I learned that Mac Miller died while I was walking back from a football game one year ago. I don’t remember who played, what day it was or who I went with. But I remember that moment. “RIP MAC MILLER” was spray-painted in light blue on a slab of wood against a frat house. I remember thinking it was probably a loss that Mac Miller died, that he probably had a lot of potential moving forward — but not much beyond that. Not to pull a Pitchfork, but it was hard to envision Miller as anything beyond a frat-boy icon. I listened to half of his legendary debut album Blue Slide Park years ago in middle school after listening to his feature with Ariana Grande on “The Way,” but I disliked it and never revisited him until the night of his passing when I got back to my dorm room.
Don’t get me wrong — I still despise Blue Slide Park. The thing with Mac, the thing I hadn’t realized until years later, was that he was an ever-evolving artist, one who reinvented himself with every album. Defined by an artistry that never quite fit into a genre, to a common clique of people, Miller continuously shed the party-rap persona until his discography was spattered with jazzy beats and despondent lyricism. This was his magnum opus, Swimming. Following his break up with Grande, an infamous DUI and terrifying dive into substance abuse, Swimming was placed at the center of his life as a promise to stay afloat among the chaos.
The songs shift effortlessly from one to the other in the same fuzzy, contemplative packaging. Never precisely sad or depressing, the album is imbued with an exasperated hope, one that searches when the struggle seems lost. Did this haziness make distinctions between the beginning and end of songs harder to identify? Yes, just as much as it made some songs not worth listening to individually. Swimming is admittedly defined by its danceable highlights like “Ladders” and “What’s the Use?” But as a concept album, it stands among the most cohesive I’ve ever listened to. Its message to maintain a semblance of hope and self-improvement despite the jarring reality of addiction, depression and heartbreak is at the forefront, radiating lyrically as well as sonically. It might get a bit stale at times, but I couldn't help but immerse myself into the experience the first time I listened. Like it or not Miller is a master at conveying how he feels through music. Not a single day has gone by since my first listen that I haven’t listened to a track from Swimming.
This is why it was such a travesty that he passed away. He had a lot more to live for at 26 years old. This is not only apparent sonically in the evolution of his musical stylings, but also within his thematic musings as well. “I had a plan to change, you can’t stand the rain / Little delay, but I came and you’re cool with it / I don’t trip, flip or lose my grip / And I don’t know it all but I do know this / Before you know me better know yourself / I’ve been in this shit so long that it don’t smell,” he raps in “Ladders.” Even his social media embodies much the same themes, taking a more somber and inspirational turn those last few months of his life. In the place of his general, offbeat humor, one of his last tweets reads “I just wanna go on tour.”
His death now stands as a cruel twist of irony to fans who adored him — he had a plan to get better, to make more music, but it’s impossible now. A lot of this is translated in the memory of him. His “Self Care” music video depicting him escaping a coffin despite being buried alive, an homage to “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” is jarring foreshadowing for a song with the lyrics “Swear the height be too tall (Yeah) / So like September I fall.”
Like many artists who have passed young before him, Mac Miller has been immortalized in the gestures of fans and other artists alike. As the anniversary of his death approaches, we’ve witnessed multiple tributes in his honor, some upcoming ones in cities from New Orleans on the seventh to the iconic Blue Slide Park itself in Pittsburgh. Artists like Childish Gambino, Anderson Paak, Ty Dollar $ign, Thundercat and many more have honored him in performances, acknowledging not only deft musical stylings but his humanity. “He was the sweetest guy, he was so nice,” Gambino said as he cut his performance of “Riot” short during a Chicago performance last year.
However, no other artist has honored Miller’s memory the way ex-girlfriend Ariana Grande has, symbolically donning a pale blue Zac Posen Cinderella gown at this year’s Grammy Awards and subsequently posting a rant on Twitter lamenting Miller’s loss for Best Album. Her “Thank U, Next” album is defined by her grieving for Miller, from sly lyrics that direct back to her late ex’s music to her description of it as a healing project at a point in her life in which she describes as “so drunk and so sad.” Homages to Miller are even scattered throughout her most recent tour. A stop at Pittsburgh was introduced with Miller’s music playing before Grande’s appearance, a seat in his honor near the front and Grande struggling to keep it together as she sang songs written about him.
As the anniversary of his death approaches, Miller’s name is resurfacing across news and the Internet. From the surge of tweets mourning him, unreleased tracks put out in his honor and tributes in cities across the US, his memory hasn’t evaded fans and friends alike. It’ll be one year since Mac Miller has passed away, yet his legacy makes it feel like he never left.