“Nine times out of 10 I get it wrong / That’s why I wrote this song, told myself to hold on / I can feel my fingers slippin’ in a motherfuckin’ instant I’ll be gone.”
That’s how Mac Miller began the somber final verse of “Small Worlds,” the first single from his fifth album, 2018’s Swimming. His words, strikingly honest, are haunting because Miller died of an accidental drug overdose one month after the album’s release. He was only 26. Despite its ominous qualities, the song is beautiful, featuring delicate guitar work from John Mayer and organ from composer-producer extraordinaire Jon Brion. Miller’s death has ensured that listeners will forever latch onto those words, along with many others, as an eerie foreshadowing of his fate. But Miller wasn’t preoccupied with death as much as he was trying to figure out how to live.
The fame complicated matters. Miller was a blog darling at 18, topped the Billboard 200 with an independently released debut album before 20, and had an MTV2 reality show by 21. He was in a high-profile relationship with Ariana Grande, and, shortly after they announced their split in 2018, was arrested for DUI after crashing his car and leaving the scene. He was transparent about his flaws and, throughout his career, candid about his drug use. Fame is a hell of a privilege, but life certainly isn’t easy when you live in an exquisite fishbowl by way of your career. Regardless, Miller was focused on his growth. He spoke frankly about his white privilege and used it to support black artists who might not have received the same exposure otherwise. (He invited the Internet on tour as his band in 2013. Friend and collaborator Vince Staples explicitly stated that he wouldn’t be where he is without Miller.) He earned near universal adoration from his peers due to his warmth and generosity, but also earned respect through the constant evolution of his sound. By the time Swimming was released, the Lord Finesse samples gave way to something more dazed, peculiar, and better overall. “My only goal was to continue to get better,” Miller told Rolling Stone in 2016. “That’s all I want to do.” And he did, making strides on 2013’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off, 2015’s GO:OD AM, and 2016’s The Divine Feminine. Circles, released last week, takes one last daring step forward.
Miller’s sixth album, which he was working on with Brion at the time of his death, is the sequel to Swimming—and really an extension of it. According to a statement made by Miller’s family on Instagram, Brion (whose résumé includes the scores for Magnolia and Lady Bird along with production credits for Fiona Apple, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean) completed the project based on conversations between the two. The result is a multihued canvas for Miller’s personal journey. “I feel like the album is a clear picture of somebody with those troubles who is funny and intelligent and was trying to look at them critically,” Brion told the New York Times of Miller’s “demons.” He, like many others, was searching for clarity and balance. Even if Miller felt unmoored, he wasn’t directionless, and this album is proof of that. Circles closes a loop for Miller and leaves listeners wanting more. As good as it is, and as difficult as it is to listen to at times, Circles is a snapshot of an artist who was still figuring everything out. For all his growth, Miller was still a work in progress. He was on a quest for the best version of himself and died, tragically, far too early into the journey.
Posthumous albums can be so engulfed by an artist’s death that any mention of it seems prophetic. On 2Pac’s The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (released two months after his murder) and the Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death (released two weeks after his murder), both rappers sound resigned to the fact that they weren’t long for this world. Miller addressed his mortality earlier in his career: “What Do You Do,” from his 2014 mixtape, Faces, and “Brand Name,” from GO:OD AM, are just two examples. “A drug habit like Philip Hoffman will probably put me in a coffin,” Miller says on the former, referencing actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s fatal 2014 overdose. “To everyone who sell me drugs / Don’t mix it with that bullshit, / I’m hopin’ not to join the 27 Club,” he says on the latter, a chilling directive considering the circumstances surrounding his own death just months before his 27th birthday.
As aware of an imminent end as Miller may have seemed, Circles, like Swimming, makes it clear he was trying to move forward. “Everybody,” a cover of former Love frontman Arthur Lee’s 1972 solo gem “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” comes to grips with the reality that we’re all here on borrowed time. “Everybody’s gotta live / And everybody’s gonna die / Everybody’s gotta live / I think you know the reason why,” Miller reminds everyone over pensive keys and steady percussion. It sounds grim, but the message is encouraging: Death is inevitable, so wring as much out of life as possible while you have the opportunity. It’s a song about living, and within the context of the album, it’s about forward progress.
Alas, life isn’t easy. Its many rigors can leave the young feeling old, a feeling Miller describes on “Complicated.” Progress is the goal, but sometimes he has to approach it one day at a time. “Some people say they want to live forever / That’s way too long, I’ll just get through the day,” he admits. On the entrancing “Blue World,” Miller acknowledges the challenges of the day-to-day (“This mad world done made me crazy / Might just turn around, do 180), but leaves an optimistic parting thought in the final moments: “One of these days, we’ll all get by / Don’t be afraid, don’t fall in line.” “Hand Me Downs,” mellow and subtle, finds Miller being characteristically honest about his flaws (“I made it, but I hate once I build it, I break it”) before insisting that he’s found healthy ways to cope with stress. “I’m just being honest my conscience ain’t doing bad / Because I try to minus the problems that I attract,” he raps on the final verse. It’s one of the harder songs to listen to in light of his passing.
Life was difficult for Miller at times, but he wanted everyone to know he was OK—even if he could be better. “He was trying,” Staples explained to radio host Big Boy following Miller’s death. “All you can ask is for somebody to try.” Miller took responsibility for his mistakes; that’s where “That’s on Me” fits into Circles’ narrative. It was imperative that Miller be true to himself. “If all I have to do at the end of the day is live with myself, I can figure that out,” he told Rolling Stone in 2018.
Even though music was his outlet, Miller lived in his head. While that might have helped unlock his musical potential, it also might have hamstrung him personally. Depression, anxiety, and drug use can impede progress. Certain mistakes can knock you backward. On album opener “Circles,” Miller laments the errors that placed him back “at the start of the line.” However, he spends the next 45 minutes moving ahead, gaining momentum—even in dark times—and encouraging his audience to do the same. So perhaps life isn’t a linear path, but rather a series of cycles: questions and answers, triumphs and fuck-ups, self-assurance and doubt. Growing wiser with each revolution is how you counteract inertia or best avoid the hazards. Perhaps the takeaway from Circles is that we’re all swimming in them, but that it’s a character-building exercise rather than an exercise in futility: a continuous learning process. And perhaps the lesson is to protect ourselves along the way while enjoying as much of life as possible.
Sadly, Miller died too soon. He did, however, accomplish his only goal: He got better. With Brion’s help, he created an album that indulges his quirkiest ambitions, from the hazy drag of “I Can See,” to the rush of synths on the chorus for “Woods,” to the spaced-out, Minneapolis-esque waltz of “Hands.” The primary instrument on the title track is Miller’s smoky voice, backed by soft guitar and a dash of cymbal here and there. It’s the perfect tone-setter for an album on which Miller sings more than he ever did before—a turn that seemed unlikely 10 years ago. But the deeper Miller burrowed into himself for answers, the more layered, textured, and intriguing his music became. Circles is a long way from where he began, which is heartbreaking: An artist with his dedication, ear for music, and curiosity had so much more to uncover and even more to offer.
Mac Miller didn’t survive his search for answers, but he left the world with plenty to ponder as we hang on to every word and dissect every sound.
Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.