When I listened to Mac, whether it be those first lyrics, or the soft strings of “2009”, a song that gracefully addresses changes, a life that seems to move too fast without ever slowing down, I felt like I could swim. I know that sounds corny. I know. But I really did; the album made me feel like I didn’t have to climb a mountain or win a fight or be the best. Sometimes, you just need to keep swimming. At my lowest, Mac Miller reminded me that I could stay afloat. Circles keeps up, and expands upon, that tradition.
This album puts a bow on a career cut tragically short. It is Mac Miller’s most thoughtful, mature album. It also feels uncertain, unsteady; an artist talking about how he doesn’t want it all, but just wants to turn his jeans into hand me downs, feels different. It feels like he knows exactly what the album is trying to say, while searching for the words to say it. That might touch on the problematic aspect of the album, of posthumous albums in general. Can we really be sure this was Mac’s message, his vision?
In this case, it’s easy to trust Jon Brion. He worked closely with Mac on Swimming, and Mac’s family pointed out in a statement on Instagram that Mac worked on this album as a companion to Swimming before his tragic death. Still, you can feel Mac’s mindful uncertainty, an understanding of the infinite nature of what we’re all doing here. Especially on a song like “Everybody”, where Mac most clearly dances with mortality, an always artful and always uncertain mind jumps out in the lyrics. In a way, we’re all lost. We’re all circling. So, what’s the point?
Maybe the point is that, well, we can’t know the point. We really can’t. Nobody, not one of us, will figure out the meaning of life. That idea, too, is grand, and, in an age where everything needs to scale, every solution must be the most efficient, any meaning of life outside of saving the world can feel pointless. It feels, today, as though helping one person isn’t enough; we have to help millions.
But, in a way, the pedestaling of scale can break our spirit. When we require greatness, we often find ourselves short of the requirement. But Mac tells us, too, “every now and then, why can’t we just be fine?”, maybe that’s the point! Mac isn’t telling us we always need to be great, he isn’t telling us we need to solve every problem or save the world or some B.S.. He’s not a super hero. He’s Mac Miller, and he just wanted to be fine. And, sometimes, I do too. I just want to be fine.
The music itself is varied and beautiful. There are moments of classic Mac Miller, songs with beats that bounce and verses that illicit head nods from even the most passive of listeners. “Blue World” pops off with lines like “A devil on my doorstep bein so shady/don’t trip/we don’t gotta let him in” and “I know I’m not god but I’m feelin just like him.” The beat here bumps. It feels like something off of The Divine Feminine, with clear jazz influences, not surprising from an artist who infuses his music with influences from genres like jazz and classic rock along with his more conventional hip hop style.
Meanwhile, later on the album, songs like “Hand Me Downs” and “Once a Day” feature a Miller who sings, with a rough voice far more than he raps. This is the Mac Miller who wants everything to be simple. He doesn’t want to conquer the world; he just wants “somebody with some reason who can keep me sane.” He seems to want take just a moment to treasure the simple stuff we all do once a day. That’s when Mac Miller is at his best.
Every word in this album drips with the weight of a lost life. Each word carries the gravity of a man who just wanted to be fine, but became extraordinary. But in that loss, in this album, Mac gave us a taste of everything that made him so goddamn brilliant.
He, at points, is fun. He’s silly. It wouldn’t be a Mac Miller album if he wasn’t – “That’s on Me” talks about womanizing and partying like a younger Mac Miller might, and it makes me want to crank up some Blue Slide Park, invite over some friends I drank pink lemonade Burnett’s with when we thought that made us cool, and talk about how old we’ve become, as we do now that we’re 23, as we will when we’re 30, and so on and so forth.
“I’m way too young to be getting old,” Mac Miller says, on “Complicated.”
At the end of the day, the heart of this album, to me, is so simple that it often hides in plain sight. I can’t speak to Mac’s mission or what he wanted for this album, but I think the message is simple. Treasure this. Not just your best moments, not just the highlights.
Treasure the simple moments. Treasure that drink on the couch with your best friend. Treasure holding the hand of that person who makes you feel special. Treasure when you don’t feel great, when you feel sad, when you feel heartbroken. Circles proves that we’re still alive; it proves that one day, maybe not right now, but one day, we can be fine.
Treasure that simple moment of silence, holding a coffee or a tea (or a whiskey) in the early morning or late at night, in which you can really feel how fine this all can be. Because maybe that’s all we need. Maybe all we need, at the end of the day, is to be fine.