For someone who was 26 years old and just hitting his peak when he died Sept. 7, rapper and producer Mac Miller had already managed to connect, network and collaborate with an incredible number of peers, as proven by the outpouring of affection by an all-star turnout — from Chance the Rapper (above) to John Mayer — during “Mac Miller: A Celebration of Life,” a tribute to the late and deeply lamented star at L.A.’s Greek Theatre Halloween night.
Deep into the three-hour show, a video selection was shown featuring musicians, many older and more experienced than Miller, talking about things he had given them. There was hip-hop producer DJ Premier, speaking of the first time they met when Miller asked to be shown the booth where rappers Biggie Smalls, Guru, Jay-Z and others had all stood at the mic. Miller wanted to sit there with the lights down and breathe the air of greatness. There was DJ Jazzy Jeff, thanking Miller for insights the younger man had given the older one. Lil Wayne and Childish Gambino weighed in with taped appreciations. And there was Joey Bada$$ talking about how long he had been listening to Miller — “since I was 15, 16,” the 23-year-old rapper said with amazement. It seemed like he had grown up with Miller, which is how it seemed to many of his fans present at the Greek.
The amazing thing about this video and about the whole evening was the sincerity flowing forward. People kept thanking Miller for things he’d said, favors he’d done, ideas he shared. They spoke easily and generously across racial and generational lines about how he mattered, and the whole show suggested how many different kinds of people Miller touched.
It also showed how many different people Miller was, himself. For a 26-year-old white kid from Pittsburgh, Miller, whose real name was Malcolm James McCormick, sure had a lot of different sides. He cut noisy freestyles with Earl Sweatshirt, grim street bangers with Action Bronson and nearly spiritual uplift with Miguel, all of whom appeared at the Greek.
After Miller was found dead in his Southern California home in September (of “a suspected drug overdose”; almost two months later, toxicology results have not been released), an emotional outpouring led to this celebration and benefit for the Mac Miller Circles Fund, newly formed by Miller’s family and the Pittsburgh Foundation to support youth arts and community-building programs.
The night began with Miller’s childhood friend Dylan Reynolds, playing an acoustic version of Miller’s “Come Back to Earth,” from his recent album “Swimming.” “I’ll do anything, for a way out of my head,” Reynolds sang. And in many ways the rest of the evening was about various kinds of escape: first, the escape from the intense pressure and challenges Miller frequently wrote about, and which he seemed to possibly be moving past on “Swimming” — then, the escape from grief that delivered many of his fans to the Greek, and which they now needed to be delivered from.
By the time Ty Dolla $ign came to the stage, singing the 2016 Miller hit on which he appeared, “Cinderella,” before teaming with Chevy Woods on Miller’s 2010 “Paper Route,” escape rained down. It was pure catharsis to watch Dolla $ign play the part of rock star, guitars wailing, jumping into the crowd and pushing through fans wearing Halloween costumes and pajamas. The message was: If it’s okay to grieve, it’s okay to party, too.
The second half of the evening featured three or four celebratory peaks. There was Anderson .Paak describing working with Miller on “Dang!” and then getting behind the drum kit to play what became his first hit. And John Mayer performed Miller’s recent “Small Worlds,” a pocket-sized miracle of a song about humility and struggling to find a foothold in life.
It was a night where egos remained in check, where nobody got more than three songs, and where everything was bound together by a supple and steady house band featuring two drummers, two keyboards and assorted others whose pulse flowed like the Cuyahoga as they made their way from strip-club grind to blues and prog-soul.
And gospel: near the end, Chance the Rapper emerged to build grief into a kingdom. He had a look in his eye, and he stomped out his own “Blessings,” releasing a fearsome “Good gahhd,” and then leaping into “Work Out,” a song about putting the past behind you. He wanted to get as much done as possible in his short space. The all-business manner, the charisma he exuded: this was the gravity that Miller was heading toward in his last year, and might have one day achieved, a belief in himself that jumped out at the listener.
These kind of tribute shows featuring a long string of performers rarely stick their landing: there are so many pieces to fit together, and every performer has already traced an emotional arc in whatever time they had, making it hard to build to a satisfying resolution. After three hours of performances attempting to give Miller his due in quick relief (with SZA, Vince Staples, Thundercat, Schoolboy Q and Domo Genesis among the other guests), it was almost a relief to finish up with Travis Scott, who rasped that “Mac is watching over us, he’s going to keep us safe and strong…” and then have the performers come onto the stage, along with Miller’s parents, everybody looking at each other in tears. In an evening of honest emotion, the lack of resolution was one final bit of truth.