book excerpt

Mac Miller Found Freedom on Faces

An oral history of Mac Miller’s 2014 opus, excerpted from The Book of Mac.

Photo: Mac Miller/YouTube
Photo: Mac Miller/YouTube

Faces actually started forming in my blanket; got some demons in there.” —Mac Miller

I write through my trauma. This is a lesson I learned from Mac Miller time and again, but most crucially from his 2014 opus, Faces. My favorite Mac project, it was the soundtrack to my self-harm, the darkest period of my life, and the consequential soundtrack to my recovery. It may well have taught me that the purpose of great writing is to elevate the person receiving it.

The mixtape is a paranoid stumbling through the cocaine ether, the perceived fragility of mortality, and the anxiety of only knowing how to create, not necessarily how to live. Across the 24 tracks, Mac covers damn near everything within the scope of the human condition, resulting in his most expansive, challenging, esoteric, flawed, and affecting offering to his career at this point.

In a swirl of jazz, Mac begins by proclaiming that he should have died already, establishing Faces as a confession. He’s getting higher than we’ve previously heard about, celebrating his success with a variety of drugs while documenting the difficult descents from riding so high. Mac vacillates between emotional peaks but his rapping is at its best. In the storm of this mixtape, he never lets us forget that, at the time, he is just a 22-year-old guy trying to get his mind right. As listeners, there’s a natural concern for Malcolm, but there’s also a natural attraction to such brink-of-life music.

Miller often referred to music as a religion; consider Faces the inside of a church, with the heat of the devil filling the air. We hear ourselves in it fighting our battles as best as we can, putting on our personas so no one worries. On “Diablo,” we hear the humor and hysteria of a depressive episode (“I been poppin’ like a kernel, readin’ Justin Bieber’s journal / Treat you like a urinal”) and the nervous jitter of unraveling (“Look at what you did to me, look at what you did to me”). The song is ripe with angst. (“I ain’t a star, I’m way farther with the constellations / Contemplatin’ suicide like it’s a DVD”).

“Malibu” is packed with lines that communicate the ethos of the mixtape —from Mac shouting “You piece of shit” at himself, to flirting with death in the service of his art, to the animalistic declarations of “Well I’ll be damned if this ain’t some shit” and “I’m the only suicidal motherfucker with a smile on.” The fallacy of a smile is the core essence of Faces. The tape is an exposé on the lies we tell ourselves in our fight to get better, as well as an expulsion of those lies from Mac Miller’s fragile system.

“And kill me now if I did it all for hip-hop (K-ch, blaow) / I might die before I detox” —“Malibu”

Faces is not meant to be agreeable; it’s meant to be honest. Paging through lines admitting to suicidal tendencies is skin-crawling, but there’s an authenticity to each word that keeps us coming back. Mac flourishes in confounding spaces; about to die, he sprouts and blooms. For him, the precipice is a sexy place, everything extreme and laden with meaning. There is so much intensity, it’s impossible to be bored; why not set up camp on the edge of mortality, just to see what fun can be had? (Mac said as much about his drug use in his 2016 Fader documentary.)

As anxiety permeates the tape, “It Just Doesn’t Matter” stands as one of its most human moments. The track is its own personal undoing, with non sequiturs funneling into honest depictions of drug use overtaking Mac’s life, and how as much as this saddens him, he just can’t stop (“Buggin’ out, had it all, I’m nothing now … I bust your speakers with some bullshit rap / I’m on drugs, all my new shit wack”). His woes are plentiful and bone-deep; a bar like “Everyone I know ain’t nothing to God” captures the desolation he feels inside The Sanctuary, trying to create his way back into the realm of the living. Faces was made for Mac to journey back to Malcolm.

“Cause I smoke dust, overdosed on the sofa, dead / Woke up from a coma / Poured up with a soda, smoked, went back to bed / Never thought I’d be such a loner” —“Polo Jeans”

Faces is also not prophetic, and reducing Mac’s legacy to one of predicting death obfuscates the point that this was music made to survive. Mac Miller found freedom on Faces, and so many of us used Faces to find our own solace. Considering the tape was followed the next year by Mac’s awakening on GO:OD AM and then lyrically brought full circle on the last album he released, 2018’s Swimming, we can remember both Faces and Mac as experiments in seeing how close to death he could fly. After years of listening to the tape, I’ve come to understand it as a battle for peace, a purging of the fear of death to get to the pursuit of life. That should be his legacy.

Josh Berg (recording and mix engineer, producer): With Macadelic, we were client and vendor. I was studio staff. I came with the room, although we enjoyed each other. By the time Faces came about, I had spent nearly every day at his house or on a tour with him for a year and a half. We were family. The work was brilliant. We were at the height of our flow. We knew each other’s languages and shared so much creative experience and references. We didn’t need to speak. He would walk in the booth without mention. I would hit record. I knew when to punch and edit, every effect and treatment. As I became aware of this, I made it a point to stretch it as far as possible. We could nearly do a whole song without discussion.

Big Jerm (friend, producer, ID Labs cohort): This was when he was recording so much, I didn’t know if there was any purpose. I never knew what the plan was, but “Therapy” might’ve been the first one I sent him. E. added the bass. I don’t remember the beginning of the whole [Faces] process. To me, it was random.

E. Dan (friend, engineer, ID Labs founder): With most Mac projects, that one included, I never knew what the fuck we were working on — other than Blue Slide Park and GO:OD AM. When we were working on those, I knew definitely that’s what we were doing. With mixtapes, they were more like … we never stopped working. When we were in the room together, we were gonna make music — that’s what we did. I don’t know that I ever knew what he was working on until he was like, “Here’s this whole project.” I’m sure that’s the case with Faces because it was in between labels. I had no idea what he was doing. I knew he was courting some labels [and] had left Rostrum. I thought he was gonna wait ’til he got with a new label to work on a project. It was a surprise to me, but we had worked on several of the songs together in the months prior. I just didn’t know they were gonna be on Faces.

Big Jerm: Just from talking to Josh, I knew he was living in the studio.
Even though his bedroom was upstairs, I don’t think he was going there very much. There was a constant stream of people coming over to work, so it’s almost like he wasn’t even able to get out of the studio, even if he wanted to.

Josh Berg: It was during the run-up to the project. We were heavily recording and [Mac] was not sleeping very much. He reported vivid hallucinations, seeing faces in his blanket. This was profound to him. He knew he was far from shore, but he also heard the siren song of revelation. He explored this philosophically. There were songs composed about people with imaginary friends that only they could see. He seemed fascinated by these ideas: the imaginary and imagination. Who is really there anyways? Where are we? Is that so static?

During the Faces era, which actually extended a bit beyond the project itself, there was an extraordinary amount of raw musical experimentation. It all started with Thundercat, but often Taylor Graves would be there as well, or one of the other Bruner brothers.

Thundercat (bassist, producer, “Inside Outside”): My first time hearing Mac’s music was on the account of us working together, I believe. When I started to dig into his music, I started to understand the type of person he was. He put his musicianship first. It wasn’t necessarily about where we had been, it was about what the possibilities were of what we could create and what we could do. I knew who he was; I heard his name mentioned many times. The funny thing we always talked about is: Neither of us could remember how we met. It was weird. “Did I just show up at your house one day?” “Did you pick me up somewhere?” I don’t know how we met. But I remember … it definitely started with our working relationship, and we immediately took to each other.

Josh Berg: In 2014, Mac Miller was free [from any label]. For the last few years, he had ridden this incredible wave of success, but that success came at a cost. He had been doing 200-plus shows a year, and in that last year alone [2013], he had completed his bravest and most creative experimental album to date, for which he did a summer tour across the U.S., two side projects, Delusional Thomas and Larry Lovestein [You], an E.U. festival tour, an arena tour in Europe as support for Lil Wayne, along with all his own shows, and he filmed two seasons of a reality show. Towards the end of the year, you had to literally pry him out of The Sanctuary with a crowbar. That was the only place he really wanted to be. He was intending to lock himself inside the studio and make music every day, and that’s exactly what he did. I remember recording “Inside Outside” when [Mac] said, “Everybody wanna be God besides God, he wanna be like us.” He freestyled that … That type of profound statement was just coming out of him constantly.

Thundercat: That song is a special song to me. There was a little bit of everything. There was a different part of the spectrum showing between both of us at that point in our lives. We were really in it. We were in it for the creative energy. We were in it for where the feeling meets the technicality, meets the ability to process. And so many other elements. On [Faces], he had a bit of a breakthrough, personally. He felt freed up and open enough to let everybody in and not be scared or lose who he was. Even when he’s saying, “On the inside, I’m outside, all the time,” it felt prophetic. It was almost as if everything had been turned inside out: That introvert that was maybe hiding, he was walking into who he was becoming or who he was. And you felt it.

Josh Berg: They would just be hanging out in the room and burst into jams spontaneously. This was the whole point: to see what would intuitively come from the conversation. We had albums of this stuff. So many moments, from meeting Ronald Bruner, who was quite a bit more boisterous than we imagined. We gave [Ronald] a kick drum festooned with pots and pans and a silverware caddy from the dishwasher.

Thundercat: Creating with [Mac] … I’m a person that likes to play too.
The ability to play together, sometimes it represents more than the part you jam with somebody. There’s a level of communication that gets masked in the ability. Different things hide themselves away sometimes. It’s almost like speaking in code. Me and him, we would always be trying to speak a different language to each other. We always had something to say; we always had something to play. We would go full-on with ideas. We would never stop playing. He would be playing piano; I had my bass plugged up. We were always trying to be in each other’s heads.

E. Dan: I’ve only gained the perspective of how fucking incredible it is over the last few years … When he first sent it to me to start putting it together from a mix standpoint, I was mostly overwhelmed with the amount of tracks. As it goes for me, when I’m in the middle of a project on that level, it can be hard to fully appreciate it from the perspective of a listener. There’s songs on there that were, immediately upon hearing it and to this day, some of my favorite songs he’s done. “Inside Outside” I love, and I love that Josh is screaming all over it in the background. The Rick Ross track [“Insomniak”], I loved that.

Big Jerm: Actually, my friend Shod Beatz had that sample. We both use FL Studio, so he sent me the project file. He had the sample in there, and I just remember that drumroll on it, that’s kind of offbeat — I added that. We had the 808s. Mac hit me up wanting more of a banger, and sometimes it just works out where that was the one I had made right when he asked. I sent that over and didn’t really hear much. I assume he recorded it, and then he sent the Rick Ross part. That was pretty cool, just to hear Rick Ross on one of our beats.

Josh Berg: Another session titled “Rick Rubin’s Piano” came from a field recording of Mac playing piano on a field trip to Rick’s house, which led to a side-splittingly ridiculous exchange. Another time I literally rolled on the floor laughing when Mac burst into an operatic pass on a song. So much music was done. There were at least half a dozen albums in progress at the time. No exaggeration.

One day we had been up all night to where people started answering the phone again and we somehow got Om’Mas [Keith, producer] to come over at like 8:00 a.m. and Mac, Om’Mas, Thundercat, and myself all went to Stein on Vine where he bought Thundercat an upright bass, bought a cello, violin, bass clarinet, and a ridiculous assortment of percussion bits and some silly squeeze-pump horns that looked like they came off of clown cars. We went back to the house and started jamming. Om’Mas played the flute.

There was the intro to one of the lost albums featuring SZA and it’s one of my favorites. Mac absolutely killed that organ. And, of course, SZA did an amazing verse. Still gets stuck in my head all the time.

I remember doing “Thumbalina.” It was a night where it was just him and me in the studio and he was remarking how the neighbors had formed a committee to evict him. It’s not hard to see how that one got started.

Big Jerm: You could hear the trajectory from Macadelic. They have a similar vibe to me. When he put Faces out, I was like, “Wow, 24 songs.” But it works! I always tell people, for an album, I think ten to 14 songs is good. You never want it to feel too long, but Faces, I think is … 85 minutes long.

E. Dan: There [were] songs on there — “It Just Doesn’t Matter” — that when I heard them, “Fucking wow! I love this shit.” There are 24 songs on there, so I was completely overwhelmed from a mixing perspective of popping open all these sessions and trying to make sense of things. I didn’t have much time to get it done, so I spent more time being overwhelmed than I did thinking about how amazing it is. It took me a good couple of years, if not longer, to forget about how intense the process was and listen to it, hate all of my mixes, get over that, and appreciate what an awesome project it was.

Big Jerm: He picked the right beats to all fit together. He definitely is getting deeper on it too. I get lost in the beat part of it. I’m listening to the snare when everybody else is listening to the lyrics.

Photo: Mac Miller/YouTube

E. Dan: There was a looseness to it. I don’t think he did a lot of second-guessing. I think he was going through some dark times making that record. Mac was pretty good at keeping that side of him away from me because I’m older … We had a deep friendship and the dude was a part of my family, and is a part of my family. He really, really went out of his way to keep the heavy substance use away from me and Jerm in particular. I haven’t quite nailed down why that is. Whatever the case … When he was going through a lot of difficult times … If I was around him, he’d do a good job of not letting me know that. It’s hard for me to say exactly what space he was in, you know? By all accounts, just talking to Josh and Quentin Cuff, it seems like there were some pretty rough times around that. Maybe not the roughest times. Maybe some of those were still yet to come. But it maybe was the beginning of some dark days. Whenever you hit an intense level of feeling, emotion, whatever in life, that shit comes through in your art. For better or for worse. And it resonates with people. It just comes through on those tracks, and that’s one of the reasons why people feel that way about it.

Josh Berg: I feel conflicted about it. Some things defined the period as an ultimate immersion in philosophy and other things represent his struggles with drugs. Cocaine references in particular did not fit the braggadocio of rap. You can rap about how much weed you smoke or pills or lean, but it doesn’t make sense to rap about cocaine the same way. It’s much more of a secret drug. It just felt so vulgar and wrong.

Thundercat: He started blending the worlds together. There’s instrumental pieces on there; there’s parts where he’s playing the different instruments. He’s going into some vicious rapping. He stopped separating the creative energies. He saw it and said, “This is one and the same. This is the same person.” It came out almost like vomit; that’s how it happens sometimes. He took the barriers off and let it be what it was and stopped worrying about if people are gonna be able to say, “Oh, yeah, he’s a rapper!” He let everybody see what it all was.

Josh Berg: To me, in retrospect, it seems like Faces touches on the intangible spirit of things the way you could see faces in the moon or clouds or other things, a spiritual identity more representative of our pre-modern understanding of things. If it has a face, it is a being type of idea. The different faces we wear, the faces of our friends and family.

E. Dan: Also, it’s his least overthought project. He didn’t let himself get in the way. He didn’t have a label to answer to, so it didn’t feel like he had some sort of authority figure involved with the creative process. With Faces, there was this sense of freedom in so many ways. He was firmly established in Los Angeles, on his own, mostly away from family, and he had all these new friends and that was coming together as his new life. He just left Rostrum. There was just this freedom to him. And! He had already gone through Watching Movies With the Sound Off, which is the project where he steps up and says, “I wanna produce myself.” It was a combination of those things.

Josh Berg: Perhaps it felt like a rebirth or the start of a new era, which it certainly was.

E. Dan: I think he was simultaneously — with every project — incredibly proud and, at the same time … He probably secretly hated half of it and wanted to redo everything ten times over. That’s a typical thing for an artist. You’re always growing, so the last thing you did is your favorite thing. He was probably right on to the next thing. I got the impression from him that Faces was like, “I need to get some of these songs out. If I don’t get some of them out, I’m gonna reach a point where I’m so confused with what I have and what to do with it.” That’s part of where its beauty lies: He didn’t overthink it.

This excerpt has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Excerpted from the book The Book of Mac: Remembering Mac Miller by Donna-Claire Chesman. Copyright © 2021 by Donna-Claire Chesman. From Permuted Press. Reprinted by permission.

His home studio. Of it, he once said, “Part of the mentality was like if I die when I leave this room — cause that was my fear … Like I won’t survive in the world. I will survive in this little room called The Sanctuary that I’m okay in.” His seventh mixtape, released in 2012. His 2011 studio debut. One of Mac’s alter egos, for his jazz project Larry Lovestein & The Velvet Revival, under which he released the You EP in 2012. Grammy-winning jazz drummer, famously for the band Suicidal Tendencies, and Thundercat’s brother. Mac’s best friend and tour manager. His second studio album, released in 2013.
Mac Miller Found Freedom on Faces