The first time I met Mac Miller he’d just moved into a beautiful new Brooklyn apartment and completed a new album — last year’s end-of-summer wake-up call GO:OD AM — which presented a hard reset from the previous year’s drugged-out mixtape Faces. He steps into the New York Magazine office on a brisk September Friday under similar circumstances — new house, new album — but the particulars are different. He’s just moved back to Los Angeles, the city where he nearly wrecked his life holed up in a mansion and recording facility living a dream of musicianly excess. The brand-new The Divine Feminine is his “New York album” insofar as it was conceptualized and recorded in large part at a few studios around the city, with the help of piano and production whiz Aja Grant, of the Brooklyn soul act Phony Ppl. But the new music eschews the grit and frost of New York autumns and winters in favor of a lovesick, funk-forward lightness effected in part because the project began on a lark, but also, it would appear, because he is seeing someone new.
Our interview, on the day of The Divine Feminine’s release, causes a bit of a stir in the office: Mac doesn’t tell me ahead of time that he’s bringing Ariana Grande along, and her appearance in his small detail gives a shock. I’d intended to tiptoe into the nagging question of whether the two were dating, but I think I get my answer when, after I've exhausted my questions, she makes her way over to his lap to say “Good job.” We almost head out on the street to see whether we can ruffle feathers by walking into a store to buy the album, but the blight on New York City record stores rules out the possibility. They’re exhausted, anyhow, from a press run that ultimately carries them through appearances on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, a Pittsburgh Steelers home game, and a battery of interviews in between. By the following week’s end, The Divine Feminine, a collection originally envisioned as a SoundCloud freebie, is the No. 2 album in the country.
The Divine Feminine was originally conceived, Mac told me last year, as one half of a clandestine double-EP release that would quickly follow GO:OD AM and highlight the opposing ends of his creative spectrum: the whip-smart rapper and the melody-conscious lover. I heard early bits like the heavenly Ty Dolla $ign chorus from the finished album’s “Cinderella” and the video-game synths Washington Heights producer Vinylz contributed to “Planet God Damn,” but otherwise, Mac was more concerned with helping coach records from EDM/R&B songstress Njomza and singer-songwriter Dylan Reynolds, both signees to his Remember Music imprint. The Divine Feminine came to life in the background, Miller crafting, picking, sewing, and embellishing beats on the fly outside of the pressures and formalities of an album.
Over a few more studio visits over the next few months, it became apparent that Mac Miller was not just fooling around with new sounds. He was executive-producing his next proper studio album, with a self-assurance and a compositional heft missing from the sensory overload of Faces, and a wellspring of outside productions solicited for GO:OD AM. He worked through two dozen string arrangements for the silky “Skin” late one night only to arrive at a brashly tinny sax line. The Dolla $ign cut got a smoky cabaret coda that balloons its length out to eight minutes. Mac convinced Kendrick Lamar to sing on closer “God Is Fair, Sexy Nasty” where most would’ve jumped for bars, and he gushes about getting uncommonly jazzy vocals from Grande on “My Favorite Part.” The finished Divine Feminine chases three records spent collecting the trust of a hip-hop fandom that didn’t care for “Easy Mac with the cheesy raps” on a fourth that gambles this rap-guy cachet on dewy, post-coital glee. Feminine’s foregrounding of singing ahead of lyrical dexterity is risky. But one thing is certain: Mac Miller will never deliver the same album twice.
The first time I met you, you were moving into New York City. Now here we are about a year later, you’re settling into L.A. What’d you learn in your year in the city?
I think I learned a lot about what I’m capable of. I learned a lot about the difference between needs and desires … all of that stuff. What’s actually necessary in life and the creative process. I think I also learned that places have less power over me than I’d once thought.
How are you approaching L.A. differently this time than you did last time?
My living situation is much more suitable to who I actually am as a human being. There’s no extras. There’s no extra shit. As my house comes together, walking through it, there’s no extra space, there’s no extra rooms that are there for zero reason. Like, everything has a purpose.
Talk to me about the concept of Divine Feminine. I know that when I first started hearing about the project, you were trying to sneak it out secretly as an EP. How’d that blow up into a full album?
There’s so many different journeys of what the Divine Feminine was and is. At one point it was a story about robots taking over the world and one girl being like Neo in The Matrix. There’s all this stuff about the universe and how it mirrors love and how what’s within a woman is within all of us, but the concept is like … It’s love, which is the simplest answer, but the most complex of topics. It’s the religious experience of going into that emotion.
You were working on it during a cold season, and that strikes me as odd because it came out a warm-season kind of record.
I’m from Pittsburgh, so I like the cold ... Remember when it snowed so crazy that the city got shut down for two days? That’s when I made “Soulmate.” I got snowed into the studio, and it was tight. I was walking in flip-flops with snow up to here to and from this hotel down the street. I think this music was making and creating warmth in my life ... through the cold … [dramatic Game of Thrones voice] Winter’s coming ...
Do you worry about making a record like that and it being seen as pandering to feminists?
I do. In talking about the record, when you’re dealing with things like headlines, there’s so many ways you can simplify what I’m doing. It’s music, and the best thing I can say is what’s said there. People are like, “So are you, like, a feminist?” I don’t know … Maybe? Sure. Or, like, “Uh, this is a whole idea about, like, trying to, like …” Like, it’s them thinking of this as more of an equation than it is. At the end of the day, the world is a fucking crazy place. I’m fine with them saying whatever. I said whatever I needed to say.
Are you worried about your rap fans wanting #BARS?
Nah, because I still got 'em always. But … they need to hear this. People need to expand their minds, me included. The mind is never done expanding. Anyone who is coming like, “I NEED MAC MILLER FOR THE BARS.” I mean … great. That’s even more of a reason for them to experience this.
Talk to me about the collaborators. Who are some people you worked with, who are some people we’d have no idea that you worked with ...
I feel like it simplifies everything when you just write the words … “produced by.” I wanna give a bunch of love to the engineers who worked with me on this project. Just because of how much of a journey every song was. Sessions with full bands that would come in, and we would do all this stuff and then after, I’d be like, “I just want this one note” or like, “I don’t want any of that.”
I guess the deeper question is whether you were seeking people out specifically or if it came together organically.
I’d like to really talk about Aja Grant [of the NYC hip-hop band Phony Ppl]. That’s a great example of someone that came into this situation organically. Literally just an incredible pianist as well as composer. He sent me a voice memo of “Congratulations” — like, that piano — and I was like, “I need this dude.” To me, I’m the producer, but all of these people brought their energies and their talents and everything into every single record on the album. Like, Aja played and was part of multiple records, regardless of what it says he produced and what it doesn’t. There’s a lot of people like that who were just there and bringing their energy and making it something to feed off of. Dam Funk came in and did “Soulmate,” and we hung out all night. The more we got comfortable with each other, you saw the record flourish more. The less it became, “Dam Funk’s here. Dam, what do we do?” and the more it became like “Yo, man. Let’s have fun and work on some music.”
I’m glad you touched on that because I wanted to ask about your production approach from the last record to this one. It feels like you were a lot more hands-on in the process of creating this.
I think because it all started out as an EP. All the pressures weren’t there that usually are when you throw out an album. All this was to me was a project. It was my vision so much that I wanted to be in that seat. I always wanted to sit in that chair, but I’ve always been too unsure of myself to sit there. Once I sat in it, I was like, “NAH! THIS IS ME!” It became so special to me. To me, I felt like I knew so much through and through what this album is supposed to be that it gave me the confidence to be the producer I’ve always wanted to be. You’re doing full sessions. You’re doing full weeks in the studio. Twenty-four hours a day blocking out time. And you’re only getting a small piece out of that whole entire thing. It’s less me worrying about what is the right process and what is the wrong, and more starting to understand what my process is.
One time I dropped by the studio, and you were coaching two sessions while you were working on a third of your own. Talk to me about being in that seat for your artists while you’re also doing it for yourself.
The first person I ever saw do that was Pharrell. I was in a session with Pharrell in Miami, and he was bouncing around from session to session and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It removes all the overthinking of it. You’re just kinda giving your two cents, and letting them take it, and what they wanna do with it is on them. Working on your own album is this huge emotional process. You’re pulling out all this stuff that’s in there. You’re emptying out all your own baggage and putting it on display for not only other people to hear but for you to hear. So, when you’re in that session, to then be able to go outside of your world and help other people pull it out of them is refreshing. Sometimes you’re correct, and sometimes you’re not.
There’s just so many aspects. I’m learning more and more about how many things can go into a song and what being a producer really means. It’s so much more than sitting down and making a beat in a program. Really, really producing and really, really trying to push someone to get their best, get the most ... them on a record … that’s what I want to do as a producer. Any project I’m involved in producing, I want it to mirror the human being I’m working with. That’s what I want. I love those records, those brutally honest records. I’m still learning, and that’s what I think the beautiful thing is. Doing in the process of learning is great. That’s why it’s hard for me to really even answer these questions. You know more than me, 'cause you watched me do it! I’m trying to talk to you and make it sound like I know what I’m doing, but in reality I’m just like, “Yeah, do this, yeah!” That's how it happens.
I think you’re selling yourself short.
I am! I definitely am.
How do you keep challenging yourself? I feel like the read on you among rap fans is that you’re someone who keeps growing from project to project. How do you get outside of the last thing you did?
Me, I like to build a planet. Every project is its own planet. And looking at them like that allows me to just completely jump and make something new. I love that if you go through my catalogue, every single album is so different. I never wanna make two albums that sound the same. You have to continue to evolve as a human being and change what your life feels like. Making records in different types of scenarios in life allows them to keep changing. Like, a lot of the stuff that I did in the Sanctuary has a similar feeling to me. Because I was in that space.
You talked about your creative energy being tied to the locations that it comes out of, and I’m wondering if that’s part of why you like to move around.
Yeah, probably. I still have to work on this story I’m writing in my head. I feel like you move around and all this and what your environment is is influencing your creativity. I think I also haven’t found that comforting home — this is it — yet. I feel like I’m still searching for that with every time I move. I’m still searching for the studio that’s my studio for 20 years. I want that, don’t get me wrong. In my head the studio is this next-level fantasy that I keep trying and missing. Like, oh, this has the greatest vibe, but it’s a dark cave that no one leaves. You know? Or, this is a great vibe but you can’t be loud past two in the morning. Or, this is a great vibe but it’s not even mine and they don’t want me to be here anymore. I love moving around, but I’m searching for that place that can be me. I want that legendary studio that documentary is made about far down the line that so many people want to go to. 'Cause the studio is everything to me. So that’s what I’m continuously searching for.