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Mac Miller, 1992-2018

Remembering the restless, resilient rapper who died Friday at the age of 26

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The single most illuminating Mac Miller song to listen to today — upon news of the restless, fearless, embattled but resilient rapper’s death, at 26 — is called “2009.” It is also the hardest Mac Miller song to listen to today.

Born Malcolm James McCormick in Pittsburgh in 1992, Miller put out Swimming, his fifth album and the fifth to go top five on the Billboard album chart, in early August; “2009” is the penultimate track and startling comedown, buoyed by strings and delicate piano, a queasy power ballad and tender love letter to what seemed to be a new, calmer, stabler version of himself. (He brought along the string quartet for his charmingly loose Tiny Desk Concert that same month.) “I don’t need to lie no more,” the chorus begins, Miller’s singing voice frail and hushed and utterly convincing. “Nowadays all I do is shine / Take a breath and ease my mind.” His half-rapped verses alternate contentment (“Every day I wake up and breathe / I don’t have it all but that’s alright with me”) with hints of the struggle to keep that contentment (“Sometimes I wish I took a simpler route / Instead of havin’ demons that’s as big as my house”). He sounds exhausted. He sounds relieved. He sounds at peace, but the sort of peace that requires years of turmoil to achieve. He sounds decades older than 26.

The song is an uneasy nod to the time right before Miller became famous. His 2010 mixtape K.I.D.S. (a.k.a. Kickin’ Incredibly Dope Shit) was a minor underground sensation, and his 2011 debut album, Blue Slide Park, was a major mainstream sensation, debuting at no. 1 on the Billboard chart, the first independently distributed album to do so in 16 years. That record inspired vicious reviews and a palpable sense of skepticism — 2009 was also the year of the Asher Roth novelty hit “I Love College,” icky proof that white rappers could still enjoy a quick path to pop success, but could just as swiftly lapse into ruinous self-parody.

But Miller quickly got weirder, and harder to dismiss as a panderer. He had more sonic kinship with the likes of Odd Future than any boldface pop stars. By 2013 he was holed up in an L.A. mansion, fretting that he couldn’t find his challenging sophomore album, Watching Movies With the Sound Off, in Target (it debuted at no. 3 anyway), and palling around with the likes of Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples, Ab-Soul, and Schoolboy Q. Guys with better critical reps (and a fraction of the sales) but a shared sense of unease and adventure. Other artists, from Wiz Khalifa to Chance the Rapper, really took to him, in an abnormally genuine-seeming way.

Another very difficult thing to revisit is The Fader’s 2016 documentary Stopped Making Excuses, particularly studio footage from 2012 in which French Montana is visibly and vocally alarmed at Miller’s lean intake. “Overdosing is just not cool,” Miller concedes, looking back on that period. “There’s no legendary romance. You don’t go down in history because you overdosed. You just die.”

That drug use came to overshadow Miller’s two-year romance with Ariana Grande, which energized his 2016 album The Divine Feminine but made him a tabloid target; shortly after their breakup earlier this year, he was arrested for DUI after fleeing the scene of an accident in the San Fernando Valley. But in the run-up to Swimming — which boasted a typically impressive and forward-looking guest list, from Thundercat to J. Cole, Dev Hynes to Syd — Miller was thoughtful and optimistic, still struggling but better able to manage it, or at least accept it. “I really wouldn’t want just happiness,” he told Vulture’s Craig Jenkins in a piece posted just this week. “And I don’t want just sadness either. I don’t want to be depressed. I want to be able to have good days and bad days. … I can’t imagine not waking up sometimes and being like, ‘I don’t feel like doing shit.’ And then having days where you wake up and you feel on top of the world.”

Rap has lost several of its most promising young stars in the past year, from Lil Peep to Fredo Santana to the deeply troubling but massively influential XXXTentacion. Compared to the burgeoning SoundCloud rap generation, Miller already felt like a veteran. But he could rap like an embattled elder statesman while still flaunting the curiosity and abandon of a teenager, a searching griminess reflected in both his gnarled rhymes and his forward-looking production. He was cooler than he looked, and more daring than he had to be. This earned him an uncommon amount of respect from some uncommon people.

That was Jay-Z, in the midst of a 2017 tweetstorm calling out 90 or so of his favorite rappers. The most memorable line from that outburst was definitely “Mac Miller nice too though.” Miller had that tweet blown up and mounted on his wall. He earned it. He’d earned far more than skeptics would’ve guessed back in 2009. And it felt like he had enough ambition to keep that unlikely winning streak going forever.