Mac Miller never found himself preoccupied with expectations placed upon him by the outside world. “[Controlling a narrative] is just a game that I haven’t gotten into playing,” he told New York magazine in a candid profile published just a day before his death, at 26, in September last year. “It just seems exhausting to always be battling for what you think your image is supposed to be.”
From the release of his breakthrough mixtapes K.I.D.S. and Best Day Ever in the early 2010s, the Pittsburgh rapper was always refining and reforming his craft. With the release of his debut album, Blue Slide Park, in 2011, he became the first independently distributed artist to top the American charts in more than a decade. By the time he released Swimming in 2018, Miller had become as renowned for his skills as a producer, multi-instrumentalist and pop singer as he was for his rapping. His life became tabloid fodder just as quickly – due to his increasing fame, his high-profile relationship with singer Ariana Grande and his ongoing struggles with depression and substance abuse – but his music stayed honest, open-hearted and introspective, speaking a truth the gossip blogs could never see.
Miller’s first and final posthumous record, Circles, does not fit the traditional mould of what a record released after death is “supposed” to sound like. Listeners and commentators looking to find some premonition of tragedy – as they may have in posthumous albums by other deceased rappers such as Lil Peep and XXXTentacìon – will find no such thing here. Described as a companion piece to Swimming, Circles is, like its sister, a warm-hearted chronicle of aliveness, a tale of incremental and tiresome self-improvement and self-reflection.
Co-produced by Miller and Jon Brion – and finished by Brion in the wake of Miller’s death – the album is quieter and more meditative than its bright, soulful predecessor. Despite a handful of references to Miller’s poor state of mental health, however, Circles is an intrinsically hopeful record, one that is frequently tinted with optimism about the young rapper’s future. There are songs about his struggles, as there have been on all of his records, but it still sounds like it was made by the man who liked to speed through Los Angeles listening to Whitney Houston, the artist who turned his goofy, lovesick missives into pop songs.
If there is any difference between Circles and the rest of Miller’s oeuvre, it is in the obvious Brion-isms across the album. A prolific pop producer and composer, known for his revelatory work with artists from Kanye West to Fiona Apple, as well as his scores for like-minded auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, Brion worked with Miller previously on Swimming. But his presence here is more distinctly felt – Circles features the work of a loose, warm live band alongside Miller’s usual programmed beats and spectral synths. But this is no posthumous flourish; it was always Miller’s intention for Swimming’s counterpart to be rooted in an earthier sound, which would allow room for his increasingly proficient sung vocals to breathe.
The most striking left turn on Circles comes with “Good News”, the album’s sweet and sad lead single, a delicate but forcefully catchy song about the struggles of keeping up appearances. “Good News” is not characterised by Miller’s usual beat-driven production, instead featuring finger-plucked strings and a warm, ambling bassline. It is a small-scale song, compared with Miller’s traditionally wide-reaching compositions. At the same time, though, it introduces countless new and fascinating touches to Miller’s music: a few notes sung in falsetto here, a wiry guitar lick there.
Circles fulfils the promise of Miller’s full potential first hinted at on 2016’s The Divine Feminine, the exploratory and musically diverse concept album that began his push towards this record’s diaphanous, rose-tinted sound. At its best, this album takes the same themes drafted on The Divine Feminine and Swimming – the tension between starry-eyed love and grievous depression, the quest to break that tension – and considers them with a newly discerning but no less optimistic outlook.
Many lyrics on Circles harbour the same candid and listless feelings of “Good News” – “I Can See”, a dazed ballad that features uncredited vocals from Grande, finds Miller begging, “I need somebody to save me / before I drive myself crazy”; “Circles”, the record’s quiet and contemplative opener, is a lament for the forward motion Miller once felt in his life: “I cannot be changed,” he sighs. “No, trust me, I’ve tried.”
These moments are hard to ignore, and often put a pin in the fantastical daydreams Miller’s productions can at times become. Even more so than on previous records, these songs feel like bright, fully realised landscapes: there are certain arrangements on Circles that were quite clearly led by Miller, rather than Brion, and these are among the rapper’s glossiest and most romantic productions yet. Despite the heaviness of its lyrics, “Complicated” glistens like rock candy, its chintzy synths and echoing harmonies undoubtedly crafted with lazy summer days in mind, while “I Can See”, which Brion says was largely completed before he received it, flashes and whirrs like an arcade game.
“Blue World”, produced by Guy Lawrence of the throwback house duo Disclosure, is a look towards sunlight, finding Miller gleefully brushing away his demons. “Reality’s so hard to find when the devil tryna call your line,” he sings. “But shit, I always shine.” It is a joy to hear him in this mode, so keenly looking towards the future. “Blue World”, so unburdened and effusive, is one of Circles’ most important inclusions. The song is less dense with metaphor and double meaning than the rest of the record, but it is hard to understate the joy of hearing turns such as:
No, I ain’t God, but I’m feelin’ just like Him
See, I was in the whip, ridin’, me and my bitch
We was listenin’ to us, no one else, that’s it
That’s a flex, just a bit, let me talk my shit
There is so much joy and irreverent cheek in those lines; without them, and a handful of other upbeat Circles songs, the record would undoubtedly feel like an incomplete final chapter in a body of work that paid keen attention to the way light and shade could interact in a person’s life.
It is an imperfect and perhaps imprudent comparison, but Circles often recalls Grande’s thank u, next – a record written in the wake of, and partially about, Miller’s death – in the way it attempts to counter hardship with sunny, and perhaps occasionally faked, positivity, without diminishing the importance of either. As they both occasionally expressed, Miller and Grande were very clearly kindred musical spirits.
Nobody other than Miller himself could provide true closure to his body of work. But Circles does build on the strides made with Swimming in a satisfying enough way. Brion and Miller’s family were canny in taking their time releasing Circles and classifying it as Miller’s final statement. As fans of the late Lil Peep have seen, the release of a steady stream of unfinished or carelessly completed songs in the wake of a young star’s passing can just as easily damage a legacy as it can embolden it.
Many fans will never really get over the tragedy of Miller’s death, but Circles is a welcome salve. “Fuck the bullshit,” he sings on “Blue World”, “I’m here to make it all better with a little music for you.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 25, 2020 as "Inner Circles".
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