Mac Miller, born Malcolm James McCormick, was considered by many in the music world to be an eccentric artist, a young man enamored with the complexities of music and life. He was troubled, but was working—and succeeding—in righting his wrongs. This inner turmoil informed much of his music starting with his 2012 mixtape, Macadellic. Miller was adept at letting his life experiences bleed into his music, from the jazz-tinted ruminations on love amid his relationship with Ariana Grande on The Divine Feminine to the optimistic musings that pervaded 2018’s Swimming following the end of the relationship and a highly publicized DUI.
Miller was, through it all, a movingly honest man and an artist more than willing to give his fans a glimpse into his life. The connection he created with his listeners is what made his death from an accidental overdose, only a month after the release of Swimming, such a tragedy. Many were left unsure how to process the passing of such a genuine artist—one who was committed to not only artistic improvement, but self-improvement. Fans were left wondering: What were his final days like, where was he going with his music, and what headspace was he in? With the release of Circles, the album Miller was working on in the days before his death, they get a thoughtful answer to at least some of their questions.
Circles was intended by Miller to be a companion to his last album, Swimming. The two complementary albums are linked by the phrase “swimming in circles,” according to a press release from Miller’s family. It is unclear how close to complete the album was before Miller died, but noted producer Jon Brion, who has worked with acts such as Kanye West and Fiona Apple, worked to bring the album to completion. Unlike many posthumous releases that come across as shameless cash grabs on the part of record labels, this album was truly a labor of love orchestrated by Miller’s family and Brion. Circles is not a collection of throwaway songs meant to appease rabid fans and make a profit—it is a complete album, one that Miller put together thoughtfully.
The lyrical content of Circles is remarkably introspective. Miller was always at his best when he tackled questions of self and mortality. He addresses questions of addiction and attempts to find purpose in life (it is admittedly hard, as a fan, to hear him say “every now and again, baby, I get high,” on album closer “Once a Day,” but, as always, Miller refuses to be dishonest), bringing listeners into his headspace.
Followers of Miller’s artistic progression are no stranger to his singing voice—from his second album Watching Movies with the Sound Off to The Divine Feminine, fans listened as he became increasingly comfortable with venturing beyond just rapping. On Swimming, Miller sang more than he ever had before, and that trend continues on Circles, so much so that the album can barely be considered a rap album. Miller utilizes his voice on the vast majority of the album, weaving in a few rap verses here and there. His singing voice was not the cleanest, and was something that he himself admitted to being shy about early in his career, but the earnestness in his tone is striking. These songs are soft, lovingly produced, and achingly genuine, reminiscent of Swimming standout “2009.” “Everybody,” a cover of Arthur Lee’s 1972 single, “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” is incredibly poignant. Miller, during his 26 years, experienced soaring highs and devastating lows. The beauty in Miller’s work is that he did not shy away from the negatives. He understood the importance of the lows and how his experiences with them informed his ability to properly enjoy the highs.
Circles is truly one of Miller’s best works. It manages to envelop the listener, giving fans vivid insight into the life of an artist who died at the peak of his artistic prowess. The overwhelming tragedy that comes with each listen is the fact that we will not be able to see what steps Miller would have taken next, both musically and personally, if given the opportunity. Yet Circles offers closure, serving as an elegant final act from a talented yet weary young man who worked tirelessly to remain grounded in the face of the wild fluctuations of life.
Featured Image by Warner Records