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Mac Miller: Rise of a Star

The Rise of a Star.

Born Malcolm McCormick, the Pittsburgh native was drawn to music from an early age; learning how to play multiple instruments by age six. Despite his natural ability to play "traditional" music, McCormick was obsessed with rap music. He spent any available free time writing early iterations of the rhymes that would propel him into success.

McCormick began his career as an underground, battle rapper, under the pseudonym, "Easy (EZ) Mac", later changing it to Mac Miller, relinquishing it to a Canadian rapper performing under the same name. Before changing his name, Miller released his first mixtape entitled, But my Mackin' ain't easy, at the age of fifteen. Mac's inaugural release was followed up by two more independently released mixtapes, The Jukebox: Prelude to Class Clown and The High Life. The success of the three projects garnered the interest of record label Rostrum Records, home of fellow Pittsburgh rapper, Wiz Khalifa. Soon after signing with Rostrum, Miller released his breakthrough mixtape, K.I.D.S (Kicking.Incredibly.Dope.Shit). The success of the tape earned him a spot on the crowded XXL 2011 freshman class, alongside major artists, Kendrick Lamar and Meek Mill. That same year, attempting to capitalize off the hype surrounding the success of K.I.D.S, Mac released his fifth mixtape, Best Day Ever, best known for the regrettable track "Donald Trump'' and the EP, On and On and Beyond. Gaining serious acclaim, Mac released his debut studio album, Blue Slide Park. The album received widespread commercial success, charting at number one on Billboard's top 100. Critically, it was received with at best, mixed reviews. Pitchfork Magazine, infamously gave it an abysmal 1.0 out of 10 rating, doubling down on their dislike by calling Miller a “bland Wiz Khalifa''.

The Transition.

The release of mixtape number seven, Macadelic, came only four months after the Blue Slide Flop. This release and subsequent tour marked several key moments in the reshaping of who Mac Miller would become.

Macadelic was a musical intersection; a blended representation of the past and the future. Mac was evolving and moving away from the Frat Rap designation, a subgenre of rap, including the Asher Roth's of rap, entertaining but limited in skill and superficial in content. He was becoming more introspective, abstract, and pessimistic. Macadelic illustrates this intertwining of worlds not only through the lyrical content; but through the featured artist. One feature included on this mixtape was fellow 2011 XXL freshman, Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick performs on the track ‘Fight this Feeling’, and true to form brings a depth of lyricism that Mac was nearly able to match. The track ‘Lucky ass bitch’ featuring Juicy J of the Three 6 Mafia, is defined by its bravado and braggadocious tone, a manifestation of the stereotype of what it means to be a rapper. The track featuring Lil Wayne, ‘The question’, manifests itself in the way that their respective careers were heading at the time. Lil Wayne was just over his peak popularity and heading downward; fittingly, his verse was far removed from his best work, lazy and littered with his perfected cheesy one-liners. Conversely, Mac put together a verse with depth, but also remained congruent with the content of Wayne’s verse. While not the most memorable song, Mac was able to show his ability to outperform one of the most notable rappers of the time. The sum of these three songs displayed not only a growth in skill but an ability to convey pensive and complex thought through his music.

Just as this mixtape was a musical crossroads, so too was Mac’s personal life. In 2012, Miller was on tour to promote the Macadelic, during which Mac was in mental turmoil. See, Blue Slide Park didn’t just flop, it drew heavy criticism, much of which was aimed at Mac directly. Personal attacks levied against a teenager, trying to live out his dream, are deep cuts. Troubled by the criticism, the stress began to mount as Mac attempted to validate himself. The weight of the stress weighing on Miller began to manifest somatically in the forms of insomnia and depression, forming an unstable base incapable of supporting Miller’s psyche. Although a frequent marijuana user since his teenage years, Miller began his journey into the haze when he was prescribed promethazine to promote sleep. Promethazine usage quickly evolved from a medicinal tool he would use as a filler for the void left between the heights of the stress and the depths of depression, a support beam, a crutch. The natural progression was an indulgence in a Texas-born cocktail, known as lean. Lean is a potent elixir that uses promethazine as the base; traditionally, it is paired with the opiate codeine, hard candy, usually Jolly Ranchers, and a soda such as Sprite. Variations include the addition of alcohol. Miller quickly became dependent on this drink as self-medication to manage his mental state. In an interview with Complex Magazine, Mac admitted that his usage of lean in 2012 was so intense that he was always “fucked up” and that “ his friends couldn’t look at him the same”. According to the magazine, Mac attempted to quit lean many times in 2012, eventually succeeding in November of that year. This period coincided with Miller’s relocation from his native Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, setting in motion the forging of friendships that would influence his more abstract and creative projects.

Mac Miller, Thomas, and The Larrys have a prolific 2013.

Although Mac was able to break his lean habit, it was largely in part to it being replaced by daily cocaine use to deal with his depression. The habitual substance use did not stop the move to Los Angeles from opening many doors for the rapper. The success of Macadelic paved the way for a hectic 2013. Early in the spring of 2013, Mac formed the label REMember, which focused on giving a platform to Pittsburgh artists to have their music introduced to the public; in 2014 the label would later be acquired, retaining its name, by Warner Brothers for ten million dollars.

As his popularity was growing amongst fans of the genre; in just a few months, his influence was already being felt in the California Hip-Hop scene. Miller quickly formed connections with the big four rappers of the Los Angeles based Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE). One of these entertainers being former collaborator Kendrick Lamar. The other three artists, Jay Electronica, Ab-Soul, and Schoolboy Q, would all be featured on his upcoming sophomore album. Ab-soul and Schoolboy Q would collaborate on several tracks over the upcoming years. Schoolboy Q and Mac would become very close friends, regularly spending time together outside of the music.

Miller also forged a connection with members of Odd future at the height of their popularity. He worked with several of the label's artists; including Tyler the Creator, Domo Genesis, and Earl Sweatshirt. The latter of which he would grow closest with, and would regularly host him at his home recording studio, featured in the 2013 six-episode MTV 2 reality series, Mac Miller and the Most Dope Family. This would lead to Earl and Mac exchanging verses on each other's albums; and incidentally led to the discovery of another prominent recording artist, Vince Staples. Vince and Earl had been working together since they were teenagers, rapping together on the Earl Sweatshirt horrorcore mixtape, Earl. That friendship carried through into adulthood. Earl introduced Vince to Mac; according to an interview with Vince in Rolling Stone, “Earl made me go over to his house”. “Basically he asked me,'' Why you not making music?” Vince continues to say the other producers weren’t giving him any good beats. Vince describes the following scene, “Two days later, he picked me up from the ghetto, windows down, a dent in his car. He wasn’t even trippin’”. Vince explains how he “doesn’t have many friends in hip hop, but he became one of my best friends”. The studio sessions would lead to the third full-length installment released under one of Mac’s Larry personas.

In November of 2012, Miller released the EP You, a jazz-infused and rap-less project, under the alias of Larry Lovestein and the Velvet Revival. This was a key date in the birth of Mac’s experimental and creative ability beginning to flourish. This was a new era for Mac Miller; the era of a complete artist. Miller now producing under the name Larry Fisherman, released Run-on Sentences Vol 1, a thirty-two-minute collection of instrumental tracks, in the spring of 2013. This release was proof of his ability to create quality beats and was the precursor to many collaborations with well-known artists. Miller can be seen comically discussing the Larry alter egos in a scene from his MTV 2 reality show, describing the background and personality of each iteration of Larry.

Late June saw one of the wildest three day stretches for Miller/Fisherman. On June 18th, Miller released his sophomore album Watching Movies With the Sound Off. This album was well-received by critics and by far the most abstract and experimental project to date. This album featured prominent artists including Tyler the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Action Bronson, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, and Jay Electronica. The album was praised for its psychedelic production, aided by L. Fisherman, Flying Lotus, Clams Casino, Diplo, and close friend Earl Sweatshirt under his production name randomblackdude. Mac would not let this collection of superior beats go to waste. WMWTSO displayed Mac masterfully weaving together truth-based, self-deprecating sentiments into complex rhyme schemes and psychedelic and winding metaphors. The first two bars by Miller on this album are “But me, I'm still trapped inside my head. It kinda feel like it's a purgatory”. These two lines set the tone for the album; as well as establishing the rapper’s mindstate at the time of recording. Further exemplified on the track “Red Dot Music”, Mac spits the line “Got a double cup of Draino, with soda for the flavor”, a line that comes across as a playful yet blunt nod to his past issues with lean, that has an air of truth, as it acknowledges his depression and coinciding suicidal ideations and musing about death. “I Am Who Am: Killing Time” is a standout track on this album, notable for its slow and ethereal beat and symmetrical verses, as many lines in the second verse expand or make reference to those of the first. Overall, the album was well-received by critics, earning a 7.0 from Pitchfork Magazine. In the immediate wake of his solo release, on June 20th, the studio sessions with Vince Staples came to fruition, with the release of the mixtape Stolen Youth. The tape was produced entirely by alter ego Larry Fisherman and performed by Vince Staples. This project was lauded for Vince’s storytelling and intensity and Larry F.’s prowess behind the production board, earned a 7.6 rating from Pitchfork and HipHopDX gave it the designation of “Free Album”, the highest praise they give to a mixtape. The success of these releases was responsible for another significant day in the life of Mac Miller; the presentation of the key to the city of Pittsburgh, a traditionally high honor given to esteemed members of a community. This was in the days preceding his next project.

Unbeknownst to fans, over these last two releases, Mac had been slowly introducing a new character. The opening voicework on WMWTSO features an auto-tuned, pitched-up voice giving both the opening thoughts to the album, as well as the closing lines to the first track of Stolen Youth. This new character was fully unveiled on Halloween 2013 when Miller released the mixtape, Delusional Thomas. This tape is credited to Thomas, written by Mac Miller, and produced by Larry Fisherman. The Delusional Thomas character allowed Mac the chance to dip his hands into the genre of horrorcore. The mixtape features violent and aggressive lyrics layered over bass-driven yet nuanced beats. At times D.T plays like a noncanonical sequel to WMWTSO. This is strictly a personal theory, but the lyric from the “Star Room” referring to being “trapped inside my head” comes immediately after Thomas speaks, and might be Miller suppressing the thought of Thomas. Either way, this drastically different style did not see a loss of the intricacy of the rhymes. When asked about this in an interview by Vice, Mac states “ I used to rhyme like (miller mashes together three multisyllabic words). Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. I just love creating characters. People are multidimensional". Something of note is track ten, “My grandpa used to carry a flask”. This song, like the mixtape, is credited to Delusional Thomas, featuring Mac Miller, produced by Larry Fisherman, and all three make their presence known. The beat carries the familiar yet distinctive style of a Fisherman production. The vocals, however, are the most interesting thing on this track. It sees Miller perform both characters, with two distinct styles. Mac seamlessly transitions between the dissociated delusions that are delivered through choppy and horror laced lines, and his typical metaphorical and lazily smooth delivery. There is a point in the song where the two characters deliver one bar at a time in response to the other, eventually, there is an overlap in the two voices. This furthers the illusion of two speakers but also serves to show a brief merging of thoughts before they cleve once again. While this is an impressive display of artistry by Mac, it feels almost emblematic of the fractures in his psyche, perpetuated by his continued drug use during this period.

The end piece to this year was the December release of the live album, “Live from Space''. This was a live recording of his Space Migration Tour. 2013 has to be considered one of the most productive years ever in music: one reality show, three mixtapes, two albums, one tour, and the creation of a record label.

Candid Confessions. Honesty. And a Transcendent Masterpiece.

In May of 2014, Mac Miller released his tenth solo mixtape, Faces, a twenty-four track masterpiece; defined by its brutal self-realization, and self-awareness. An honest open letter to himself about his struggles with substance abuse, and the inability or lack of desire to make changes. Faces is unapologetically honest, as it conveys Mac’s sense of impending doom. It is overflowing with lines that in retrospect seem prophetic, even if self-fulfilled. The tape opens with Mac repeating the line “I should have died already” three times, going on to say, “It could all end right now. I’ve never been so ready”. In ``Here We Go”, Mac acknowledges the effect drug use has on his self-perception, “Cocaine ether creates a strange creature”. Other lines that depict the rapper’s fragile mindstate include: “I’m the only suicidal motherfucker with a smile on” - “Malibu”, “A drug habit like Phillip Hoffman will probably put me in a coffin”, - “What do you do?”, “I’m more than I think of myself, I really have to be & Shame my tragedy, my masterpiece” - “Funeral”, “Suppose I’ll die alone of an overdose of some sort” - “San Francisco”, and “If by chance this is my grand finale, - I’m a bit surprised I’m even still alive. Mixing uppers and downers practically suicide, and The world will be just fine without me'' - “Grand Finale”. Mac Miller was seemingly at peace with his own mortality. On a full playthrough of the mixtape, it maps out a vicious circle of mental illness and substance abuse to cope, the manic high energy and ensuing personal mistakes, and the eventual crash. This pattern of behavior created a feedback loop that Miller was fully aware he was trapped inside. This mixtape of journal-esque entries was well received for its honesty, earning it a 7.3 from Pitchfork magazine.

The followup to Faces came after “Mac had gotten relatively sober, no longer a daily user. He detoxed at his good friend and music legend, Rick Rubins house” according to the GQ interview with the performer. In September of 2015, the third studio album “GO:OD AM” was released. It was the most upbeat project Mac had been a part of in years. He was described as being more optimistic than he had been in recent years. Even with Mac’s progress, he was still fixated on his mortality, evidenced on the track “GodSpeed / A Perfect Circle”, where he slurs through lines like “ I wash these pills down with liquor, and fall. Leave it to me, I do enough for us all and the ever somber line They don’t want to see me OD and have to talk to my mother. Tell her they coulda done more to help me”. In “Brand New” the line “To everyone who sell me drugs: don’t mix it with that bullshit, I’m hoping not to join the 27 club” is cutting upon every listen. The mostly upbeat energy, without losing the integrity of his music, helped the album to earn another Pitchfork rating of 7.3. Later this year Larry Fish would release another collection of instrumentals, “Run-on Sentences Vol 2”.

Hooked on Sonics and Pseudo-Tonics.

Nearly a year to the day after GOOD AM was released, Miller presented studio album number four, “The Divine Feminine”. This album marked several key moments in the musician’s career. The first was the continued evolution of his music; this album was a fusion of hip hop, r&b, funk, and jazz, paving the way sonically, for future releases. This album was developed with love and respect for the women in his life, in all roles, romantic and familial alike. In an interview with Complex Magazine, Mac includes the universe as one of the divine. Saying that “treating the world how you’re supposed to treat a female is awesome.” Mac continues to share his love for ‘Mother Earth’ by referring to it as “ a giant playground” and “loving to be in the sunshine. This is a starkly different Mac Miller from the one that lived in the dark home studio making endless records, tapes, and albums over the past few years. At the time of the referenced complex interview, Mac was 61 days sober and had been publicly dating Ariana Grande since August of 2016, a month before the interview. Around this time in a documentary-style interview with The FADER called “Stopped Making Excuses”, Miller describes not liking to be sober, despite remaining so at the time. He continues on to say “You start doing drugs. Then you get a lot of money and you can buy all the drugs``. This sobriety allowed the relationship with Ariana to flourish, although it was wildly suggested that the Divine Feminine was entirely about her, per Grande, the only song that was about her was Cinderella. “The Divine Feminine” was very well received scoring a 7.8 from Pitchfork.

Mac’s sobriety was short-lived and became a major point of contention in his relationship with Grande. The two would announce their separation in May of 2018. This was the first event setting in motion a tragic spiral. Just days after the split Miller was involved in a drunk driving accident, where he crashed his Mercedes into a pole, and fled the scene. Police identified the vehicle and arrested Miller at his home; he was later released on bail.

Once again, Mac found himself back inside his purgatory; his feedback loop. The imagery surrounding the August 3 album, entitled Swimming embodied this concept. The second single and fifth track on the project, “Self Care” had an accompanying music video epitomizing this cycle. The video opens with Miller lying in a plywood casket, covered in dirt. Mac looks unfazed in his situation; taking the time to smoke a cigarette before addressing his situation. Mac proceeds to break his way out of the coffin and dig his way out through the dirt. Now standing atop the mound of dirt, dusting himself off in a triumphant manner. As Mac goes to take a step down the hill, an explosion happens in the background, knocking him back down. The video is an exemplar metaphor for the life of Mac Miller. The casket represents the severity of his substance dependence. His reserved action was the resignation and awareness that habitual patterns had put him in this position, with a self-perceived feeling of alienation, and he would need to care for himself. The escape from the burden weighing him down and the restoration of clarity; hope. Finally, the explosion is representative of relapse and the ultimate and untimely fate, not dissimilar to the themes of the closing track to Faces, featuring the lyric, “Slow it down, we goin’ out with a BANG. Are you ready for the fireworks?” Whether they were ready or not, fans of Mac Miller would need to be.

Ascension. Funeral. Apparition. Grand Finale.

On September 7, 2018, only a month after the release of “Swimming”, Malcolm McCormick was pronounced dead in his Studio City home. His death was ruled as an “accidental overdose”. Toxicology reports stated that Malcolm had suffered from the mixed drug toxicity of cocaine, fentanyl, and alcohol. The fentanyl was introduced into Mccormick’s system in the form of counterfeit oxycodone. Three men were arrested in connection to the transaction and were indicted on multiple charges, including the death of McCormick, and are currently awaiting trial.

The details surrounding his death were seemingly manifestations of his music. From the “mixing of uppers and downers”, references to “dying alone of an overdose”, pleas to his dealers not to “mix it with that bullshit, I’m hoping not to join the 27 club”, and finally one of the most somber and prophetic of all, from the album released one month prior, “Like September, I fall”.

Mac Miller was not just a rapper. For many of us, he was a mirror; a reflection of our growth, our struggles, and our pain. He was brutally honest with himself, forcing us to be the same. The internet is brimming with messageboards crediting Miller and his music with saving their life. His passing stunned his fans and contemporary artists alike. The outcry of support and well wishes show that even through his languid mental state, he was always willing to help and elevate his peers. This support was never more evident than when a handful of singles began to leak, granting comfort to fans. These tracks were marked by their melodically smooth, calm, and airy beats. The best example came in the summer of 2019, with the leaked, unfinished version of “Good News”.This song left the listener with an ache in their gut, while simultaneously leaving them with a sense of comfort. Comfort in the idea that Mac was okay; that he was at peace, and he wanted that feeling for his fans. He was seemingly sending a message, a reminder that “The world will be just fine without me”.

On January 8, 2020, Mccormick’s family announced an upcoming posthumous album. The posthumous album, Circles would be released nine days later. At the time of his death, Mac was deep into the creation of Circles with producer Jon Brion. This album was intended to be a partnering album to Swimming, that would contrast each other in both style and tone. The jazz-infused lounge music found on Swimming, paired with the paced and softly spoken lyrics of Circles, categorized in the aptly named genre of neo (new) soul, would pair to create the completed concept of Swimming in Circles. Circles plays as a therapeutic collection of thought exercises used to take stock of his own life, simultaneously allowing the listener to take solace in the melancholic hopefulness, in which Miller seemed to be thriving. Circles is an emotionally charged and inwardly winding saga. The album’s title track opens with the lines, “Well, this is what it looks like, just before you fall”, yet by the end of Circles, Mac had made the transition to a feeling of stability, noted by the start of the closing track “Once a Day” where Miller reverses the line previous line, singing “Once a day I rise”. Displaying an acknowledgment of the demons present in his life, and the attempts he made to move toward growth. The willingness to examine himself, shown in lines like, “I cannot be changed. I cannot be changed no, Trust me I’ve tried. I just end up right at the start of the line. Drawing Circles.” give the feeling that this was an authentically Mac project. Self-aware to the point of making his final songs feel like a personal goodbye, tailored to the needs of each fan. On September 7, 2018, Malcolm Mccormick was finally freed of his Circle.



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