Why Mac Miller’s last album, Swimming, is the most underrated of 2018
“What I’m always trying to do is make something that you start from the beginning and wanna listen all the way through”. How many artists could say they have this aim in mind on every album they make?
(Questo articolo è disponibile anche in italiano).
Sitting on an invisible plane, with his eyes closed and dirt on his feet after so many miles walked from 2009 until the untimely end of his days, while wearing a pink tuxedo and taking his hands clasped together in an almost embarrassed pose. This is just the artwork of Swimming, and it already tells so much on its own. Then, you listen to the album and you discover a mature, passionate and well-rounded artist, that could have grown so much more, if only he hadn’t surrendered to his demons.
For many Italians, he was just Ariana Grande’s addicted and devastated ex-boyfriend. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know him that much too. I’d only listened to “My Favourite Part” and “Dang!” feat. Anderson .Paak, because to me he was one of those artists I would have had time to listen gingerly. But behind a shabby appearance and an unenthusiastic voice, there was a real artist that many famous colleagues like Questlove, Kendrick Lamar, John Mayer, Thundercat, and Tyler, The Creator felt the need to praise on social media, on the day of his death. He was cherished by so many acclaimed musicians, that I started documenting myself. Soon after I discovered what we had lost, and I regretted not having done it before, not having followed his evolution piece by piece. On December 7th, exactly three months after his death, Miller obtained his first Grammy nomination. The Recording Academy probably did it just to make a nice gesture, but he deserved to be nominated even before Swimming. Why do I affirm this, you might ask? I’ll explain it in a brief and enthusiastic summary of his career.
Before leaving us at only 26 years of age, Malcolm James McCormick released five albums, seven mixtapes, a bunch of productions signed as Larry Fisherman and even a jazz EP distributed under the pseudonym Larry Lovestein & the Velvet Revival. Unlike his colleagues, his success came after many years of work, criticism, studies and destruction. Online, there’s a video that shows him in one of his first rap battles, at the age of 14.
He was clumsy, he couldn’t look into the camera and he appeared surprised by his own agility in finding fitting rhymes. It seems that rap wasn’t what he thought he would have done. One of his childhood friends, Jimmy Mourton, recalled in an interview with Complex that he dreamed of becoming a singer. “When he was going through puberty, he was going really hard on the guitar. He wanted to be a singer/songwriter but people were hating on his voice. He kind of let that dream fade”.
His first approach with music seems to have been at the age of 6, when he started taking piano lessons. Then he taught himself how to play bass, guitar and drums, and when he discovered rap he formed a band with his friend Brian Green aka Beedie, III Spoken. But as he explained years later, in that period he was just an “angry white rapper, 10th-grade angst” and he was known as EZ Mac. After gaining a little success as a duo with the mixtape How High, he officially became Mac Miller, went to the studio and started recording his own mixtapes, releasing The High Life e The Jukebox and reaching more than 500,000 views on YouTube for his first videos. All this happened before he even graduated to high school.
At 18 years old, Rostrum Records decided it was time for him to sign a record deal and distributed two mixtapes, K.I.D.S. and Best Day Ever, whose title track is accompanied by a video in which we can see him rapping on “Rapper’s Delight” as a child.
A little later, he released his debut album, Blue Side Park, whose themes weren’t different from his previous works (always money, women, drugs and parties), and the music was somehow pedantic. Stylistically, it was an immature and unbrave project, but still, being the first of a 19 years old, it was a great step, also considering that it sold 100,000 copies on the week of its release, reaching the summit of Billboard Top 200 with the likes of giants like Adele with“21”, Coldplay with “Mylo Xyloto” and Michael Bublé with “Christmas”. Suddenly, he had become this century’s first independent artist to reach the first place on Billboard’s hit chart, even without the help of prominent featurings. He should have felt satisfied, but the media — especially Pitchfork who gave him just 1 out 10 — made him doubt of himself. In an interview with Complex of a couple years later, he revealed that it was in that period he started to massively use drugs. ( “A lot of the reviews were more on me as a person. To be honest, that was even worse. You’re 19, you’re so excited to put out your first album, you put it out — and no one has any respect for you or for what you did”).
Things started changing in 2011, when Mac decided he would have concentrated on what he wanted to say, instead of thinking about what type of music he should do. Macadelic was his turning point, as in it he gave a glimpse of his voice, his talent as a writer and his thoughts, while directing some jabs to Pitchfork, (“Some devil with a pitchfork keep talking like he know me”), with the support of friends like Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne e Joey Bada$$. However, in that same period, he started using a mix of codeine and promethazine, known as lean or “purple drink”. “ I was not happy and I was on lean very heavy. I was so fucked up all the time it was bad. My friends couldn’t even look at me the same. I was lost”. In order to avoid showing his sadness to fans, he quitted during the shooting of Mac Miller and the Most Dope Family ‘s reality show, in which he showed the recording sessions of his next album, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, besides messing around with his friends in his huge Los Angeles mansion.
Watching Movies with the Sound Off, right in its title, was something different: it showed for the first time his intimate and unstable side. Everything, from the lyrics to the music, was more on focus, and he felt more self-aware. “When I’m making music, I like to put different visuals on. Movies are great with the sound of. Like, Beetlejuice is great to make music to.[…] I remember there was a moment when I was just doing a lot of depressing songs and I started to feel like the more I make this sad music, the sadder I get. So I decided to express myself, but still having some fun”.
“But me, I’m still trapped inside my head I kinda feel like its a purgatory
So polite and white, but I got family who would murder for me
Think I’m living paradise, what would I have to worry ‘bout?
Dealing with these demons, feel the pressure, find the perfect style
Making sure my mom and dad are still somewhat in love
All these backfires of my experiments with drugs
I experience the touch of my epiphany in color form
The difference between love and war inform me I’m above the norm”.
After the release of Watching Movies, his Rostrum Records deal expired and he decided to launch a label of his own, REMember (in honour of his friend Reuben Mitrani), with which he released the project that still to this day most fans consider his best one, the most experimental and obscure of them all, Faces. With the help of Thundercat, Top Dawg Entertainment crew and his alter ego Larry Fisherman, it came out a mixtape of jazz, rnb, rock and pop, with impressive lyrics. At only 23 years of age, Miller described his daily routine and all the disquiet anaesthetized by drugs. “I should have died already, came in I was high already”, he sings. “Look at my reflection, I broke the mirror, It’s only for protection (ok), shit keep getting weirder (weirder)”, “Woke up annihilated, lying on the pavement, covered in items I regurgitated under a fire escape”, “At the rate I’m getting high, it’ll be hard for me to find tomorrow, But I just pray that I’ll survive tomorrow (Oh my God)”, “Doing drugs is just a war with boredom but they sure to get me […] A shame that my tragedy my masterpiece, yeah, Trapped inside these dreams of mine, Just trying to get some peace of mind […] Staring inside of Heaven’s eyes, the gates will never open, I’m smoking on this field of hope, waiting till my deal gets closed, I keep getting hotter but all I seem to feel is cold 22 don’t feel so old but I think I’m 82”.
“I was doing a lot of drugs around that time, which is another difference now”, he revealed to Billboard. “I’m not doing as many drugs. It just eats at your mind, doing drugs every single day, every second. It’s rough on your body. That was the plan with Faces: [Closing song] “Grand Finale” was supposed to be the last song I made on earth. I don’t feel that way as much anymore”.
A year later, Mac Miller moved to New York and cleaned up after signing a 10 million dollar deal with Warner Bros. His first project on a major was GO:OD AM, a definitely more optimistic and positive turn.
“It’s so easy to paint this horrible picture of life when you’re not giving yourself a chance to live it”, he said to Billboard. “I was too worried about the legacy that I would leave behind — how I would be remembered if I died. That was my whole thing. Like, you never know, man, so I’ve got to make sure I make all this music so when I die there’s albums and albums. But now, I’m going to make sure I do some shit in life, too”. “To everyone who sell me drugs, don’t mix it with that bullshit, I’m hoping not to join the twenty seven club”, he rapped in “Brand Name”, but in the end it seemed like he would only find peace when thinking about death, as he explained in one of his annotations on Genius. Along with the album’s conclusive triptych, the most interesting track on the project was “Perfect Circle/God Speed”, in which he featured a voice message his brother Miller McCormick (who curated all his artworks) during the days of Faces.
Record after record, the number of tracks diminished and the sound became more linear, personal and defined. Not even a year after the release of GO:OD AM, Miller started working on a new project. He wasn’t even trying to make a new album, but The Divine Feminine became his RnB work, the one in which he really started singing. When it came out, the media thought it was dedicated to Ariana Grande, with whom he had finally found happiness three years after that talked-about kiss on “The Way” video. But The Divine Feminine wasn’t about her, it was about the world, and it was also his first (and only) sober project. “As soon as I learned that I could do things creatively sober, then it was good. As long as I can still be creative, I’m geeked. It’s even better because before, my every other aspect was destruction. Now I can do both which is important because they feed off each other”, he said to Nylon.
Months later, he probably had a relapse, a moment of weakness, as Ariana Grande implicitly sang on the track “better off”, which is about a “toxic relationship”. On May 2018, they broke up and a little while later, she officialized her relationship with Pete Davidson, while Miller made his psychophysical collapse public, on a DUI incident.
That incident became the central point of his next project, his last one, the peak of his artistic and personal path, the most underrated album of 2018, Swimming. Instead of drowning defeated by his demons and saddened by the end of his love story, Mac thought he could swim, and track by track he analysed everything that made him depressed, searching for a new, more positive perspective. He had a lot of things to say, and he put them in chronological order, with concise but effective lyrics and productions curated by him, Pomo, Jon Brion, J. Cole, Alexander Spit, Tae Beast, Cardo, Yung Exclusive, Parson Brown, Steve Lacy, DJ Dahi, and Eric G.
The album opens up with this lines:
My regrets look just like texts I shouldn’t send
And I got neighbors, they’re more like strangers
We could be friends
I just need a way out of my head
I’ll do anything for a way out
Of my head
In my own way, this feel like living
Some alternate reality
And I was drowning, but now I’m swimming
Through stressful waters to relief
Yeah, oh, the things I’d do
Just spend a little time in hell
And what I won’t tell you
I’ll prolly never even tell myself
And don’t you know that sunshine don’t feel right
When you inside all day
Come Back to Earth is the title of the opening track, and maybe it meant “come back with your feet on the ground”, go out and live, instead of wallowing in mud. The next track, Hurt Feelings, is about is car accident, whileWhat’s The Use talks about is relapse; in Perfecto, he raps about the difference between his relationship with drugs and women, and in Self Care — whose video now seems like a disturbing prediction — about the distort feeling of wellness given by narcotics. Then, it comes Wings, an almost-recovery, slow and crucial, which builds up in intensity alongside an astonishing production by Manzano, with out-of-time layers of sounds on a central drum groove, culminating in a long interference that leads to movement, the dance rhythm of Ladders, the unavoidable stairway to reach balance in life.
You’re surrounded by people, and suddenly you’re alone with your own thoughts, he sings in Small Worlds, with a fake monotone tone that resembles the forced inflexion of a reiterated phrase. Even if it’s not rich in sounds, it’s a memorable piece, also thanks to John Mayer’s guitar.
Yeah, nine times out of ten I get it wrong
That’s why I wrote this song, told myself to hold on
I can feel my fingers slippin’
In a motherfuckin’ instant, I’ll be gone
Do you want it all if it’s all mediocre?
Conversation Pt. 1 is probably an answer to those who judge without knowing, but also to those colleagues who think they’ve reached the top after a bunch of sold copies, while Dunno is almost surely dedicated to Ariana Grande, as it is a trip down memory lane with an independent and desired woman.
Until, until, there is no longer
Let’s get lost inside the clouds
And you, you don’t gotta work harder
I can calm you down, yeah
In Jet Fuel, he illustrated the vicious circle of dependence nourished by money gained by success, while in 2009, after a touching orchestral opening, he recalls what it was like before K.I.D.S came out.
And sometimes, sometimes I wish I took a simpler route
Instead of havin’ demons that’s as big as my house, mhmm
Yeah, they ask me what I’m smilin’ for
Well, because I’ve never been this high before
It’s like I never felt alive before
Mhmm, I’d rather have me peace of mind than war
See me and you, we ain’t that different
I struck the fuck out and then I came back swingin’
Take my time to finish, mind my business
A life ain’t a life ’til you live it, I was diggin’ me a hole
Big enough to bury my soul
Weight of the world, I gotta carry my own
My own, with these arms I can carry you home
I’m right here when you scared and alone, and I ain’t never in a hurry
Then all comes to an end with the synths of So It Goes, the same synths he put in his last story on Instagram, the ones he said Jon Brion had to represent “the ascension to Paradise”.
You could have the world in the palm of your hand
You still might drop it
And everybody wanna reach inside your pockets
I tell ’em “red light, stop it”
Shit, that give me more headaches than alcoholics
Swimming ends putting together all the pieces of a puzzle built to reach happiness. It wasn’t conceived as a concept album, but in a sense it became so after September 7th. He should have promoted it on tour with Thundercat, J.I.D. and a superband, but an umpteenth solitary trip became his last one. In his sixth album, Anderson .Paak talks about him on the track Cheers, asking himself what he could have done to stop him, even if he’s “living just as fast as him”. Ariana Grande released two singles, the first one dedicated to all her exes, and the second one about Mac. It was titled Imagine, just like the tattoo he had on his bicep, and it described their story as “ a simple, beautiful love that is now (and forever) unattainable”.
“Where do you see yourself in 10 years, Mac?”, Larry King asked him some years ago: “Hopefully, doing a lot of different things in entertainment, maybe I have a kid”.
Imagine a world like that.