Mac Miller mumbled. His words trailed off, blended, and arrived in a parched-throat croak. The cover of 2015’s GO:OD AM showed him mid-yawn, which seemed like his usual state. “Feel like I do this in my sleep / Literally, I do this in my sleep,” Miller bragged over boom-bap and piano on 2013’s “Avian.” “Yeah, yeah, whoawhoawhoa,” he murmured, as if to an alarm clock, in this year’s “Hurt Feelings.”
Mumbling is a contested thing in rap nowadays, seen alternately as a sign of pretension-busting futurism or dull-minded meaninglessness. But Miller, who died last Friday of a suspected overdose at age 26, might have brokered peace between the two sides. His words were usually intelligible and studiously crafted, but he thrived less on content than on form and deep feeling. In any case, the genre’s firefights didn’t seem to interest him; he was too committed to finding his own path, strange and soulful. Terms like stoner poet come to mind to describe him, but his profundity wasn’t like a dorm-room epiphany. Rather, he casually captured the highs and gutting lows of a life observantly, if often drowsily, lived.
Count Miller among the first in the lengthening lineage of stars who would first find fame as teenagers on the internet. His mixtapes date back to 2007, when he was 15, and his breakout years of 2010 and 2011 had him standing out in a wave of what the media branded “frat rappers”: boys sporting baseball caps and Biggie collections, whose simplistic swagger was bolstered by the market differentiation of them being white. Miller’s hits from this era—including “Donald Trump,” a straightforward hurray for wealth that drew the smug jeering of its namesake—showcased Miller’s classicist influences and slacker charm. But those songs are now more vivid for the videos: Miller acts brashly but with kind eyes, charismatically leading around a group of friends you might just wish you could join.
Miller would not stay in that stereotype-aligned zone for long, even if its appeal helped 2011’s Blue Slide Park land as the first independently released debut to hit No. 1 since 1995. Rather, his sound liquefied over the years into stews of funk and psychedelia as he led up live bands and collaborated with studio innovators. Modern jazz masters such as Thundercat were in his crew. The famed Hollywood orchestrator Jon Brion produced much of Miller’s final album. Run times varied widely across the rapper’s track lists, and he was a fan of beats that seemed to breathe and transform. “His band was unreal,” John Mayer, the guitarist and pop singer who recently collaborated with Miller, wrote in an appreciation post this past weekend. “You gotta know that if you weren’t familiar with Mac Miller, you were about to [be].”