Like a lot of those who grieved his death, I first heard about Mac Miller through his mixtape KIDS. It was a bouncy album, buoyed with liberal samplework, silky neo-soul keys, and Mac's stoned-but-still-lucid flow. Songs like Senior Skip Day and Nikes On My Feet rode on air with the ease of premium kush smoke. I was a high school senior entering university, so KIDS had for me a freshman, rose-colored joie de vivre.
I listen to Circles, Miller's posthumously released record produced with Jon Brion, and I know that same zest for life is there. But underneath Miller's morbidly contemplative lyricism ("We're doing well, sittin', watchin' the world fallin' down, its decline," he sings in the record's opening title track) and hazy beatwork, it's just a little hard to hear.
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Circles is hard to listen to for many reasons. Firstly, Mac was growing as a musician in leaps and bounds. After his first LP Blue Slide Park, Mac's artistry seemed to evolve at high speed. In Watching Movies With the Sound Off, his lyricism took on more philosophical and existential themes, and kicked off a career of working with extremely talented collaborators, from Flying Lotus to Tyler, the Creator.
All the while, Mac was training his chops as a musician and producer. Brion (who has produced for the likes of Fiona Apple and Kanye West, and is perhaps most known for scoring Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) states in an interview, "If [Mac] got interested in something, he’d really fucking learn about it. It wasn’t surface knowledge. I’ve worked with people who like hearing about a lot of things, but almost so they can name-drop it to themselves: 'Look at how many different things I know.' They’ve learned things, but they don’t actually absorb them. Mac was different. His curiosity was of the deeper nature."
In my opinion, Mac Miller's career had no perceivable artistic dips. He was constantly on the up and up. To know that he passed before the album could be completed feels like cruel fate. Is cruel fate. Growth abruptly cut short.
Secondly, Circles was meant to be kind of a sequel to the previous album Swimming (hence: "swimming in circles"), an exquisitely produced meditation on life, death and sorrow that saw Mac flexing funk and soul chops. Mac was on his way. But he didn't make it to the finish line. On September 7, 2018, at 11:51 a.m., Mac was pronounced dead due to an accidental drug overdose. The cause of death was "mixed drug toxicity" on fentanyl, cocaine, and alcohol.
So after Mac's death, Brion was saddled with what was effectively an incomplete record. Imagine twins in the womb, and only one coming out in one piece. That's what the creation of Swimming and Circles must have felt like. "When he died, everyone who knew him basically just … the wreckage is … it’s worthless to put into words. It’s worthless to say how awful it was for anyone else. I was flattened, and I feel like by having to talk about this stuff, I’m reopening the wound."
So I don't know if it was the initial creative direction, or Brion doing what he could before bowing at the altar of grief, but Circles shows us Mac at perhaps his most reflective, quiet, subdued, controlled, and even serene. Gentle synths and guitar plucking call to mind the stylings of emo rap and even folk, while Mac's melodies and flow bring the soul that has always made his music so enlivening.
When I listen to Circles, I think of friends who likewise struggle with their mental health and vices, all the while relentlessly growing and cultivating themselves as artists. They nail themselves to their craft and bear the weight of sleepless nights. "But everybody keep rushing / Why aren't we taking our time? / Every now and again, baby, I get high / And everybody means something," goes the closer "Once A Day."
I think also of "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius, a collection of diary entries on Stoic philosophy written by the author, during his time as Roman emperor. The book contains jottings on work and responsibility, and demonstrates Stoicism by the philosophy's goal of facing life and adversity calmly, and without fuss. Circles also demonstrates a weary sense of duty, the duty being living. "Well, it ain't that bad / It could always be worse / I'm running out of gas, hardly anything left," Mac sings on "Good News" over mellow guitar and drums.
When I listen to Circles, I think of friends who likewise struggle with their mental health and vices, all the while relentlessly growing and cultivating themselves as artists.
This groggy-eyed fighting spirit also comes through in Mac's cover of Arthur Lee's "Everybody's Gotta Live," (entitled just "Everybody") on the album, and its simple proclaimed truths. Over lounge piano, like a bar singer eking melodies out into the deep blue night, Mac goes: "Everybody's gotta live, and everybody's gonna die."
It is important to me that Mac did not mean to die. I believe—and to me this is what hurts the most about Circles—is that Mac seemed to be getting a handle on his demons in a level-headed way, seeking music as a refuge, and using his creative powers to communicate his struggles.
Far be it from me or anyone to suggest that some lesson can be gleaned from unspeakable tragedy. But Circles, perfectly imperfect and so full of life, imparts a kind of wisdom about living. It's an irony, the way posthumous works of art can reinvigorate those who have the pleasure to consume it. But let this be an irony that we embrace. Sometimes you'll move and move just to come back around to the starting line. You're still moving.
Listen to Circles on Spotify