If you were cynical, you might think releasing a posthumous, pieced-together Mac Miller album 16 months after his passing from an accidental drug overdose would be just one more part of the current death march of releases from deceased young rappers with pleadingly emotive lyrics and sonically rock-ist edges.
Like late Soundcloud emo-rappers such as Lil Peep (“Everybody’s Everything”) and XXXTentacion (“Bad Vibes Forever”), Miller’s “Circles” was completed with the assistance of producers, and capitalizes on the hallmarks of the artist’s most recent work such as soft croon-rapping, live jazzy instrumentation and a complex, more personalized lyrical context.
But, this is Mac Miller, the man who gave complicated earnestness in hip-hop a yearning frankness, a Beat Gen grumble and a hard, lonely romanticism when Peep and XXX were still in high school.
Go back to the rigid “Missed Calls” (from 2011’s “Blue Slide Park”), and Miller had already begun to see the pain and poignancy within interpersonal relationships (“We run into each other and it’s like we don’t even speak the same language / I guess people always going through changes / Didn’t think I would lose you once I got famous”) rather than utilize hip-hop’s usual misogynistic tropes.
And while each ensuing album delved deeper into probing, psychotropic-tinged despair and amorphically mutated psychedelic soul (see 2013’s “Watching Movies with the Sound Off” and 2014’s “Faces”), by the time he got to his boldest album to date, 2018’s “Swimming,” Miller seemed OK.
More than OK, Miller was thriving, hot-wired to climb from a hole stuffed with rumor, innuendo and messiness: a summer filled with DUIs and ex-girlfriends (Ariana Grande) calling him toxic.
“I was drowning, but now I’m swimming / Through stressful waters to relief,” he sang-spoke on that album’s title track. Though certain elements of “Swimming” portrayed Miller’s weary fragility with edgy frankness (e.g., “Come Back to Earth” and lines such as “I just need a way out of my head / I’ll do anything for a way out / Of my head”), there was a glad-to-be-unhappy nonchalance about that clinging circumstance — an existential weariness, combined with cheer, that would stick to him as it stuck to Woody Allen and Larry David. Combine that with the live instrumental feel of aquatic electro-jazz, glitch-hop and quiet math-rock and “Swimming” sounded like a way out and up, not further down.
Then Miller died in September 2018 with the promise of a bright musical and personal life, and further sessions with “Swimming” producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West) ahead of him. To be called “Circles” (bookended, the two albums could be thought of as “Swimming in Circles”), the already-started new recording would act as a continuation of the pair’s rich, full work as well as Miller’s own AA-like lyrical credos rippling with lower-case glee and tipped with cheery cynicism. Ill, but up. Not down.
Finished by Brion in accordance with how the pair started (to say nothing of Mac’s family wishes), the occasionally demo-like “Circles” is elegant and muddily crotchety, experimental, yet wildly easy on the ear.
“Don’t you put any more stress on yourself, it’s one day at a time,” Miller sing-slurs on the airy title track, a slow opening number filled with trembling vibraphones, simple guitar flits and soft cymbals, all played by Brion, with a sultry melody that’s sad, sweet and resigned at one time. It’s like the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” reimagined for Tom Waits’ shushy baby boy with lyrics such as “I drink my whiskey, you sip your wine / We’re doing well, sitting watching the world falling down its decline.”
The piano starts off drinking on “Everybody,” with a squeaking, slurring Miller ticking off what must happen to us all regarding death and love, before turning the track latter-day Beatles-ish and Ringo-rhythmic with a double tracked snare snap courtesy Brion and Tony Royster, Jr. Miller allows himself several charming vocal inflections once the Fab Four break comes in, a singing-rapping trick he continues on the next track “Woods.” While its vibe and melody cribs a lick from Dennis Edwards’ “Don’t Go Any Further,” and its lyrics could be misconstrued for maximum sadness (“Things like this aren’t built to last / I might just fade like those before me / When will you forget my past”), “Woods” finds Miller at his most soulful, slinky and clear. No sooner than he sinks to a deep low-toned rap, he bounces back, super-elastic-bubble-plastic-style, into something chirpy and high.
A subtly showy melody, something akin to a pretend Cole Porter introduction, guides the spiraling sequencers, bonging bells and placid dreaminess of “I Can See.” More platitudinal than attitudinal, Miller starts off with rushed, Drake-ish sing-songy-ness (“I need somebody to save me / Before I drive myself crazy”), only to slow to a ruminative groove that allows the singer to imagine how far he’s got to go (“But look at where you came from”).
Whether it is quieter, willowy numbers such as “Circles,” the Sound of Philadelphia-style creaminess of “Hand Me Downs,” the carnival psychedelia of “Hands” or the robo-R&B of “Complicated” and “Blue World,” what differentiates this new album from its immediate predecessor is Miller’s choice (or that of his family in tandem with Brion) to keep the proceedings uncluttered.
Where “Swimming” was brimming with session musicians such as Thundercat, Steve Lacy and John Mayer doing laps across the watery sound bed, the stripped-down affair of “Circles” is all but Brion alone with just a few accompaniments from the Revolution’s Wendy Malvoin, Soundgarden/Bowie drummer Matt Chamberlain and select friends. What this tight team does is turn “Circles” into an intimate daytime affair — a micro-boogie wonderland — as opposed to the midnight pool party of “Swimming.”
Brion, Malvoin and Chamberlain are the principles behind the plucked strings and chipper sonic vibe of “Good News.” The album’s most contagious melody — perhaps, Miller’s catchiest-ever tune — has the feel of a woozy G. Love & Special Sauce cut compressed to clomping bite-sized soul. What turns “Good News” on its head is the grouchy Miller. When he sing-mumbles the line “Spent the whole day in my head,” he sounds all but overjoyed to be an insular ponderer. “I wish I could get out my goddamned way… Good news / That’s all they want to hear / No, they don’t like it when I’m down.” There’s another similar-sounding song on “Circles,” the folksy psychedelic “Surf,” where Miller & Co. sound as if they’re chilling and baked. But the sweet “Surf” lacks the angst, the Sturm und Drang, of “Good News.”
Check out Brion on “Hand Me Downs.” While Miller tentatively makes moves toward a life beyond addiction (“All I ever needed was somebody with some reason who can keep me sane / Ever since I can remember, I been keeping it together / But I’m feeling strange”), Brion plays a one-man TSOP to Mac’s Major Harris, all with a Thom Bell-ish melody. Open arrangements such as this one allow Miller to focus on his ever more fluid vocal runs, the best experimentation that “Circles” has to offer. Even when a cut moves quickly and jarringly, Brion gives Miller ample room to breathe, as on “Complicated,” which starts out as spare, Prince-ly funk, but winds up more like Larry Blackmon’s Cameo with squelchy synths and thwacking drums that allow Miller his inner ’80s yowl.
Considering what mood and music Miller (and Brion) was heading for with “Swimming,” “Circles” makes perfect sense: a proper, meant-for-release send-off, and a swelling last will and testament. Anything released after this is just messy … you know, unless it’s great.