It became hard for me to reconcile excitement for this Mac Miller project. I knew that it was potentially the full stop on a tremendously diverse musical career which has seen me through my twenties. That battle inside me manifested between the forces of palpable anticipation and a melancholic hesitation both reigning blows on one another striving to be the victor… and, in a sense, they could both lay claim.
I’ll admit I didn’t listen to this on the eve of its release: the aforementioned melancholic hesitation won out for a brief period and it took a day or two for that anticipation to really reach boiling point. I’ve rode with Mac since K.I.D.S. (2010) which just happened to be released the day before my 20th birthday. I’d even go so far as to say that it may have come as a shock to Malcolm and his team to receive an order through their website in 2010 to send a mixtape to Glasgow, Scotland – a mixtape which has held a special place in my heart throughout the past 10 years.
Over that decade the musical and thematic progression of Mac’s music was transformative for not only him as a person, but for the multitude of fans like myself that were provided a soundtrack for our own personal growth and life experience. There has always been an honesty to Malcolm McCormick – in both his music and his personality – an honesty which we’ve seen resonated throughout the hip-hop community and which helped Mac to bring together his friends and collaborators to facilitate some of the best music of the recent past, whether we was directly involved or not.
Circles is a bittersweet triumph – a somewhat sonic departure for Mac yet still a place he could call home which provides us with more of an emphatic ellipsis than a full stop on his career. Producer/composer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, who had been working with Mac on this project, was asked by the McCormick family to piece together the final details of this posthumous project which was rumoured to be near completion at the time of Mac’s untimely passing. Based on testimonial from Brion, a renowned musician and composer in his own right, the mastery of emotion and sound displayed throughout Circles came from Mac himself – admittedly at times teased out by Brion from a very self conscious Mac – but this was ultimately Mac’s vision for his next artistic endeavour.
An endeavour can be defined as an ‘earnest, prolonged and industrious effort’ and I think this is what Circles has truly manifested into. Mac takes all the emotion and turmoil that he experienced in his tragically short life – which he tapped into so beautifully in 2018’s Swimming – and he blends the sonic influences of artists like Prince, Harry Nilsson and The Beatles to help craft his most earnest and honest work yet, complete with some truly heart wrenching lyrical punches awaiting you at every turn.
The album opens with the title track ‘Circles’ and an opening line, “Well, this is what it looks like right before you fall…” which foreshadows the tone for the rest of the project and firmly places the lump in your throat from the off. The production on this track is very subtle and really acts as an introduction to the sonic palate which we will later discover, teasing some gentle synth and bass lines which are expanded as we transition into ‘Complicated’.
On ‘Complicated’ Mac ruminates on the struggles of everyday life, his battles with mental health and the pressure to focus on the future while issues present themselves in present day with verses like: “Inside my head is getting pretty cluttered (Cluttered, cluttered) / I try, but can’t clean up this mess I made / ‘Fore I start to think about the future / First, can I please get through a day?”.
‘Blue World’ see’s Mac provide us with the first track that could really be described as ‘hip hop’ per se, as he raps in his usual energetic and lowkey braggadocio style over a bouncy, glitchy and chopped beat which ups the tempo of the project if only briefly before we sink into the melancholic sunshine of ‘Good News’.
‘Good News’ was the lead single from the project, dropping a few weeks before the album. I’m not ashamed to say it brought me to tears upon the first few listens. It’s incredibly honest and at times prophetic given what we know now and with the hypnotic and simple backdrop it truly stops you in your tracks and forces you to listen to Mac pouring his heart out. Lines like “I heard they don’t talk about me too much no more/ That’s the problem with a closed door” and “There’s a whole lot more for me waitin’ on the other side/ I’m always wonderin’ if it feel like summer/ I know maybe I’m too late, maybe I can make it there some other time” just hit completely different in the wake of Mac’s passing.
The tracks ‘I Can See’, the Arthur Lee inspired ‘Everybody’ and ‘Hand Me Downs’ try to extol the dichotomy that Mac was evidently feeling at the time, balancing a mental state that he was aware was self destructive and wanted to fix, but noting the uphill battle that it could become, and the many pitfalls in his way.
Mac also cuts deep into his emotions in his past relationships on ‘Woods’ and ‘Surf’, lines like, ‘Put it together then it breaks/ All the energy it takes, it never stop’ and ‘I know we try/ And the days, they go by/ Until we get old’ detailing the mental toll that the relationships have put on him, often times with his own actions piling on the pressure.
For me, ‘Once a Day’ strikes me as one of the most poignant songs of the album – possibly even Mac’s career – and is a heart-wrenching closer. The chorus simplifying Mac’s daily life down to its base elements but also alluding to the inner battles he has each day, with lyrics like ‘Everybody keep rushin’/ Why aren’t we taking our time?‘, ‘Don’t keep it all in your head/ The only place that you know nobody ever can see’ and ‘But every now and again, why can’t we just be fine?‘ really aiding this song to reach into your chest and pull on your heartstrings.
I love this album. I love Mac. I love the fact I’ve been able to explore his music this past ten years and that I’ve seen his personality and creativity grow into the multi-instrumentalist/producer/rapper/singer that he eventually became and I will truly miss him.
Thank you, Mac.
January 19, 1992 – September 7, 2018
Album Rating: Highly Recommended (5)
Poor: 0-2 Stars / Favourable: 2-4 Stars / Highly Recommended: 4-5 Stars