It’s not wrong to say that Mac Miller was misunderstood, but it’s not quite correct, either. The rapper — who was born in Pittsburgh, but spent much of his career in the San Fernando Valley — was often defined by these facts: he was a white guy who achieved quite a bit of success straight out of the gate, and he made rap music that went pop so fast, it felt like a default setting. People seemed unsure of how to take him. Who was this kid? Albums like Blue Slide Park were clean, bright, fun, and maybe a little too ridiculous, but his talent, and considerable style, was evident. Mac Miller could write dense verses that twisted on themselves. At his best, listening to him could make you dizzy.
In 2012, he released the mixtape Macadelic. It was our first real glimpse of the artist that Miller would become. The woozy Aliens Fighting Robots bounces from topic to topic, but what he’s saying isn’t really the point — Miller had settled on the style that would carry him forward. He’d pile internal rhymes on top of each other and then come up for air long enough to throw a memorable line out there: “So my girl and I be up like we some college students cramming for a test that we ain’t study for/wonder will she love me more with money, because if not, I’m not sure what all this money for.” It didn’t really matter that just a few seconds before, he was rapping about how capicola sandwiches were really good. By celebrating the mere act of rapping, Miller had settled on an at-the-time increasingly rare concept: Rap could be high stakes and fun. It could tackle serious topics in funny ways. It wasn’t a new idea, but it didn’t feel like a whole lot of people were really practicing it at the time, either.
That Miller eventually found a home in a hazy, almost psychedelic world felt appropriate. Every song on 2013’s Watching Movies With the Sound Off sounds as if it was written late night in the studio, where time can lose all meaning and likeminded rappers like Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, The Creator could wander in to rap over fuzzed-out loops at will. Around the same time, he produced an entire mixtape for Vince Staples under the alter-ego Larry Fisherman. After that, he’d go on to rap and produce at a steady clip. To be sure, he existed within the music industry. His albums had singles. Paparazzi followed him places. He was on a record label. He had a publicist. All the usual stuff. But it felt different. It felt like he would have been making this music whether or not anyone was listening. It was an outlet, which meant he veered into dark territory: He’d rap about substance abuse and existential loneliness. But he’d also make jokes, and loved to rhyme just to rhyme. It seems obvious, but it’s worth saying explicitly: Mac Miller rapped because he wanted to rap — the fact that a lot of people really wanted to hear him rap was a side effect.
I think a lot about an image from a Mac Miller profile in The Fader in 2013: In it, Miller and Earl Sweatshirt are each sitting in chairs in Miller’s studio, hunched over their phones, presumably going over some lyrics. There are no lights in the room, just a lurid, neon red glow and some recording equipment. In the very next photo, Miller is laying flat on his stomach in head-to-toe camo, dunking his entire head in his pool. Reading the story, it’s explained that Mac’s studio is right next to that pool, but you’d never know. The photo in the studio is candid, comfortable, and the one in the pool, while beautiful, looks as if it were posed. It’s clear where he felt more comfortable. You will not be surprised to learn that Mac spent most of his time in that studio, producing, rapping, collaborating, improving.
Earlier this week, Vulture published a profile of Mac Miller, written by our music critic Craig Jenkins. It was loosely pegged to his recently released album Swimming, which is lush, mature, and very carefully considered. He worked with the legendary producer Jon Brion to create songs that drifted in a kind of California funk haze. Without his voice — which had evolved into a nasal, gravelly thing — the music would have felt almost weightless. Listening to it felt like the beginning of a new phase. Miller had found a way to marry his love of wordplay to music that was at once insular and radio-friendly. The profile oscillated between the interior and exterior world of Mac Miller. He’s anxiously preparing for a set on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, then he’s ducking paps who’re lurking in the bushes outside of his hotel. He’s candid and open and genuine, not because his publicist told him he needed to be relatable, but because that’s who he was. Toward the end of the piece, he makes a nuanced observation about what it means to be a person: “I really wouldn’t want just happiness. And I don’t want just sadness either. I don’t want to be depressed. I want to be able to have good days and bad days … I can’t imagine not waking up sometimes and being like, ‘I don’t feel like doing shit.’ And then having days where you wake up and you feel on top of the world.”