Issuing awards to recently deceased artists is about as cliche as cliche gets. That is unless the artist in question has also recently created a project that absolutely deserves the award in question for pushing boundaries and innovating the art form. In the case of The Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, Mac Miller absolutely meets the above criteria with his 2018 project, Swimming.
Now, there are four other albums that could easily meet those criteria as well. Astroworld saw Travis Scott expand and polish his skills as a masterful curator. Daytona was a stripped-down, nitty-gritty return to drug rap dominance for Pusha T. Invasion Of Privacy was a sparkling debut for Cardi B, who became not just an instant icon but made history as one of the most successful women in hip-hop. Victory Lap lived up to its title as the validation of Nipsey Hussle’s decade of grind and music business modernization. If any of these albums win, it would be a fine look for the Grammys and a sign that the awards show is finally moving in the right direction (while rap fans would probably be outspoken in their disapproval anyway).
But Swimming was an opus from Miller, a supremely creative artist who reinvented himself and evolved with every album. If he were still here, it’d be exceedingly difficult for him to top this album with his next. Surprising his fans had become so standard for him it became impossible for him to continue doing simply because it had become expected.
The way he slid smoothly from persona to persona, growing and sharpening his style from the raps to the production with each album. When he started, he was an adherent to the traditionalist, boom-bap style of throwback rap. He would spit straightforward bars over beats from the likes of ’90s-era stalwarts like Diamond D and Q-Tip. He sounded like a white Big L; to his credit, that was what we went for and he’d be proud of the comparison.
Then he transformed with each successive release, adding more layers, becoming more honest, more reflective, more experimental, and more confident in his artistic choices. On Watching Movies With The Sound Off, he gave an intimate peek into his interior life, baring some of the more jagged edges of himself. The Divine Feminine displayed a loopier, mushier sentimentality as he explored the romance and sexuality of his then-fresh relationship with Ariana Grande. Through it all, he left an impact on both fans and peers, leaving an indelible mark on the landscape of hip-hop with every collaboration and working relationship that he cultivated into a real friendship.
Swimming synthesized many of those various aspects into a more complete vision of a Mac Miller who was growing into his own, both as an artist and as a man. His themes expanded from the gloomy depression and harrowing drug use on Movies and the goofy slackerism of K.I.D.S. to find a self-effacing adult speaking to his experiences in healing and growth. The gooey, synthy funk of Feminine, translated through the virtuoso talents of LA-based jazz and funk luminaries like Thundercat and Dâm Funk grew into luscious neo-soul and glittering roller skate bounce. His raps snap and galavant over the sinuous soundscapes to address his “Self Care” and “Hurt Feelings.”
When he croons “my regrets look just like texts I shouldn’t send” on “Come Back To Earth,” he sounds like someone just enough removed from those regrets to reflect on them with honesty, but not so far enough to see them through rosy lenses. On Swimming, Mac embodies hip-hop and rap at their best. It’s honest, it’s authentic, it’s reflective, and it’s real. But more than that, it shows that rappers don’t need to be afraid to take risks. Mac guided the album through recording sessions that resembled jazz jam sessions and shepherded Swimming into an artistic vision that foregoes commercial constraints and even cultural ones. It’s an album that contains the best of what rap has been, what it is now, and what it might be in the future. That’s the definition of a Best Rap Album.