It’s been a minute since Mac Miller came on the scene with 2011’s frat-rap single, “Donald Trump.” And in those intervening years, the MC-producer lost his high-pitched, Pittsburgh-accented voice and lower case snark, and moved to the duskily epic tones of “Watching Movies with the Sound Off” (2013) with its psych-stoned screeds and slurry voices, before winding up at 2016’s “The Divine Feminine.”
With Miller woozily croon-rapping his message of love, and then-paramour Ariana Grande on its receiving end, “The Divine Feminine” was his “I Want You” on the Marvin Gaye meter — a tenderly clear-headed look at old-fashioned romance accompanied by elements of poignant, spare, synth-phonic soul within its crevices.
Keeping with that Gaye-scale, “Swimming,” is Miller’s “Here, My Dear,” an odd, languid, post-break-up album (farewell, Ariana) that expresses its feelings in soulful gulps and mumbles. Guided by Miller’s slow, minimalist, spacey soundscapes, “Swimming” is only occasionally punctuated by the percolating bass lines (for instance: “What’s The Use”), or overt hip-hop rhythmic underpinnings of his past, and often comes across as dreamily jazzy as Frank Ocean’s floating “Channel Orange.”
What Miller’s fifth solo album has at its ready is a Zen-like calm when it comes to its lyrics, a mix of the smartly nihilistic, the pragmatically cheerful and a glad-to-be-unhappy lyrical signature that’s irresistible in its sourness. “Every day I wake up and breathe / I don’t have it all, but that’s all right with me,” Miller croon-cackles on “2009,” while accompanied by lush, sparse keyboards and dry skin finger snaps.
Who sings about being just OK at a time when the extremes of money, fame, racism and misogyny are de rigueur within hip-hop’s framework? Mac Miller does, and he makes a commonplace emotional reaction as “eh” sound utterly crucial.
Continuing along in sing-song-rap-moan, Miller touches upon affairs of the heart with the pained, but weirdly cocksure, “Hurt Feelings,” and its “you don’t know what you’re missing” refrain. The eternal emptiness within is given soft, swift dispatch on “Come Back to Earth” where one can hear a certain fragility and frankness to Miller when he sings, “Sunshine don’t feel right… I’ll do anything for a way out.” It’s uneasy and discomforting.
Yet, on the humming “Self Care,” co-written by Dev Hynes of Blood Orange, Miller’s repetitious run at the phrase “Hell yeah, we gonna be all right” seems to be a self-proclamation of survival by any psychic means necessary. “I got all the time in the world.”
Referencing a life once filled with drug-draining ups-and-down, “Come Back to Earth” lays out the album’s basic principle in Hemingway-like severity when he says, “I was drowning, now I’m swimming.” While the drone of “So It Goes,” offers but one message.
It’s in Miller’s melodious baritone, stark mantra flow that “Swimming” is most effective — a simple, stately, poetic autobiography. Maybe for a guy healing from a busted two-year relationship, being OK is alright.