Mac Miller leaves a thoughtful goodbye with ‘‘Circles’’

Days before what would’ve been his 28th birthday, Mac Miller’s family released his posthumous album “Circles.” Before his death in 2018, Mac Miller was undergoing an interesting transition in his career. Starting with his “Faces” mixtape in 2014, Miller’s artistic vision took a different direction. “Easy Mac with the cheesy raps” traded his humorous lyrics about partying and hooking up for bars about spirituality, existentialism, and sobriety. Eventually the Steel City MC became more of a singer than a rapper. Outside of Tyler the Creator, no other rapper from the last decade has evolved as much as the native son of Pittsburgh.

Reactions were mixed when the late rapper’s family announced the album’s release date – and for good reason.  Tupac had dozens of albums released after his death. XXXTentacion had a deluxe album along with several singles in order to game streaming websites. For the first time in years, R&B legend Aaliyah will have her entire catalog on Tidal. The music industry goes out of its way to dig money from the graves of their artists. However in the case of Mac and according to those close to him, he had already planned to release this album as part of a three-part series.

Much of the album’s content reflects the perspective of someone confronting their own demons, albeit with some aspects of optimism. The eponymous track is quite the tone-setter, as it opens up with a mellow strumming of a guitar that’s later accented by synth chords. Along with the sparing use of the xylophone, the song gives off a very minty, earthy sensation to the ears. In his lone verse, Miller starts off making a direct reference to “So It Goes,” the last track off his previous album, with the two tracks sharing feelings anxiety and of being on the brink of losing everything.

With industry virtuoso Jon Brion as co-producer, this album pulls various influences from genres like indie, pop, blues, and soul. “Complicated” would fit very well on the B-side of a Still Woozy or Gus Dapperton mixtape. Aside from the dark lyrics, the production on “Everybody” sounds like every 70s pop ballad your parents grew up listening to. The album’s fifth track “I Can See” has a particular retro video game-like riff that comes in and out of the song. Jon Brion’s ability to synthesize disparate styles gives the album its eclectic appeal.

With “Hand Me Downs” and “Hands” we get back to back rap-heavy songs from Miller. On “Hand Me Downs,” he talks about finding healthy ways to cope with his problems. Baro Sura sang the chorus. In the chorus itself, Miller uses cheeky wordplay to imply to this unnamed woman that they should have kids.

On “Hands” Mac’s tone of voice comes off as very confident, but some of the lyrics are about him having a mental breakdown. While the chorus suggests that he should stay positive, Miller throughout the song is having fits of rage, causing him to push people away. In his eyes those aforementioned people ‘‘love to see [him] lonely’’ and don’t want him happy. In the end, with no support system around him, he turns to drugs.  

Miller’s singing was the biggest flaw of this album, as there were stretches where his voice would crack, which can be a stop gap in fully appreciating the project. The deliberate slurring of words can be grating at times. While it’s understandable since he goes for a genuine aesthetic, his lack of vocal range comes off as a tad amateur. Some of the most powerful moments in the album are dampened by this aspect.  

“Circles” is a strong sendoff for one of the most beloved artists of the 2010s. It’s a meditation on the journey towards redeeming oneself and the struggles that come with it. The major through line of the album is coming to terms with one’s past trauma and failures. The content also serves as commentary on the opioid crisis. Miller waxing poetic about his struggles with lean addiction is a sober depiction of the pain caused by it. Despite the dark subject matter, “Circles” in its overall essence is comfort food in audio form.

Photo: Nicolas Volcker (Licenced Under CC BY-SA 2.0)