Mac Miller: Swimming in ‘Circles’
I didn’t know who Mac Miller was until he died.
I knew he dated Ariana Grande. I knew he wrote a song about that one guy who hosted NBC’s “The Apprentice.” I knew I didn’t like Blue Slide Park when it came out. These were my thoughts as I read “RIP MAC MILLER” from a slab of ply-wood leaning on a frat house on my way back from a football game on Sept. 8, 2018. I didn’t have many more thoughts until later that night when I first listened to Swimming. I sat in my dorm room with the lights off and played it once all the way though, sorting its highlights like “Ladders” and “What’s the Use” into various playlists. I hadn't listened to an album that captured depression quite like it, and I wished I could’ve heard it at least once before Mac’s passing.
The wounded album trailed Mac’s shattered interiority following a career grounded in a seemingly high-spirited, humorous demeanor. His struggle with drug addiction and depression weren’t new topics as much as they were pillars to a notoriously fun discography. Take “Rain” from Faces: “That's a flex though, cover up the issues that I kept close / Sober I can’t deal, I’m in the corner with my head low / Runnin’ from my shadow, never ending chase / Ease the pain and the battle that’s within me / Sniff the same shit that got Whitney, the high heel depression / My temple feel the metal comin’ out the Smith & Wesson, bang / Say a prayer, leave my brains on the tile floor.” Swimming amalgamated these themes and the emotions that easily hovered under the radar and slipped past the media’s gaze. Whereas The Divine Feminine is an ode to love and togetherness, Swimming is lonesome. Swimming is stopping to catch your breath after a long jog. Mac struggled to stay afloat amid a livelihood accustomed to the support of others. Whereas sonic soulmate Ariana Grande seemingly moved on romantically with ease, Mac was emotionally and mentally stagnant.
Circles is an album designed in the same mindset of its sister Swimming. Envisioned alongside another concept album that never came to fruition (Oblivion), Circles was left nearly complete when Mac died. The early versions of the album were worked through Mac and producer Jon Brion, who took the initiative of finishing the album following Mac’s passing. “This is a complicated process that has no right answer. No clear path,” Mac’s family wrote in an Instagram post. “We simply know that it was important to Malcolm for the world to hear it.”
Circles was developed to loop back to Swimming. This idea harkens back to Swimming’s closer “So it Goes,” an eerie reference to death in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five.” “My god, it go on and on,” he raps. “Just like a circle, I go back to where I’m from.” Both albums are centered on depression and its ensuing anxieties, but Circles is a lot more optimistic, more willing to wait out the storm. On Swimming track “Come Back to Earth,” Mac raps “I just need a way out of my head / I’ll do anything for a way out of my head.” Circles responds to this predicament across multiple songs. He is “spring cleaning” in plucked single “Good News” and recognizes that “(it) is getting pretty cluttered” and hard to “clean up” the mess he’s made in his head on “Complicated.” Mac tries to clean up a lot on Circles, whether it be his head or his public image.
Circles depicts Mac as lonely, but still alongside others. He isn’t afraid to question his capacity for love on “Woods.” Produced by longtime collaborator E. Dan, Mac questions his own emotions following a rift in a relationship. “Do I, do I, do I love?,” he sings in the chorus. Mac does rap on songs like “Hand Me Downs” but the aura is loose and contemplative. With Baro as the album’s only feature in the chorus, Mac envisions a future alongside a family: “You remind me / Shit, I need to stay in line / You damn well are a great design,” Baro croons. “You, despite being an only child / Say you need more of a family ‘round / Let's turn these genes into hand me downs.”
Thematically and sonically, Circles is his most naked release. The album never breaks out into traditional rap with the exception of “Hands,” a song about negative self-destructive behaviors in the sound and style of Faces. Despite Jon Brion finishing much of the production for Circles, the aesthetic is very Mac. The lo-fi beats and soulful, jazzy glimmers gather the same energy as Mac’s Space Migration Tour with The Internet in 2013. Circles is iridescent. With a hypnotic grip on elements from Mac’s ever-evolving music style, it grooves as easily as a traditional Mac album.
Whether it be Mac laying in his grave in his final music video “Self Care,” the eerily fated prediction to “join the 27 club” on “God Speed” or his posting “So it Goes” as his last Instagram story, the writing on the wall and fatalistic undertones grip you. This is not the case with Circles. Mac’s exhaustion coats every lyric but with a subtle, gentle hope. Whereas Swimming considers living in the long term, Circles takes itself one day at a time. I think a lot back to the moment in “Complicated,” where Mac sings, “'Fore I start to think about the future / First, can I please get through a day?” a reprise to the first verse: “Some people say they want to live forever / That’s way too long, I’ll just get through today.”
Circles was a surreal release for me; I never expected myself to know the anticipation of waiting for a Mac Miller album. The circumstances were completely different, but Circles looped me back to my discovery of Swimming. I knew a lot more about Mac this time around, and I knew that this album would resonate with me, something I hadn’t expected from Swimming. Circles, as anguished and tired as it is, is a comfortably ephemeral closing to Mac Miller and the legacy he left behind. This album takes us back to the heartbreak of Swimming; we’ll never know how Mac would’ve progressed beyond this point. The one thing I do know is that there couldn’t have been a better musical send off to Mac than an album that epilogues his spirit and style the way this one does.