By: Tommy “T-Rod” Rodriguez
Mac Miller’s posthumous album Circles is a testament to the conflict and beauty he embodied.
It’s strange to hear the voice of someone you thought was gone forever.
Malcolm McCormick, aka Mac Miller, was an icon for the current generation of hip-hop listeners old and young. Before he passed, Mac was not a typical hip-hop star, carrying addiction and love over to both his art and heart. To be human, it seemed, was to be like Mac. To this day, checking the comments on older Mac Miller music videos will yield an endless amount of praise, mourning, and respect from people of all ages. His growth from frat rap star to meditative jazz enthusiast was one of the most striking developments of any hip-hop artists’ career.
And all of a sudden, after his death, we could no longer experience that humanity he so lovingly gave to everyone. That is, until his posthumous album Circles was announced. Most of the time, releasing unfinished hip-hop for a label release is comparable to dressing up the deceased for one more stage show; they may seem like they’re there, but the soul isn’t.
That isn’t the case with Circles. It seems as if Malcolm McCormick decided to drop by for just a little while longer with the most personal, intimate record in his catalogue. Circles is less of a rap record, and more akin to Mac staring you in the face, and having one last meaningful conversation before he leaves for some greater destination.
Circles was more than a loose collection of tracks for Mac; a New York Times interview with album producer Jon Brion states as such. It was meant to be part of a trilogy of albums, beginning with 2018’s Swimming. The trio would presumably explore the inner workings of Mac’s emotions, mixing up hip-hop and pop in a way that would sound distinct and fresh. Swimming in Circles, the two known album titles imply, would be a channeling of Mac’s amazing highs and devastating lows…
And Circles certainly portrays that, sonically and lyrically. Its production is wintry. Mac peels back the fears of his minds just as he peels back the gloss and heft of hip-hop, going for minimalist and sterile sounds that evoke imagery of a beautiful, snowed-in alpine forest. “Woods” is quite possibly the most atmospheric song Mac has made, with whirring synths and meditative production perfectly telling a story within Mac’s own self-confusion. He even goes so far to cover Arthur Lee on “Everybody”, crafting a wonderful ode to life, death, and love. Knowing the tragic end to Mac’s story, the subject matter is difficult to digest, but it’s poignant.
Although Mac is lyrically devastated by depression, anxiety, and loneliness, he has never been more sure of himself in his musical performance. He manages to evoke tearful smiles while lamenting the day-to-day hardships of life on the smooth electronics of “Complications” and emotionally relaxes over the icy vocal layering on the nostalgic “Blue World”. Even on tracks where his vocals seem to falter, the brute honesty is wonderful to behold; “That’s on Me” is a folk-ballad that swings for the fences, and while it doesn’t get a homer, it gets a nice double instead.
Circles is definitely strong on its production and presentation, no doubt in part to the legendary Jon Brion managing to fit the puzzle together in such a cohesive and fulfilling way…but what truly makes it special is Mac himself. The heart he shows on Circles is something that cannot be fully understood without hearing it in full. As he digs himself deeper into the depths of despair, he manages to put on a smile, and fight the good fight. “Hand Me Downs” is a stunning ballad, focusing on Mac’s struggle with anxiety while remaining happy on the outside; as he sings about feeling loneliest in a crowd, his worry is as tangible as the soaring soul of the chorus. “Good News” is one of the most haunting expressions of self-doubt I’ve heard in hip-hop, Mac’s whispered rhymes and heavenly imagery seemingly sent directly from where he is no doubt happiest. As a lead single, it was great. As a transitionary moment for the record, it’s masterful.
“There’s water in the flowers, let’s grow” sings Mac on the soul-crushing acoustic strumming of “Surf”, one of the albums most telling moments. While he faces heartbreak and sadness, Mac’s ability to inspire hope and joy in others on this song is a testament to who he was as an artist. He was the most human of them all: he bore some of the heaviest burdens any young man can carry, but he never gave them to anyone. Instead, he opted to laugh, to create, and inspire everyone he touched. The little kid from Pittsburgh grew up fast, and was gone even faster. If Circles is the last we hear from him, then it is a powerful parting gift.
Thank you Mac. We’re going to miss you.
Tracks to Save: “Complicated”, “Blue World”, “Good News”, “Everybody”, “Hand Me Downs”, “Surf”
Tracks to Skip: N/A