Mac Miller had one of the most captivating careers in recent rap history, with each release rising above the last. His artistic growth is palpable. His frat-rap beginnings saw lyrics about parties and Nike shoes; years later, in 2016, The Divine Feminine, was a vulnerable jazz-rap journey through feelings of love and an ode to the women in his life, layered with softness. Miller had quickly shelved the party boy persona that propelled him into stardom to experiment with the genre and produce more introspective works. We’ll never know what this career decision may have cost him, but it doesn’t matter because in the end, he won. Watching Movies With the Sound Off and beyond, all of it showcased his numerous talents to their full potential and, most importantly, resonated deeply with people.
2018 marked the release of Swimming – Miller’s masterwork, in my opinion – which was a poignant, bittersweet examination of Miller’s internal pain and his perseverance through it. It’s easily Miller’s most personal album, down to the drowsy trip-hop inspired instrumentals that were meticulously crafted by Miller himself and are impeccable. Lyrically and emotionally, Swimming is the type of album that many people needed at the time.
It was only a month after this release that Miller was tragically gone. His death is still mourned by millions, but his career is celebrated. It was exciting and painful all at once when his sixth and final album, Circles, was announced only a handful of days prior to its release.
The album was close to finished when Miller passed away; producer Jon Brion lovingly completed it based on conversations he’d had with Miller.
Although Swimming was an impactful note to leave a compelling career on already, it was unfinished without its companion album, Circles. Posthumous releases often lead to a debate of ethics but the release of this album is for the fans and nothing more.
And, as one of those fans, I am so thankful I have gotten the opportunity to hear Circles.
The instrumentals remain chill yet experimental, layered with plucky guitars and a synth-funk flair. Miller sings on most of the tracks, crooning with a lazy but effortlessly syrupy tone.
Lyrically, it follows Swimming’s lead of being bleak and contemplative, yet hopeful. “I know somewhere, there’s home; I’m starting to see that all I have to do is get up and go,” he sings on airy track “Surf” over a nonchalant but blithe guitar, right before the album pulls to a close.
“Good News”, the track that was released first, was the perfect introduction to what Circles would be. The song is airy yet tight, with a dreamlike quality to the production that permeates the entire album.
Overall, Circles is a transcendent work; a mix of easy-going guitar tracks and experimental tracks with breezy jolts of synth all adds up to an ethereal quality. Every track stands out on its own and is quite clearly poured over with precision whether from Miller or Brion. With “Hands” as the only traditional rap track, it feels more like a singer-songwriter album than his prior works, but this doesn’t make it shine any less against Miller’s prior work.
“I’m here to make it all better with a little music for you,” he says on “Blue World”, the clear interpretation being him singing straight to the fans. But, then, Miller follows it up with, “I don’t do enough for you,” and we’re left to second guess our interpretation. The last two albums were so deeply personal, as though made for Miller himself; seeing as music is his form of therapy, he may very well be singing to himself.
Miller’s loss is still felt in the rap community to this day, with everyone who knew him saying nothing short of how big of a heart he had. Through his music, he invited the world in to see that side of him, the thoughtful side, the one who faced many demons but always knew he’d rise above them. Like Swimming, Circles is laced with this same intimacy and thoughtfulness. Like Miller himself, it’s unforgettable.