From Drowning To Swimming: Mac Miller’s Final Music

2009 // Mac Miller

“2009” finds Mac Miller at his most candid and mature. His penultimate song — ever — is a glowing testament to acceptance, personal reckoning, and survival from a musician who weathered the worst of storms and almost lived to continue to tell the tale. At least he got to tell it.

Must Peep Monday #20

To Mac Miller, 2009 was the last year he lived a normal life: his mixtape K.I.D.S. blew up the following year, and Mac, at the time still going by “EZ Mac (With The Cheesy Raps),” went from a 14-year old freshman freestyling in high school hallways to… well, you know the rest.

His debut album, Blue Slide Park, was met with harsh and inappropriately personal negative reviews, sending Mac spiraling into drug abuse. BSP may have been simple frat-rap, but Mac evolved and improved markedly as a musician over the years, culminating with the gem that is Swimming.

“2009,” and, by extension, Swimming, is not specific about the details of the struggles it was forged in. Mac has always preferred to be articulate in feeling, which gives his music the emotive edge that artists like Drake and Post Malone often phone in before refocusing on making radio bangers. Mac’s albums are about creating a scene and exploring it rather than recounting an uber-specific odyssey.

In many ways, “2009” feels like an outro track, from its long strings section intro to its unflinching honesty and clarity. So the fact that it’s not the outro to Swimming is fascinating and no small detail. The chronological outro is “So It Goes,” which follows “2009” on the tracklist. And though some albums use their finale as an epilogue or roll-credits theme rather than a conclusion (see good kid, m.A.A.d city, which “ends” with “Compton” despite the narrative concluding at “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst’), Swimming’s emphasis is not on storytelling the way GKMC’s is. “So It Goes” follows “2009” in service of the emotional arc drawn by the album.

“So It Goes,” in contrast to “2009,” is more muted and melancholy. Ending an album about recovery on this comparatively dissonant note seems counter-intuitive when “2009” is so bright and buoyant. But rather than negating the hope and promise of “2009,” the position of “So It Goes” in the tracklist doubles its poetry and honesty. Swimming is the story of Mac learning and deciding to survive.

To conclude Swimming with “2009” would be a dishonest representation of the journey of healing; it would recast the song as a happily ever after, and Mac knows better than that. In real life, there is no switch-flip — no revelatory deus-ex-machina permanently Thanos-snapping all your problems to dust. You always have to wake up tomorrow. Absolute, sudden closure is for sitcoms.

“2009” promises no happily ever after. It does, however, promise that you can be happy. It promises that it will be okay — not automatically, not permanently, not all at once — but it will be okay more often than it won’t be, and it will be more okay than it was, and it is not easy, but it is possible.

Mac Miller was drowning for years and albums. He found himself plunged into deep water — and remained in the same water when he died. That’s not to say that he simply rolled over. “2009” was a good, hard glimpse of what survival would look like — but just a glimpse. Mac was not out of the water yet, but he was no longer drowning; he was swimming.

Mac Miller did not “succumb to his demons,” a view that discredits the progress he was making. Since GO:OD AM, his efforts to be healthier and happier are plain to see, and Swimming — particularly “2009” — represents his resolution to survive, whatever that took. Yes, Mac overdosed. Addiction did not kill him. Fentanyl did. His cocaine was cut with it, unbeknownst to him, and he died a heartbreaking, harrowing death; an unfair ending to a journey of self-improvement that was a long time coming. The whole tragedy brings an eerily prescient vibe to his line on “Brand Name”: “To everyone who sell me drugs / Don’t mix it with that bullshit, I’m hoping not to join the 27 club.” Someone mixed his drugs with bullshit, and Mac Miller died at 26.

Art’s history of comparing internal struggles with bodies of water is long and dense. And for good reason: it’s an apt metaphor. Whether we thrash for a short minute or live our whole lives condemned to treading water, we all know what it’s like to feel as if we’re drowning.

The horizonless, bottomless depths of despair are always isolated — there are no boats, buoys, or lifeguards. To survive is not to be discovered and pulled from the waves. The deep is not of any ocean on Earth — there are no desert islands or shorelines to stand on. To survive is not to discover land. The only salvation to be found is your own two arms and legs, and to survive is to discover that you can swim.

Mac Miller’s story should be remembered as one of triumph and perseverance, despite its sudden and bitter end. Swimming is a gorgeous, powerful tale of a journey through the longest and darkest of tunnels, and “2009” is an awe-inspiring, life-affirming image of the light on the other side.

“2009” is the promise and the proof that you can swim. It will tire your arms and burn your chest; it will be constant, challenging work. But it will get easier every day, and no matter how deep the water and high the waves, you can swim. Mac Miller may not have lived to bask in the light on the other side as long as he deserved to, but “2009,” Swimming, and countless other songs by him can show the rest of us we’re not the first ones to feel like we’re drowning, it is possible to swim, and it is worth every stroke.

-Jonah Bird


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