Mac Miller Was Trying to Be Better
The Pittsburgh rapper’s career was defined by self-improvement, and we’ll never get to see where that would have lead him next
As recently as 36 hours ago, the comments section for “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza,” Mac Miller’s fratty breakthrough hit from 2010, was filled with people chastising the Pittsburgh native (“Wack Miller,” etc.) and his fans. The scolds pointed to a Lord Finesse song called “Hip 2 Da Game” — the beat for which Mac had ripped and repurposed for “Kool Aid.”
(An incredibly brief primer: Lord Finesse signed his first record deal nearly 30 years ago, in 1989; he founded D.I.T.C. and produced the climactic song on Ready to Die; he’s the kind of person who could call KRS-One for a personal favor. He matters.)
In 2012, Lord Finesse sued; a few months later, he and Miller settled. And so, for several years after the fact, the YouTube page for “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza” was dominated by Finesse defenders the way the “Hip 2 Da Game” comments spent much more time hand-wringing about Mac Miller than they did talking about the original song in question. The internet can be a strange, flat loop.
The funny thing about that lawsuit is that, until the court filing, Miller seemed poised for a long, lucrative career that might intersect in only superficial ways with the hip-hop that Lord Finesse made. “Kool Aid” appeared on a mixtape calledK.I.D.S. (Kickin’ Incredibly Dope Shit), which was low-stakes and low-concept and became incredibly popular incredibly fast. (Today, “Kool Aid” and “Nikes On My Feet” have more than 100 million views between them.) When K.I.D.S. came out, Mac, born Malcolm McCormick, should have been buying sheets and Bob Marley posters for his freshman dorm room, and that’s more or less what his music sounded like: free and carefree and endearingly beholden to the true-school ethics that are worshipped and wielded unconvincingly in high school lunchroom cyphers. Almost nothing on K.I.D.S. is particularly original, but virtually all of it is charming in its way.
At the time, there was a lane wide open. A year and a half after K.I.D.S., Mac released his first retail album, Blue Slide Park, which became the first independent LP to top Billboard in 16 years. But it was panned by most critics, including an infamous 1.0 review from Pitchfork. Mac was a soft target, and a 1 on a ten-point scale is an obvious exaggeration, but the album was genuinely bad — musically thin and, at a few embarrassing points, indebted to the EDM that was beginning to dominate American pop. Mac sounded stiff and anonymous, like he was straining to capture the adolescent verve of K.I.D.S.The numbers were the numbers, but what was meant to be his coming-out party seemed like a regression.
What the Pitchfork review got wrong, however, was its choice of antecedent. It opens by invoking the famous VMA performance where Eminem marched into Radio City Music Hall with hundreds of young, white men dressed exactly like him, and argues that Mac’s popularity came not due to the substance of his music but because he looked like the bulk of his listeners. In the broad sense, this is not wrong. But despite Eminem becoming one of the most famous people on the planet at the turn of the century, his fame did not open the floodgates for an imitating wave of white rappers to make it big on major labels. It wasn’t until 2009, when a white rapper named Asher Roth started sampling Weezer and imploring freshmen to chug their lite beers, that the majors found a proof of concept that made what had previously been subtext — a large swath of young, white listeners had tremendous buying power and would respond to lowbrow appeals to their own narcissism — explicit.
“That his early success was due in large part to his race was not lost on him; Mac spoke, frequently and incisively, about that very dynamic.”
And so this, frat rap, is the space Mac Miller lived in from his formative stages through Blue Slide Park. His peers included Roth and insipidly awful, quasi-novelty acts like Sammy Adams. Miller was clearly more talented than Roth and, unlike Adams, seemed to be in love with hip-hop as culture as opposed to as window dressing — the rappers he was grouped with were not the types to rap over Lord Finesse beats. But to many listeners, critics, and other artists, pointing out those differences was simply splitting hairs, and with Blue Slide Park, Mac seemed to sink into the morass with the worst of his contemporaries.
That’s where the story should end: a talented, well-meaning kid nudged toward the money and eventually relegated to Wikipedia footnote (no one is listening to Roth or Adams in 2018, after all). Instead, having relocated to a compound in Studio City, the L.A. neighborhood at the southern edge of the Valley, Mac retreated into himself. He tinkered and tweaked his style until it became a full-fledged reinvention. Beginning on 2012’s Macadelic mixtape and crystalizing on his second studio album, the following year’s Watching Movies With the Sound Off, this new style was muddier, murkier and infinitely more interesting. Mac began producing his own music and seeking out more daring collaborators; he also moved from weed to harder drugs, and rapped lucidly about the effects they had on his brain and body.
Around this time, Mac became a beloved fixture in L.A.’s rap scene. He opened his home and studio to countless major and underground artists and made himself a sounding board for their ideas; he became particularly close with artists like Earl Sweatshirt, whom he collaborated with frequently, and Vince Staples, for whom he produced an entire album, Stolen Youth. The first single from Watching Movies, “S.D.S.,” was produced by Flying Lotus, the premier figure from the beat scene that was dominating L.A.’s underground at the time. The result was an album that sounded worlds apart from Blue Slide Park, something with tics and neuroses too difficult to untangle on the quad.
There is, underpinning all of this, the matter of Mac Miller’s whiteness. As he was progressing as an artist, he was also developing a sophisticated perspective on race and rap. That his early success was due in large part to his race was not lost on him; Mac spoke, frequently and incisively, about that very dynamic. He also used his platforms to challenge those white fans of his who were unwilling to examine their own racism.
Mac never became an exceptionally innovative technician; there are points on Watching Movies when he lapses into flows that recall his amateur stages back in Pittsburgh. His gift was not being ahead of the curve — rather, Mac grew into a compelling artist because he was able to reflect interesting musical trends in real time. He was a rabid music fan, and his records — even the defiant ones, like his acclaimed 2013 tape Faces — sounded as if they owed a debt to other rappers and producers of the moment. This is not to suggest he was a biter or that he was derivative. Mac grew into a collagist, able to rearrange familiar component parts into something that sounded, in its finished form, as if it were deeply personal. Much of his music from the middle of the decade skews dark and distorted, but was rooted in Miller’s personality which could be bright, even jovial in the face of grim subject matter.
At the end of 2014, Mac announced that he had signed a label deal with Warner Bros., which was worth a reported $10 million. The following year, he released a serviceable major-label debut, GO:OD AM. But it was his 2016 album, The Divine Feminine, that marked another creative repositioning. That record was by far the happiest piece of Mac’s discography since the early, fratty days; it owes plenty to 2016, borrowing sounds and textures from the likes of Anderson .Paak and Chance the Rapper. It also centered a live-instrumentation feel that would mark much of his later work, and showed considerable growth in terms of song structure and vocal control.
Following Miller’s death Friday, the comments on “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza” are dominated by a string of condolences. Some of these are short rest-in-peace messages, others are heartfelt messages about the way Mac Miller’s music got fans through hard times. But there are also comments from years past that have resurfaced, buoyed by dozens of new likes. Comments like this:
“Junior high, no whip, school was aight I guess, sneaking out friday nights, going to house parties bumping to this on the way, sipping on the cheapest beer we could get, running through the back door of the house when the cops came, lose yo boy on the way. smoking on the way home, crashing at someones house bc you didn’t want to wake your parents with smell of weed on your clothes. Monday, go to school with some fresh nikes, all we talked about in class was the party, did it all again on weekends. Man those were the days. Now we are all grown up with jobs and shit.”
Mac Miller’s music was, at its core, about aimlessness. When you’re 14 or 16 or 18, that aimlessness can be a little daunting, but mostly it’s freedom. The adults want you to work, study, figure out what you want to do with your life, but with a little nerve you can stay out all night and make time stand still. Parents just don’t understand, etc.
But as years pass — once you’re all grown up, with jobs and shit — that aimlessness can turn corrosive. Lots of Mac Miller’s music from 2012 on finds him feeling around in the dark for something to grasp onto. The easiest thing to clutch, per his own writing, was often drugs, which he cast as a salve for depression and loneliness, but also for boredom. With the exception of The Divine Feminine, his music wrestled — sometimes angstily, at other points with a sort of Zen remove — with that vacuum at the center of adult life, and with the realization that no amount of money, adoration, or professional success is guaranteed to fill it. On “2009,” the wrenching, penultimate song on Swimming, Miller’s final album that came out just last month, he sings: “It ain’t 2009 no more / I know what’s behind that door.” He rapped frequently about his own death. This wasn’t the mythic fatalism of 2Pac, but something smaller and considerably sadder. He spoke publicly about his struggles with addiction. What makes his premature death particularly tragic is that Mac Miller became so adept at communicating this fear and ambivalence through his songs.
Mac’s career was defined by putting in the work, committing to being better.
While Feminine seemed for a second like it might be a major work that defined Mac for the years to follow, it really is best read as a precursor to Swimming. Where his previous best records, Watching Movies and Faces, sprawled and sputtered and experimented, Swimming is tightly wound and carefully crafted. It feels warm and lived-in and, at points, incredibly sad. There are moments where it casts Mac, a digital-native rapper, as a lounge singer. It’s likely that this, too, would eventually be seen as a transitional work.
One of the exciting things about following Mac’s trajectory from 2012 on was the slow, steady progression that suggested a massive payoff just over the horizon. His career was defined by putting in the work, committing to being better. Swimming was a further step toward that vanishing point. All we can do now is imagine where the rest of that path might have led.