Mac Miller's 2018 Grammy Award-nominated album 'Swimming' appeared to be his final offering due to his death on Sept. 7, 2018, but Mac never cared much for appearances.
The late 26-year-old artist, who passed away from an accidental overdose, had more stored away, and his family decided to posthumously release his sixth and final studio album Circles last Friday (Jan. 17).
“Here we are,” the family of Mac Miller, born Malcolm McCormick, posted to his Instagram page on Jan. 6. “The act of having to write this at all feels surreal. At the time of his passing, Malcolm was well into the process of recording his companion album to Swimming, entitled Circles. Two different styles complementing each other, completing a circle—Swimming in Circles was the concept.”
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Circles doesn’t so much serve as an answer to questions presented by Swimming because Mac still isn’t here to answer them. However, it does bring a tiny bit of closure that wouldn’t exist if his loved ones opted not to share. His musicality was never in doubt, and his repertoire is further bolstered by the fluid sonics throughout Circles‘ 12 tracks. But the most soothing sound is his voice. Mac can be heard singing significantly more than rapping, which makes it painful to listen to because it inevitably leads to the most unanswerable question of all: In what ways was Mac Miller still destined to grow as an artist and man, and in what ways would that growth have been presented musically?
We will never know.
Instead, we have no choice but to infinitely draw circles around his abbreviated discography.
But with Circles, there’s an opportunity for an elongated goodbye. A incidentally perfect eulogy, though the only actually perfect outcome would be for him to still be with us, in which Mac had so much to say about the life he had lived and the life he still wanted to live.
It has been nearly a week since the album was released. The normal course of action would have been to write this at the time of its release, maybe, but Circles demands to be sat with—to be worn in and not only felt but studied—because, unfortunately, it’s all that is left. Posting a reactionary piece feels too final.
That said, it had to be done. Below is a closer look at hand-picked lyrics from each of Circles‘ 12 tracks.
“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
Change is hard. Nobody is immune to that. And nobody knew the frustrating nature of habitual behavior better than Mac. The appropriate part is that his willingness to vulnerably admit that has inspired others to try their hand at stretching outside destructive cycles.
“Some people say they want to live forever
That’s way too long, I’ll just get through today”
Mac may have been focused on making it through one day at a time, but what he built day-in and day-out for just 26 year is more than enough to live on forever.
“Yeah, well, this mad world made me crazy
Might just turn around, do one-eighty”
Mac spoke with Vulture’s Craig Jenkins over the course of two days shortly before his death. This “Blue World” line fits alongside the following exchange between them:
Jenkins: “In ‘2009’ you said, “Sometimes I wish I took a simpler route / Instead of having demons that’s as big as my house.” What would life without rap look like?
Miller: “We actually joke all the time, we’ll take a moment where we’ll be like, ‘Man, life would be so simple if I would’ve just had a job somewhere.’ You know, like been at one place and then come home. And there’s that moment of peacefulness, when you think about it. But I would never actually do that. I’m also very attracted to my own demons.”
The “Blue World” bridge finds Mac ruminating, “My mind, it goes, it goes
/ It goes, it goes, it goes.” Perhaps he was most comfortable, healthily or not, when his mind went and went and went, and the world was a tinge blue.
Disclaimer: I tried. It’s impossible to select bits and pieces from “Good News” because it must to be consumed as a whole in order to grasp the full weight of the song. Listen and watch the accompanying carefully curated visual for yourselves:
“Yeah, don’t tell me to stop
Let me keep goin’ until I cannot
Life is a fantasy until you wake up in shock”
It was a tie between this beginning of the second verse and the ending of the second verse leading into the chorus, “You got so far to go, but look at where you came from / And now I know if life is but a dream then so are we.”
Brion—the composer and producer who worked alongside Mac on Circles and planned to make Swimming and Circles part of a trilogy—spoke to the song’s intricacies (h/t Genius):
“It’s not fair to give words to the heaviness of it, but I can tell you that the week I had to listen through stuff was a torture and a delight. Torture because of the loss. And then ‘I Can See’ would come up, and I’d be beyond delighted because I’m like, ‘This is good by anybody’s standards, in any genre, this human being expressing themselves well.’
“It would turn back to a torture because you’re like, ‘Oh my god, you were capable of that. I didn’t even get to hear that one yet.’ I could sit there and wonder, would I have? Was it something he was nervous about, or because it was already so complete, did he not feel a need? No idea. You can ascribe all sorts of things to his sense of knowing. But people are going to have that experience because he was already self-aware and was unafraid of expressing it. But beyond that lyrical wonder of honesty, the melody just made me cry.”
Brion’s right, but ascribing is what we do with music.
Mac ultimately succumbed to his struggles—again, accidentally—but that should not discount how often he had to overcome them in order to get where he was able to go in the short time he had.
“Everybody’s gotta live
And everybody’s gonna die”
No further analysis necessary.
“It’s so much better when you wait
Forever and a day, that’s all I got”
If only Mac did have forever and a day.
He knew the fragility of the human condition, though. That much was clear and delivered in various forms throughout his career. In “Woods” specifically, he took a direct approach at the top of the first verse: “Yeah, things like this ain’t built to last / I might just fade like those before me.”
For once, he was wrong. His goodness won’t fade—no matter how tirelessly his demons tried to erase him.
“Let’s turn these genes into hand me downs”
Circles is full of gut-punches, but perhaps none hurt more than this line. Most of the album’s lyricism can be viewed through the prism of Mac’s untimely death with multiple nods toward his inner demons. It’s easy to retroactively look at everything he wrote as a sign, a foreshadowing of his demise. However, this line is a reminder that he was hopeful. That it was an accidental overdose, and he was optimistic about his future—a future he very much wanted to stick around for, to keep learning and getting better. He hints here at wanting a family, it seems, and what could be more indicative of his intention to live than that?
“That’s on me, that’s on me, I know
I’ll let it go
I’ll cut the strings
Today I’m fine”
Mac Miller carried a lot of things, some publicly and presumably much more privately. Most importantly, though, he displayed a keen self-awareness about each and every one.
“Yeah, why don’t you wake up from your bad dreams?
When’s the last time you took a little time for yourself?
There’s no reason to be so down
Rather fly around like there’s no ground”
When’s the last time you took a little time for yourself?
It’s a poignant question—important enough that merchandise with the message printed on it is being sold with a portion of proceeds going to The Mac Miller Fund. In title alone sparks thought back to Swimming track “Self Care.”
Taking time for yourself, and self-care in general, is probably the most time consuming job anybody will ever have. It’s also probably the most neglected.
“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
And I know that somebody knows me
I know somewhere there’s home”
It’s just sad to think that he felt so lonely, and he left this world without finding his someone or his home. But there’s reassurance in an interview he gave to Rolling Stone‘s Dan Hyman surrounding the release of Swimming where he talked about giving up on trying to be something he is not in order to please the general population.
“Because then you have to live your whole life making sure that everything you do compliments that character,” Miller told Hyman. “That, to me, sounds like the most stressful shit ever. If all I have to do at the end of the day is live with myself, I can figure that out.”
Maybe he was lonely (who isn’t at least sometimes?), and if that were the case, at least he was at peace with himself.
“But everybody keep rushin’
Why aren’t we taking our time?”
There are limitless ways to interpret what is expected to be Mac’s final body of released work. On that spectrum is a simple cliche that gets lost in the shuffle of the day-to-day: Life is short. He didn’t know it yet, but his life was way too short. And here, he buried an Easter egg reminder that it’s not a race.
Mac decided to allow himself to feel what he felt, in whatever moment in time he was feeling it, and vulnerably lay it all out there in his final track. Brion disclosed the Grammy Award nominee’s process for “Once a Day” (h/t Genius):
“I couldn’t believe the songwriting. I looked forward to his visits so much because every time, there was this new discovery of, ‘You’re hiding this?’ Honestly. I don’t know what else he’s got (to) undercover, but this thing is fully fleshed out. It’s personal. It’s heartbreaking. I went through the rigmarole to get him to play it, and I did what I thought was the right production decision. I left the room, but I didn’t close the door. I didn’t leave, not even slightly. I stood in the door, basically a room and a half away from the control room with the door open. And he started playing and the vocal was coming out.
“And this is how I can tell you I’m not looking at it with the loss goggles: I bawled my eyes out. Heard it twice in a row. I kind of poked my head around the door and said, ‘Oh, I heard a little bit of that. That sounds good. Just do a double of that keyboard just right now while the sound’s up. Okay, cool.’ Boom. Ran out into the hallway and cried again and dried my eyes out and went back in and sat through the usual ‘Was that good? Are you sure you shouldn’t just play it?’ Maybe it’s something the rest of the world wouldn’t see and I will be blinded by personal experience, but I don’t fucking care. It’s what happened. It’s what I saw, and I just think it’s great and doesn’t need any qualifiers, personally. So there.”
In the song’s third verse, Mac urges, “Don’t keep it all in your head / The only place that you know nobody ever can see.” Thank goodness he took his own advice. His parting gift to the world was choosing not to keep any of this inside.