The rapper’s posthumously released sixth album captures him at a creative high point – it’s heartbreaking that he never got to see it released
Healing is a long and slow process, but one Mac Miller embraced fully on 2018’s Swimming. If that album was about forcing yourself to bathe in the light, even when it’s hard to see beyond the darkness, then on Circles – Miller’s sixth and final studio album – the artist completes this journey. Circles feels like the work of a man no longer fearful of his own mortality but in awe of it, aware that it was something he needed to embrace in order to move forward. It’s heartbreaking that he never got to see it released during his lifetime.
Large swathes of Circles were completed just before Mac Miller's death from an accidental drug overdose in September 2018. Veteran producer Jon Brion, who had previously worked with Miller on Swimming, completed the new project based on his “time and conversations with Malcolm”, according to Miller’s estate. While posthumous rap albums have often sounded stitched together (if not outright shameless), Miller’s estate has insisted that Circles was a project that Miller was desperate for the world to hear, and you can tell that it was finished with love and sincerity. It never sounds anything less than fully-formed, and it’s hard to imagine that this wasn’t close to the project that Mac Miller intended to release.
On first listen, Circles feels like it has a morbid fascination with death. “Everybody”, which sees Mac Miller channel Arthur Lee’s haunting “Everybody’s Gotta Live”, sounds like the rapper is performing his own eulogy, slumped over a piano and sarcastically reflecting on the life that he lived. On “Woods”, an even darker track that shifts between optimism and moroseness, and is built around synths that seem to cry out in pain, Miller concedes, “Things like this aren’t built to last / I might fade like those before me.” It contains a dejected vocal from someone who sounds heartbroken and unsure of how to put the pieces back together.
The more you dig into the album, though, the lighter the music starts to feel. Miller is actually healing by sharing his fears, talking himself into moving onto something better. If Swimming was about cleansing his soul, then Circles is about finishing the ritual.
Lyrics like “There’s a whole lot for me waiting” (on single “Good News”) initially sound like they were borne out of depression – only Miller isn’t talking about death, but leaving behind the self-destructive person he was in order to be reborn as somebody new. “So close I can taste it,” he groans on dreamy highlight “I Can See”, as if the blue period he was living through while making this album was close to reaching some kind of conclusion. “You’ve got so far to go.” Lyrically, Miller was looking ahead, and seeing the slump he’d fallen into as temporary. This is Miller talking himself into making a serious change, aware he must leave behind the man he was in order to become someone better.
Listening to this knowing that Mac Miller never got the chance to fully apply this change is tragic, but hopefully Circles will inspire others to make it. Miller wasn’t just trying to save himself, but the millions of fans who grew up listening to him, too. The record will hopefully inspire those who might also be in the grips of a depression to sit up and let some light back into their lives.
“The more you dig into the album, the lighter the music starts to feel... If Swimming was about cleansing his soul, then Circles is about finishing the ritual”
Mac Miller’s friends and collaborators have painted a picture of an artist that never stopped learning from others, who was always in a constant state of creative evolution. “He was just such a musical guy. He lived and breathed it,” said Mac DeMarco, who regularly jammed with the late rapper, in an interview with NME. “He really cared about his craft and just learning from the people around him,” producer Thelonious Martin told DJ Booth. You sense that he wouldn’t just sit idly in a room filled with studio musicians, but would look around intently, ready to learn from every single one of them.
You can hear this on the synths on the title track “Circles”, which channel the stillness of Mac DeMarco, or the way that Miller sings soulfully from the back of his throat on “Surf”, which suggests he was taking notes from all those sessions with Anderson .Paak. The solitary, escapist funk of “Complicated” suggests that working with Thundercat massively expanded Miller’s sonic horizons. This is the sound of Mac Miller applying the lessons he’d learned throughout his career, and it’s incredibly satisfying to hear him do that so well.
On other parts of Circles, it feels as though Miller was drinking from the same creative well that Tyler, the Creator was when making IGOR. Circles is just as inward-looking, it also prioritises singing over rapping, and much like IGOR, it’s the work of an artist finally allowing themselves to move on from the immaturity of their past – the Mac Miller of Circles is a million miles away from the rap nerd who rapped about “Kool-Aid and Frozen Pizza” over old Lord Finesse beats.
The release of Circles happens to coincide with the surprise drop of a new Eminem album, Music to be Murdered By. It feels appropriate. Mac Miller was often likened to Eminem in his earlier days, but comparing these two albums only serves to highlight the massive emotional gulf between the artists today. Eminem seems scared to move on, constantly trying to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle energy of his past, rapping in a way that doesn’t reflect the 47-year-old man he is now but the incendiary renegade he once was. Even though Circles is music made by a much younger artist (Mac Miller was just 26 when he died), it possesses the self-awareness that great artists need to keep on taking leaps forwards.
Circles explores themes of death, but it’s of the ego rather than the body. There’s something beautiful about witnessing someone so intent on working through their problems and moving forward, although it’s also underpinned by something tragic. Miller wasn’t able to heed the pep talk he was giving himself, and tragically died after returning to his old habits. Still, Circles is proof that rappers are capable of growing up, the embodiment of Kierkegaard’s view that while life can only be understood by looking backwards, it must be lived by moving forward. Miller recorded much of the album while he was finishing off its predecessor, and in a way, he was literally swimming in circles, searching for answers. He learned that the only way to move through the darkness and into the light is to show off your scars, and share the stories behind them.