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“Well… this is what it look’ like, right before you fall.” These are the words that begin the introductory title track on Mac Miller’s newly released posthumous album, “Circles”. While “Swimming” stood as a superb capstone to a groundbreaking artist’s short life, “Circles” provides us the true chance to understand Mac’s life right before the end. Miller famously passed away at 26 due to an accidental drug overdose just weeks after releasing “Swimming” in 2018, ending a decade-long career that showed so much of his musical ability and promise for the future in a relatively short time.
Miller meant a lot to me, personally. When I started getting into rap music in early middle school, Miller was one of the first artists to really capture my attention. Songs like “Knock Knock” and “Donald Trump” were catchy and vibrant, with the energy of a wide-eyed kid just trying to navigate his own adolescence. Miller wasn’t rapping about anything overtly substantial, but his infectious hooks and penchant for hilarious one-liners were irresistible. Never had I heard music so unapologetically fun, and I don’t think many artists since have captured the same demeanor.
As I grew up, Miller did as well. While the teenage rambunctiousness began to slow down as Mac matured, he still maintained his creative passion in his lyricism, and his instrumental and production talents exploded. Works like “KIDS” soon gave way to riskier and more contemplative works like “Watching Movies With The Sound Off” and “Faces,” which is arguably Miller’s most ambitious work to date. He tackled addiction and feelings of hopelessness on “GO:OD AM,” and his romance with pop star Ariana Grande on “The Divine Feminine.” Throughout his entire discography, Miller experimented endlessly with genres such as jazz and R&B, weaving soulful melodies together with lyrics that became progressively more thoughtful as time went on, finally culminating in “Swimming.”
Then, he was gone. Of all the high-profile celebrity deaths that came throughout the 2010s, I don’t think any hit me as hard as the loss of Mac Miller. His life and work felt so intimately private to me. He was one of the few rappers who could sound aggressive and personal in the same breath, never afraid to show the softer side of his adolescent personality.
This continues on “Circles,” which I would say is Miller’s most intimate album to date. Every song on the album sounds like Miller whispering his deepest fantasies and concerns right into your ear. The understated nature of the project does wonders, as the lowkey, live instrumentals put the songwriting center-stage. Miller has never sounded more cryptic as he begs the listener to revisit the album multiple times to truly unpack what he is trying to say.
Thematically, this is the most profound release of Miller’s entire career. While not quite the dark contemplation like David Bowie’s “Blackstar” and Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker,” “Circles” is unequivocally an album shrouded in Mac Miller’s death. There are numerous references to Miller’s passing on the album, with the title track and lead single “Good News” serving as perfect examples of Miller addressing what his life and the afterlife means to him. But this is also a celebration of Miller’s life, as he discusses the beauty and wonder he finds in his surroundings on songs like “Surf” and “Blue World.” He reminisces on past loves on “I Can See,” which is complemented beautifully by some haunting vocals supposedly sung by Mac’s ex, Ariana Grande.
Miller may have talked at length about his own death on “Circles,” but that is only part of what he offers on the album. The project provides such a fascinating segment of Mac’s musical career when viewed in the context of the rest of his discography, showing how much he developed musically in his shortened life. The compositions on “Circles,” while subtle, have never sounded more full or complete, with the kinds of instrumentation one would only expect from the most musically-literate jazz or folk artists. Fans of Miller’s earlier hip-hop work may not love the artistic direction of the album, but I personally adored the risk.
“Circles” is simply Mac Miller’s finest album. It’s his most artistically ambitious since “Faces” and features Miller’s best songwriting and vocals. The instrumentals are crisp and gorgeous, and the contents of Mac’s lyrics resonate so deeply. Not one song misses the mark, not one note feels out of place. Never before has a rapper of Miller’s stature released something quite like this, and I believe it is as beautiful of a bookend as we could have asked for.
Favorite Tracks: Circles, Good News, I Can See, Hand Me Downs, Surf