By Thomas Johnson, September 13 2018 —
Mac Miller played a show at MacHall in 2013. I was in first year and living in residence. Waking up to “Best Day Ever” or “Nikes On My Feet” or “Kool-Aid & Frozen Pizza” rattling through the cinder block walls was a simple fact of life, despite the fact that Watching Movies With The Sound Off, his brilliant sophomore effort, had dropped only months before. The atmosphere that night was heavy with wannabe frat boy excitement, low-grade pot and the hiss of dollar-beer cans being sucked dry from a punctured keyhole.
Those aforementioned hits, vestiges of Miller’s breakthrough days as a happy-get-stoned college rapper, followed him well after he established himself as a veritable wunderkind capable of so much more than his early resumé, like myopic critics like myself suggested.
I never went to the concert, which still eats me. Several of my friends did and they texted me to talk about it when news broke that Mac passed away last week. He stopped moving forward and now those songs have followed him as far as they could.
With his death, we can take a look without conjecture at the entirety of Mac’s career, trace the progression of his strengths and weaknesses to finality. This review is not unbiased, nor will it make any attempt to be. I’m not really sure it’s even a review. To be upfront, I really liked Swimming when it was released in mid-August, when Malcolm James McCormick was still 26, before he became forever. It’s a tight piece of work, another evolution from a (forever) young artist whose career has been predicated on distancing himself from an image unfairly tacked onto him. With each successive album, Mac displayed staggering tact refining what strengths he had and overcoming his shortcomings.
Blue Slide Park to Watching Movies was as unprecedented an about-face mainstream rap has ever seen. By his last album, Mac had proved himself not only to have been more than a simple res-rapper, but a full fledged auteur and elite talent with white-rapper understanding and a critical view of his standing. One of the many reasons his death has been received with such shock was that he had proven his longevity, and seemed like a lock to be a dependable presence in the public sphere for a long time.
It would seem though, listening to Swimming with the added weight of his life in mind, that Mac understood the extent of his tenure. While glimpses of his own mortality were central to Watching Movies and its drug-induced paranoia, Swimming considers his death with a peaceful acceptance — though still under the influence of various stimulants. The stunning “Dunno” sounds an awful lot like an extended goodbye. The penultimate “2009,” the album’s emotional centrepiece, feels lot like closure, if not for us, then for Mac himself.
What’s most immediately striking about Swimming is, despite the fact that it is essentially an auto-obituary in the vein of David Bowie’s Blackstar, how easy it is to listen to. Mac’s ear for composition, which he truly began to on 2016’s Divine Feminine, is rife across Swimming’s hour-long runtime. You can hear it in the bass on “What’s The Use?” and “Small Worlds” or in the muffled vocals floating in and out of “Jet Fuel.” Emotionally, Swimming is a devastating listen. Musically, it’s one of the year’s surprise delights. But maybe it shouldn’t be a shock.
As with all his projects since Blue Slide Park, Swimming was warmly received, particularly for Mac’s continued evolution. I challenge you to find a Mac Miller review that doesn’t take liberal pot-shots at his earliest mixtapes like K.I.D.S. and Best Day Ever, the ones that thrust him into stardom and its associated criticism. Infamously, Blue Slide Park was met with a laughable 1.0 review from Pitchfork which, looking back, seems an awful lot like a bully picking on an easy target. By the standards on which Blue Slide Park was deemed so abysmal, it would only be right that his evolution since is rewarding of rightfully deserved raving praise.
The saddest thing is that maybe Miller was never supposed to be a rapper, and Swimming was an indication that he worked better not as an MC, but as a project — a project defined by tireless evolution fueled by the will to prove that he was so much more than what he was deemed, because he was. And we should be deeply upset that we will never see that project finished. But as the cliché goes, Mac is in a better place now. And that’s not conjecture. He says it himself in the albums gentle climax: “Nowadays all I do is shine, take a breath and ease my mind.”