Mac Miller Was Trying to Tell a Survival Story

The absorbing posthumous album Circles shows the rapper considering his own fragility.

Mac Miller performs at Susquehanna Bank Center, in Camden, New Jersey, on August 3, 2012.
Posthumous albums are always morally ambiguous objects, because it’s not clear whether the artist would have wanted this music, in this form, to be released. (AP / Star Shooter / MediaPunchInc / IPX)

Mac Miller wanted to change the story. In the summer of 2018, the headlines about the rapper mainly regarded his DUI car crash and his ex Ariana Grande calling her relationship with him “toxic.” But on the first track of Swimming, the album he put out in early August of that year, the 26-year-old conveyed a tentative sense of recovery: “I was drowning, but now I’m swimming / Through stressful waters to relief.” On the day of that album’s release, a Rolling Stone article featured Miller—in the same low-key, self-effacing manner that he rapped and sang in—denying having a serious drug problem. Its headline: “Mac Miller Wants You to Know He’s OK.”

A little more than a month later, Miller was dead. The coroner ruled that he’d had an accidental drug overdose, and police have since arrested three men on suspicion of dealing him counterfeit oxycodone laced with fentanyl. His death came as a shock, and not only because it arrived amid a string of tragedies in hip-hop. The jazz musician Thundercat spoke of hanging out with Miller a week before his overdose, noting how happy he was. “By all accounts, he was in his best mental and physical condition in years when he died,” Rolling Stone reported. “Miller had been working with his sober coach since 2016, and was working out at an L.A. gym nearly every day.”

Miller was also working on a companion album to Swimming. It was to be titled Circles—“Swimming in Circles was the concept,” his family recently explained in an Instagram post—and it was being made in collaboration with Jon Brion, the composer famous for scoring popular art films and making albums with Fiona Apple and Kanye West. Brion had shaped the aqueous, richly textured sound of Swimming, and after Miller’s death, he completed the songs they had started on for Circles. The results appear to deepen the story of how Miller was doing when he died, and how he viewed his own life story.

Posthumous albums are always morally ambiguous objects, as it’s not clear whether the artist would have wanted this music, in this form, to be released. The rollout of Circles has been a careful one, though. “This is a complicated process that has no right answer,” reads the note announcing the album, which is the only bit of promotion Circles has received on Miller’s official social-media channels. “No clear path. We simply know that it was important to Malcolm for the world to hear it.” Brion had been working closely with Miller, and he presumably understood Miller’s creative vision. Circles is a pretty and lived-in amalgam of hip-hop, atmospheric folk, and funk. It’s like much of the music from the later parts of Miller’s career, but even softer and more plaintive.

“Good news—that’s all they want to hear” Miller sings in his glum, relatable mumble on “Good News,” the first single for the new album. “No, they don’t like it when I’m down.” Brion’s arranged an odyssey filled with gentle wonder, using plucked strings and a melody reminiscent of Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” Miller could be talking about a number of subjects, but the most obvious one is the public pressure to demonstrate success and happiness regardless of how he’s actually doing. Yet on the bell-laden, sullenly strutting “Hands,” Miller seems to flip that paradigm, rapping, “They love to see me lonely, hate to see me happy.” What they want, in either case, seems to create a feedback loop with how he feels.

Reading the lyrics too closely is a tricky matter when their creator is dead; who knows if these were the finished vocal concepts or mere sketches? But it’s especially tough given Miller’s subject matter on Circles. He works and works at the same idea with a single-mindedness that could be a sign of underdeveloped writing or a feature of the subject he’s writing about: stasis. “I cannot be changed, no,” he sings on the opener, the title track. “Trust me, I’ve tried / I just end up right at the start of the line / Drawin’ circles.” Other verses on the album portray him as stuck below clouds, in a basement, behind a door. On the catchiest track, “Complicated,” Miller asks, “’Fore I start to think about the future / First can I please get through a day?”

Stasis was the topic of Swimming, too, as he was, well, swimming: making an active effort not to drown. “Every day I wake up and breathe,” he said on the beautiful “2009,” adding, “I don’t have it all but that’s all right with me.” The music of that album captured an aching, in-between emotional state that Circles also achieves, though with somewhat hazier songwriting and a slightly less dynamic emotional range. To be sure, these new songs demonstrate Miller’s musical omnivorousness by voyaging between psychedelic busker anthems (“Surf”) and woozy, beat-driven rap (“Complicated”). Miller’s vocal approach—croaky, tossed-off, utterly human—remains special. But tonally, the album mostly motors in one mode.

That cyclical approach makes the moments when Miller and Brion break into a different frequency particularly precious. Take “Blue World,” which starts as a shuffling, scrappy rap track and then in the bridge seems to float up to some sunnier, less earthbound place. Slight shifts in subject matter are also particularly memorable. On “Hand Me Downs,” featuring the vocalist Baro Sarka, Miller movingly expresses a desire to start a family. Even here, fragility is in the foreground: “All I ever needed was somebody with some reason who can keep me sane / Ever since I can remember, I been keeping it together / But I’m feelin’ strange.”

Miller’s vision of survival as a tightrope walk, requiring constant wariness, is gutting to consider, given the circumstances of his death. It also isn’t quite the kind of story that pop culture likes to embrace. For a star with visible personal struggles, the recognizable scripts tend to involve either triumphant redemption or flame-out destruction. Miller connected with so many people because he was trying to present a more realistic idea of being okay—one neither ecstatic nor fatalistic, just honest. “Fuck the bullshit,” he raps on “Blue World.” “I’m here to make it all better with a little music for you.”