In 2018, when Mac Miller (born Malcolm McCormick) passed away from an accidental drug overdose, I had been immersed in his fifth studio album, Swimming. I was teaching at the time, chasing around my own kids and, generally, carrying on in a mom-ish way, despite what my playlist might suggest.
I was intrigued by Swimming, and had started weaving through Miller’s earlier works with more fervor, Faces, Watching Movies with the Sound Off and mixtapes, scouring tracks and lyrics to get a fuller picture of the artist.
Earlier in the month when Miller’s mom (@_karenmeyers) announced via Instagram that there was a new album being released, I was incredibly excited and sad at the same time.
First, to set the stage, this posthumous album is beautiful. It channels The Beatles and Randy Newman, a bit of hip-hop, blues, harmonies, high highs and the lowest of lows. Miller's brilliant talent as a musician (he plays just about every note you hear) is laid out in a different way in every song.
Miller’s family explained that this new album, Circles, is meant to complement Swimming; the idea was swimming in circles. Because life, right? The opening line of the first song on Circles is, “Well. This is what it looks like right before you fall.”
That’s where we start. And here's what you should know.
1. Malcolm McCormick went hard in exploiting his insecurities. Both Swimming and Circles are, at times, a painful litany of self-admonishment, woven together with a clever playfulness.
“Come Back to Earth,” Swimming
My regrets look just like texts I shouldn't send / And I got neighbors, they're more like strangers / We could be friends / I just need a way out of my head / I'll do anything for a way out / Of my head
2. Miller's evolution as a person and musician was expeditious. He’d gotten far away from the frat-boy party songs like "Knock Knock" that had buoyed him in his teens. “Thumbelina,” a track off Faces, will always be a 10 out of 10, but it’s hard to listen to with another person in the room, unless they’re your frat bros.
Still only in his mid-20s when he wrote Swimming (he would have turned 28 on Jan. 19), Malcolm was channeling a different energy his last few years. Every track on this new album could be filed under Prophetic.
“Once a Day,” Circles
Don't keep it all in your head / The only place that you know nobody ever can see / You're running low on regret / No tears, that's keeping you wet / I think you gettin' it now.
3. Demons. Mac had them. Lots. Ariana couldn’t even shake them from his head, as we can gather from her alluding after their breakup to the exhaustion from being his babysitter, but then telling Vogue after his passing that, “He didn’t deserve his demons.”
“Good News,” Circles
Can I get a break? / I wish that I could just get out my goddamn way / What is there to say?
Why I gotta build something beautiful just to go set it on fire?
And sometimes, sometimes I wish I took a simpler route / Instead of havin' demons that's as big as my house
4. Mac Miller was an outstanding musician. He didn’t just show up and spit a litany of loathing lyrics. The videos released along with Circles show him on piano, drums, bass and even the xylophone. Listen to “That’s On Me,” which is reminiscent of The Beatles, and a somber cover of Arthur Lee’s “Everybody” that sounds more like a Newman tune.
In an interview on Apple Music, veteran producer Jon Brion, who wrapped up this album for Miller after his death, explains repeatedly how the musician was looking for a license, if you will, to explore completely new genres and sounds, a license that Brion insisted on following.
5. We can’t discuss Mac Miller without also mentioning how much he loved his mama. He sings to her, about her and about things that people shouldn’t say to her. She seemed to be the first to give Malcolm permission to be Malcolm. His first and last line of defense. And he loved her for it.
“Hurt Feelings,” Swimming
Mama told me I was different even when I was a baby.
When I was in first grade, I wished to be Puerto Rican / My mom took me to a barbershop to get some cornrows / I walked in, ready for them Sprewell braids / But the lady said my hair was too short though, (aw), man / I always thought my moms was the illest for that shit
6. Sometimes life is like an estranged drunk uncle. Unfortunately, it all just happened too fast, which means too many people missed the ride. And I have proof: Want proof? OK. (Take a deep breath.) Eminem. His new album, which he released the same day as Circles, was at the top of the iTunes’ album chart the weekend after both were released. I was embracing a just-gotta-laugh approach to this nauseating news until dumb bitch approached it much better with this Tweet: “Honestly eminem releasing tonight was absolutely shitty. It's like your estranged drunk uncle showing up to your best friend’s funeral.”
7. But, we gonna be good. Maybe Miller’s last gift to us is awareness. Blinding awareness. The final verses of the title track.
Don't you put any more stress on yourself, it's one day at a time / It's gettin' pretty late, gettin' pretty late / Damn, and I find / It goes around like the hands that keep countin' the time / Drawin' circles.
At the end of the day, looking at it through a broad scope, it feels like Miller was just like all of us, taking it one day at a time, trying to figure it out.