Feature: 350 Words or More Top Content

On Circles, Mac Miller reminds us not to get ahead of ourselves

Malcolm McCormick, known by many as Mac Miller, would’ve turned 28 years old on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. But instead of receiving presents, Mac and his family were the ones doing the gifting as the weekend began, unwrapping the first and potentially final posthumous album in his catalog, Circles.

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As part of the album announcement a little over a week earlier, Mac’s family noted that Circles was being recorded as a companion to Swimming, Mac’s fifth studio album, when he suddenly passed in Sept. 2018 about a month after Swimming came to the surface. “Two different styles complementing each other, complementing a circle – Swimming in Circles was the concept,” read the Instagram post.

Using Swimming as a pace setter, Circles certainly feels like a fitting partner, furthering a sort of yin and yang dynamic highlighted by the symbol displayed on several pieces of merch related to both albums. At once showing unbreakable confidence (“Jet Fuel”), and at another showing potentially harmful misdirection (“Hand Me Downs”), each body of work begets a shared path toward some form of enlightenment. But that’s not to say that one project is wholly yin and the other, yang.

Perhaps it’s the bright horizon lying in the distance in the otherworldly video for “Good News” that best reflects Mac’s optimistic but unrealized longing for happiness. When positioned against lyrics like, “Wake up to the moon / haven’t seen the sun in a while, but I heard that the sky’s still blue,” we can hear that Mac was focused on his craft, likely rising to the moon because he was asleep during the day after being in the studio all night. He’s moving at his own pace, though it’s conflicting with what the rest of the world expects. As a result, relationships are being damaged and he’s seriously questioning his next step. “I wish that I could just… get out my goddamn way,” he remarks.

Across Circles, Mac is keen to remind us not to get ahead of ourselves. In life, we’re enticed to believe that once we see success and the swimming gets a littler easier, we’ve got sh*t figured out – it’s all smooth sailing from there on forward. But a wave is always brewing and it’s bound to hit us in the face sooner or later, forcing us to hold our breath, close our eyes and paddle through. In fact, sometimes the best we can hope for is just to stay afloat. “Some people say they want to live forever / that’s way too long, I’ll just get through the day / without any complications,” Mac hums on “Complicated.”

Quotable, honest moments like this one can be found by the handful within Circles. The modes of delivery are Mac’s signature croons, a sing-rap style he’d been steadily refining ever since he dropped the lounge jazz EP You in 2012 under the alter ego Larry Lovestein & The Velvet Revival, and they’re more prevalent than ever before. According to Hip Hop By The Numbers, nearly 3/4 of the album’s vocals are sung instead of rapped. On Swimming, you can also hear him successfully experimenting with pitch and melody over several choruses, including those for “Perfecto,” “Wings” and “Dunno.”

“Mac Miller, TMRW” by Henry Dean (top) and “Ruisrock Festival” by Justin Boyd (bottom). Displayed at the Circles: Til Infinity pop-up in New York.

This major songwriting shift was fueled by jazzy live instrumentation from executive producer Jon Brion, who’s worked with Kanye West, Fiona Apple, Janelle Monáe and many other artists during the span of a thirty-plus year career. Brion closely collaborated with Mac on Swimming as a co-producer and co-writer, and in an interview with Zane Lowe on Apple Music, he reflected on the first time he heard demos from what would later turn into Circles. Brion said, “He comes in and he plays five or six things the first night and I was floored… There was more hip-hop leaning stuff, and it was great and funny and personal – the tracks were already pointing someplace interesting. After a couple of those, he goes, ‘I’ve got these other things [referring to the demos for Circles] I’m not sure what to do with.'”

For listeners who may have been pleasantly surprised to hear such a stripped down, indie-sounding version of Mac, you’re not alone. When he played the demos for Brion, Mac was “nervous as f*ck,” according to Brion, and upon hearing Brion’s appreciation and enjoyment of the concepts, his first reaction was “Really?”

“Hand Me Downs” may be the smoothest display of Mac’s matured songwriting skills as he transitions from singing to rapping and singing again without obstacle. “And all I ever needed was somebody with some reason who can keep me sane,” Mac admits alongside a steady drum beat and electric guitar licks. After watching the video for the song, we’re left to imagine how his musicality would’ve continued to evolve as he hangs out in the studio and plays around with a keyboard piano, bass guitar, drums, electric guitar and even a xylophone. Yet in the second verse, we’re reminded of more familiar times with packed to the brim bars questioning reality. “I do not lie though, facts may seem a little farfetched / that’s only ’cause I may be make believe and full of darkness,” Mac ponders, offering thoughts similar to those encountered on Watching Movies With The Sound Off.

Mac at Home
“Mac at Home” by Sam Balaban. Displayed at the Circles: Til Infinity pop-up in New York.

Among a tight selection, “Blue World” stands out as the most rap-focused track on Circles. With lines like “cool as fall weather,” fans are given a taste of the carefree vibes that drew them to early mixtapes, such as The High Life and K.I.D.S. The distinction here – Mac has become much more aware of life’s ups and downs. “Yeah, well, this mad world made me crazy / might just turn around, do one-eighty,” Mac spits.

While the ups are blissful and contagious, the downs are lonely and require deep contemplation. “Once A Day,” the album’s closing track, is personal and devastating. It’s like we’re in the same room as Mac as he hunches with his eyes closed and spills despair into the open. Ushered along by soothing synth chords with the slightest oscillation, Mac is vulnerable, his voice grasping for answers at the end of each refrain, “Everybody keep rushin’ / why aren’t we taking our time? / Every now and again, baby, I get high.” Again, Mac is describing the stress he feels when being pushed to move too fast. Reminiscing on the first time he heard “Once A Day,” Brion said, “I bawled my eyes out.”

We feel you, man.

Baby Mac
“Untitled” by Karen Meyers (Mac’s mom). Displayed at the Circles: Til Infinity pop-up in New York.

In the flurry of reactions and reviews published around Circles, there was one that struck a different chord. It came from Thundercat, a well-known funk artist and producer, as well as one of Mac’s closest friends and collaborators in recent years. Before Mac’s passing, Thundercat crafted the bass line on “What’s the Use?,” and was set to go on the Swimming tour as the bassist for the live band. He also flew in from Europe just to perform for Mac’s special NPR Tiny Desk Concert, one of his last shows ever.

In a recent interview with Zane Lowe on Apple Music, Thundercat talked about Mac and their relationship. When discussing Circles he said, “Jon Brion, thank you. It’s so special, the work that you did on this [Circles]. It’s going to stick to everybody that hears it. You did a great job, and I believe Mac would’ve been proud too, personally.” Hearing such strong praise from someone who was affected by Mac’s death as deeply as anyone outside of his family, maybe we should try and interpret another meaning in the concept “Swimming in Circles”: closure.

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