As a rapper who initially gained traction off charismatic club anthems like 2011’s “Donald Trump,” Mac Miller appeared poised to comfortably dominate pop charts through the 2010’s. His debut album Blue Slide Park appeared as nothing more than a collection of redundant pop rap songs for high school house parties and festivals.
Seven years, four albums, and one devastating public breakup later, Mac Miller has evolved into one of hip-hop’s most genuine and introspective characters.
If 2016’s The Divine Feminine was Miller blissfully drunk in love, Swimming is the soul crushing hangover the morning after. While Swimming is the Pittsburgh native’s most polished effort to date, it’s also his darkest; often sounding like a hopeless attempt to navigate through post-breakup guilt and loneliness. In an era dominated by Soundcloud crooners with uninventive takes on depression and addiction, Miller has separated himself by offering a nuanced and well thought approach to an otherwise familiar topic.
Each of the 13 jazz and funk inspired tracks on the album illustrate the 26 year old rapper’s struggle to find peace. Though Mac tries to rationalize the possibility of being optimistic, he often sounds unconvinced and conflicted. On the opening track “Come Back to Earth,” Miller sings “I was drowning, but now I’m swimming,” before immediately countering with “Oh the things I’d do to spend a little time in Hell.”
It’s evident that Mac is fully aware of, if not outright ashamed by, the damage that his struggle with addiction has done to himself and those around him. But rather than lash out on others for his pain, Mac fully accepts responsibility for the situation, making himself a sympathetic character in the process.
At its best, Swimming plays like a well-composed symphony. Songs like “Come Back to Earth,” “2009,” and “Dunno,” feature impeccably produced string sections that swell into gorgeous soundscapes, while funkier tracks like “What’s the Use,” and “Ladders,” resemble the infectious charisma present in “Dang,” off The Divine Feminine. Miller sonically plays to his strengths on this album, coming off as more focused and comfortable than he ever has before.
While the rapper’s singing appears to have improved precipitously since his last album, it still often leaves something to be desired. Miller’s singing voice can be emotionally compelling but his lack of technical ability still shines through on tracks like “Self Care,” and “Perfecto.” Although I appreciate Mac’s strides forward, the album could have benefitted from a few featured vocalists on some of the hooks.
Singing aside, Miller’s rapping is expectedly razor sharp on most tracks. Slick introspective lyrics like “I paid the cost to see apostrophes, that means it’s mine, keep to myself, taking my time,” (“Hurt Feelings”) and “Nobody told me being rich was so lonely, nobody know me, oh well, it’s hard to complain from this five star hotel,” (“Small Worlds”) perfectly captures Mac’s characteristically subdued confidence.
Throughout the project, the rapper manages to outline the full scope of his inner turmoil and shame while maintaining an underlying sense of bravado and flare. An undoubtedly difficult balance to strike in such an emotionally raw album.
Up to this point, Mac Miller’s career trajectory has been unique, to say the least. Swimming marks a fascinating moment of simultaneous artistic triumph and emotional distress in the young rapper’s career. While I’m ecstatic to see Mac Miller’s continued progression, I hope the 26-year-old “Donald Trump” rapper from Pittsburgh finds the peace he so desperately reaches for on this album.