Alex reviews the final offering from rap icon Mac Miller, whose untimely death resonates throughout the record to make it powerful and emotional listening.
The story of Mac Miller is one of the most interesting and heart breaking in music history, a geeky kid from Pittsburgh going against all odds to become one of the most loved and respected rappers in recent memory. But Miller was so much more than a rapper – he was a singer, a producer and a poet who attracted the attention of some of the biggest names in music in his tragically short life. Versatility has always been one of Miller’s biggest strengths; from his boom-bap and jazz inspired seminal mixtape Faces to the frat-boy rap on Blue Slide Park, it’s clear that he has never been afraid to switch up his style to echo his musical influences at the time of writing.
This takes me onto Circles, a record which in many ways reminds me of celebrated folk singer Elliot Smith, who, much like Miller, passed away at a very young age. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has closely followed the making of this posthumous album in its relatively short release window. Renowned producer Jon Brion is said to have worked closely with Miller before his death – the same Jon Brion who has production credits on much of Smith’s posthumous material.
I’ll admit I was scared when it was announced that we would be getting new Mac Miller material. Recently, the posthumous music of rappers has largely been an insult to their legacy, the best example of this being XXXTentacion’s final ‘album’ Bad Vibes Forever, which turned out to be a collection of poorly mixed demos and phone calls taped together with features from artists who had nothing to do with X before he died (take Lil Wayne, who admitted he had never even heard of the rapper before his untimely passing). Thankfully, Circles avoids this pattern. The final album from Miller is a masterpiece that perfectly blends elements of folk, hip hop and jazz into a fitting send off to an artist who consistently broke down barriers between genres in music, and explores the troubled mind of a young genius.
'Miller was so much more than a rapper – he was a singer, a producer and a poet who attracted the attention of some of the biggest names in music in his tragically short life'.
Opening track Circles sets the tone for the record, a slow acoustic intro centered around the direction Miller wanted to take in his career. ‘Well this is what it looks like right before you fall’, sings Miller – a prophetic and deeply sad introduction to an album which reminds us that the creator was deeply aware of the self-destructive situation he had found himself in. Overall, Circles functions as a lowkey introduction to the album before quickly picking up into the catchy synth-heavy track Complicated, which could easily have found itself on Tyler, The Creator’s critically acclaimed album Flowerboy. Despite the upbeat plucky chords and Miller’s optimistic delivery, the lyrics are inherently dark and again serve as a reminder of the way in which his life came to a tragic end. It’s hard to hold back tears when you hear lines such as ‘some people say they want to live forever, that’s way too long/ I’ll just get through today’ and ‘I’m way too young to be getting old’.
Miller has always been regarded as one of the top lyricists in modern hip-hop along with frequent collaborator Earl Sweatshirt, who is notably absent from the record. There are no features on Circles, and in my opinion, this serves to the record’s advantage. It feels extremely personal, almost like a final goodbye from an artist who many credit with saving their life. ‘Fuck the bullshit, I’m here to make it all better with a little music for you’, he raps on Blue World over a beautiful chopped up sample of barbershop quartet group The Four Freshmen. Blue World is a highlight for me, showcasing Miller’s ability to mix genres together to make something truly unique. It also serves as a perfect example of the rap/sung blend that he has perfected. It is perhaps not accurate to even call Circles a rap record; according to popular Twitter account @hiphopnumbers, 74.3% of the vocals on the album are sung, with 6 out of the 12 tracks featuring no rap vocals at all. Everybody and That’s On Me would not feel out of place on a Beatles record, but in an extremely good way. The introspection on the aforementioned track is definitely comparable to John Lennon’s 1971 classic Imagine.
'There are no features on Circles, and in my opinion, this serves to the record’s advantage. It feels extremely personal, almost like a final goodbye from an artist who many credit with saving their life'.
The prevalence of live instruments also contributes to the often folk-like aspects of certain songs. The drums on Everybody give a nice bit of differentiation to the midi drums we’ve come to expect on modern rap records, and the plucky muted guitar on lead single Good News creates a fantastic and original backdrop to my personal favorite song on the album. The influence of Jon Brion here is extremely prevalent, and shows how instrumental he has been in the success of artists such as Elliot Smith. At 5 minutes 52 seconds it’s also the longest track, but Miller makes sure not a single second is wasted. Good News is a deep look inside the mind of a man who was deeply troubled by his mental health. The line ‘I heard they don’t talk about me too much no more’ is particularly devastating due to the fact that it couldn’t be any further from the truth – even in death he is one of the most discussed artists on the planet, a rarity in a world in which artists dying too soon as become far too common. It’s bittersweet; I love the track, but sometimes it can be hard to listen to due to the sheer emotion which it brings along with it.
Bittersweet – that’s the word which best sums up Circles. It is a masterpiece, but one which leaves us itching for more Mac Miller, something which is unfortunately impossible. Final track Once A Day is the perfect outro for the album, similar to the intro in that it’s a short and lowkey honest reflection on his inner demons. ‘Every now and again baby I get high’ sticks out as an especially sad line in the final song anyone will hear from him. It doesn’t feel like the end of the Mac Miller saga; he didn’t deserve for Circles to be the end of his story, but it is. We are lucky in that we have Miller’s music to remember him by, but we shouldn’t have to remember him. He should be here with us, and that’s a tragedy.