The RX is Uproxx Music’s stamp of approval for the best albums, songs, and music stories throughout the year. Inclusion in this category is the highest distinction we can bestow and signals the most important music being released throughout the year. The RX is the music you need, right now.
When Mac Miller passed away, he was on a path toward building his legacy. It seemed that he’d shaken off his demons, that he was in a better place. He’d outgrown the lazy “frat rap” label he’d been unfairly tagged with at the outset of his career and he was developing into what some might call a musical genius. His growth — as a rapper, as a producer, as a musician, and as a man — was evident throughout the thoughtful and languid 2018 effort, Swimming, which released just months before he fatally overdosed on a cocktail of drugs after a lifelong struggle with substance abuse.
About a week before the release of Mac’s latest, posthumous release, Circles, his family announced that the album had been in the works already at the time of the rapper’s death and was meant to be a companion piece to Swimming. As a whole, they’d comprise something of a double album composed around the idea of Swimming In Circles. The announcement further detailed how the process of completing the project and deciding to put it out wasn’t undertaken lightly; posthumous albums can often be dubious affairs guided as much by commercial imperative as by artistic vision.
However, with the help of Mac’s Swimming collaborator, composer Jon Brion, Circles seemingly manifests Mac’s vision — or at least comes close to doing so. It’s impossible to know, but the theme of suspended animation crystalizes and shines clearly throughout. If “swimming in circles” is meant to represent motion with no forward progress, something like the rat race we all find ourselves trapped within from time to time, then Circles aptly impresses Mac’s struggle to achieve contentment with routine on listeners, bringing them into his uncomfortable ennui.
De rigueur depression raps are absent. His problem wasn’t depression; it was malaise. “Cards in my hand, I hate dealin’,” he hum-sings on album lead single “Good News” That’s the rub; Mac didn’t struggle with the trauma of some of his peers and predecessors, but with everyday life. That’s what made him so relatable, despite his predilection for buying expensive sports cars and locking himself in the studio for weeks at a time. Miller once said he “hated” sobriety; these songs are perhaps representative of what that restlessness may have felt like for him — bright moments of clarity interspersed throughout a general sense of queasy discomfort.
He sings of relatable subjects, like feeling stuck in a rut. “Way too young to be getting old,” he croons on “Complicated.” On the emotive “Hand Me Downs,” he ponders burnout, admitting that “I’m just being honest my conscience ain’t doin’ bad,” but that he still feels “I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.” And while he sounds sprightly and spry on “Blue World” over the bouncy track from Disclosure’s Guy Lawrence — again reflecting his eclectic and broad-ranging collaborative proclivities — he also feels unease at the prospect of settling down: “One of these days we’ll all get by,” the song concludes. “Don’t be afraid, don’t fall in line.”
Almost immediately, the album’s tone shifts on “Good News,” with a mellow, but downbeat alt-rock-ish beat that echoes the haze that hangs low over Mac’s spirit. He’s “so tired of being so tired” and wonders at his own self-destructive habits: “Why I gotta build something beautiful just to go set it on fire?” He knows that his drug addiction is likely to kill him. He knows his toxic behaviors led to the dissolution of his relationship with singer Ariana Grande, the same relationship that partially sparked The Divine Feminine, his most joyous output to date. But maybe Mac just never had it in him to be a farmer, when being a pirate seemed to him his most natural state; in 2017, he said he was “living regularly” when asked about his formerly sober lifestyle.
But maybe — and this is potentially dangerous thinking, but the question is valid — that was what made him such an unpredictable and oddly prescient creative talent. There’s a vocal sample on “Hands” that though it was recorded nearly two years ago, comes out now with downright spooky timing, as it foreshadows and echoes the similar vocal tic that helped drive Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” to the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100. On the apologetic, “That’s On Me,” Mac dabbles in folksy, almost honky-tonk blues, and “Woods” comes very close to sparkling synthwave as he laments lost love — perhaps the very love that led him to experience the divinity of a woman and the disconnected languor of Swimming in the wake of his fall from grace.
It’s tragic that we’ll never be able to glean these answers from the work itself, anymore than we can know that the album that was released really meets Mac’s vision. We’re fortunate that he did put so much of himself into his work, but because he was heavily involved in the top-to-bottom production of everything he did, there remains the possibility that the final form of the album may have seen a final resolution. As it is, the answers, like the contentment Mac sought, will continue to elude us and we’ll keep asking the questions, around and around.
Circles is out now on Warner Records. Get it here.
Mac Miller is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.