In his final interview, published on Vulture just a day before his death, Mac Miller gave unwitting advice on how best to honor him: “The people that have the best chance of knowing me, that would like to” the late 26-year-old rapper said, “would just be by listening to my music.” And while his later music developed an alchemy of complicated sorrow and clear-headed descriptions of substance abuse, one does need not look too deep into his catalog to hear the sweetness that characterized the Pittsburgh rapper’s career. From his “EZ Mac with the cheesy rap” (a catchphrase he would come to regret, but endeared him to an early, still passionate audience) days in the late 2000s, to the harrowing and poignant release of Swimming earlier this year, Miller’s discography renders a portrait of a full artist who crafted records bleeding with sincerity.
Miller’s career had several acts. In its latter stages, after he began to shed the carefree image and work of his early persona and develop into something of an experimentalist, he became a consummate album artist. Some of his best work, especially Swimming, are best taken as a whole. But, to get an idea of how much he changed over his career, and to get a snapshot of why he was so beloved by a such a diverse audience, it’s important to take a sampling from every era of his varied career. So, for newcomers and longtime fans alike, we’ve assembled a (non-chronological) mix of his best-known and obscure tracks in an attempt to introduce Mac to those who didn’t get a chance to listen to him while he was still here.
“Donald Trump” (2011)
Mac Miller’s earliest hit, from his 2011 project, Best Day Ever, is a time capsule. It’s a distillation of the exuberance of a backpack rap generation banking off the mid-00’s internet mixtape boom. A precocious talent, Best Day Ever was Mac shedding the final vestiges of his high school life settling behind him, a graduation gift for the four years Miller committed to both school and rap. Over a bouncy, delightful sample of Sufjan Stevens’ “Vesuvius,” Miller forecasts his seemingly inevitable rise to rap stardom as he plotted to “take over the world while the haters gettin’ mad.” The raps here are facile rags to riches fodder, yet it’s the shrill delivery that, especially listening back now, stands as a reminder of Miller’s adroit ability to convey the simple joy of finally being recognized for and profiting from thousands of hours of work. Famously, this would begin a long-running feud with the now-President, a battle that Miller would take seriously (though with his characteristic tongue-in-cheek sense of humor at every turn) throughout his career.
Miller’s broody sophomore album, 2013’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off, pinpoints the moment the artist’s growing musical maturity dovetailed with his developing sense of pain. “REMember” is not only a dedication to his late friend, Ruben Eli Mitrani, who passed away the year before, but kicks off a series of melancholic spins (one of which we’ll get to a bit later) wherein Miller debuts his creaky, wailing singing voice. The song sits as the first instance of Miller’s disillusionment with the bright lights of stardom: “And everybody wanna talk to me about some business shit / Never really listening, couldn’t get real interested.” But even more, “REMember” found Miller dealing with a growing awareness of his own mortality, balancing the invincibility of his younger self — “I know I’ve been the shit / All this people full of me” — and the growing shadow cast on the people he thought would be around forever. “It’s a dark science when your friends start dying / Like how could he go? He was part lion.”
Swimming, Miller’s final album, released just last month, will stand as his best. It’s a tight effort, designed to stand as a whole, and the finest display of both his still-developing musicality and rare ability to craft songs that made listeners feel like they knew him personally. “Ladders” is a centerpiece, a missive that feels like bouncy thesis on the meaning of life from a person very much still figuring it out. The titular ladders are the central metaphor here, focusing on striving for new heights and taking hold of the next run as soon as you can. It could be a heavy subject in another’s hands, but Miller (with help from co-producers Jon Brion and Pomo) chose one of the brightest beats on the album to soundtrack it. It’s a buzzy, jazzy backdrop, complete with a horn section breakdown designed to dance to; Mac makes it all sound so fun.
“We,” feat. Cee-Lo Green (2016)
Breezy and open and relaxed, with a focus on live instrumentation and an improvisational atmosphere, The Divine Feminine served as a remarkably confident announcement that Mac Miller had arrived in the third act of his career (a very real tragedy after his untimely passing is that there was no indication that this third act would be his final one). Long past the carefree party rap that laid the foundation for his career, Mac had spent the last few years mining his darkest artistic impulses; this was his turn back towards the light. “We,” which lets Cee-Lo float in as an ethereal presence at the three-quarter mark before exclaiming “You’ve got to deal with Mac Miller, bitchhhh” with a laugh to close out the track, is a confidently laconic piece of songwriting. By now, Miller had learned how to let songs develop, to breathe, and started to value the kind of song you could keep on repeat forever rather than deploying his ever-sharp writing in bursts. This was one of the best examples of that coming to fruition.
“Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza” (2010)
The chorus of hip-hop artists giving glory Miller’s work after his death on Friday shouldn’t come as a surprise: The rapper and producer exuded a bone-deep love for the culture’s heroes and histories, both in his work and any time he was given a platform. Flipping Lord Finesse’s seminal “Hip 2 Da Game” without regurgitating the latter’s flow or topicality at the age of 18, Miller paid tribute to the genre while staying squarely in his own lane. Though many would take umbrage at his willingness to touch a classic, Miller would eventually win many of his critics over by simply always striving for improvement (and knowing what he was talking about). The song, another of his earliest hits, kicks off with a customary blunt hit and whining horns signaling an appreciation for dusty boombap cypher sessions at the lunch table when we were just some “muhfuckin K.I.D.S.” Although he was still dreaming of the stardom that would subsume him later on, “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza” was Miller at his most approachable, inspiring teens to press forward in developing their own aspirations by rapping at their level: “I live a life very similar to yours.”
“Planet God Damn,” feat. Njomza” (2016)
The Divine Feminine found Mac Miller uncharacteristically happy. After three years and three albums doused in shadows, Miller’s early glee was finally recaptured on record. Miller’s changing sound — from familiar rap samples and breakbeats to live instrumentation — mirrored a changing environment. After moving to L.A.,and getting plugged in with artists like Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt and Long Beach rap virtuoso Vince Staples, he was starting to embark on a new artistic journey, moving from the beat scene to live instrumentation. His collaborative and compositional ethic played out gorgeously on “Planet God Damn.” Alongside REMember label colleague Njomza, the song casts Miller as heartbroken (“I think I’m stuck inside nostalgia / my mind are in the times when this love was so divine”), but skews hopeful as he imagines being laid up on the beach with his lover, feeding each other grapes. Even in his romantic posture, Miller places himself outside the industry; outside its deathly culture of abuse. In an ideal world, “We could quit the whole game, do the real estate thing / It’s how you beat the case.” Love was always the solvent, even when falling out of it.
“Weekend,” feat. Miguel (2015)
One of his biggest hits, “Weekend” is a real charmer. A booming piece of skittering drums and bursting strings with a dance-y breakdown aimed squarely at the hip-hop that was working on the charts in 2015. In many ways, it’s a hearkening back to the subject matter that Mac built his career on — it’s thesis statement is, essentially, that the weekend is the time to party, and that’s when Mac comes alive. However, at this point, far removed from the carefree early days of his teens, there are regrets creeping into the hedonism. “I been having trouble sleeping, battling these demons / Wondering what’s the thing that keeps me breathing / Is it money, fame, or neither?” The song is more accomplished than any of the hits that Miller had churned out in his past (and proof that he could still deliver a crowd-pleaser at will), but the edges had begun to warp, regrets were forming, and Mac was aware of all of it.
When Mac Miller relaxes into his flow on “S.D.S.” — Somebody Do Something — the Flying Lotus-produced space-age interplay of bass and kickdrum, it’s hard to argue the kid doesn’t have certifiable rap steez. He spits along the spine of the widening, synth-focused beat, bounces off-kilter at the turn of the phrase and appropriately self-references his own improvement as an artist: “I’m in awe, this jigsaw puzzle, not complete / I’m just an idea, nothing concrete.” Though demonstrably nervous about never placing the final piece of the puzzle, he was still convincingly honest and counterintuitively jovial, turning his mortality into a triumph of humor: “ The day that I die on will turn me to an icon / Search the world for Zion or a shoulder I can cry on / Best of all time, I’m Dylan, Dylan, Dylan, Dylan.” S.D.S was at once a cry for action to the outside world while stating his purpose plainly: “We’re here to reinvent music, it’s time for a revolution / I’m dying for the movement, trying not to lose it.”
Listener discretion advised: only hit play if you’re willing to release a tear or two. “Aquarium” re-engages Miller’s soft-spoken tenor previously featured on “REMember” on Watching Movies and displays a similar bare interiority. Sampling Tune-Yards cinematically moody track “Powa,” Miller questions the trappings and implications of celebrity — a topic he’d return to on Swimming — with a cutting ambivalence. Miller turns his gaze upward and outward, casting aspersions to the ways we “hypothesize on how to monetize and take advantage of / all the time we fall behind, get lost in this aquarium.” His rounding delivery unravel how these questions came about, and we start getting glimpses into why the drugs had become a crutch in the first place: “Sedatives that take me to God / witness his fetishes / We all in search for substance, that drugs you pain and numbness.” As if the celebrity lifestyle had already taken the reigns of his psychology he foretells its slow-burning takeover, “I wish I could tell you that I didn’t see this coming / But I’m ready for it all to end, die before tomorrow’s trend.”
“Come Back to Earth” (2018)
“My regrets look just like texts I shouldn’t send,” Mac opens “Come Back To Earth,” and Swimming, his final album. The song, now painful to listen to, is the best example of how simply and directly he was capable of laying out exactly what he was going through on record. Here, he plaintively lays out how hard it is for him to simply be: “I just need a way out of my head,” goes the chorus. But in typical Mac fashion, the song isn’t a dark diary entry. Instead, it’s one of the lightest entries on Swimming, and the darkness doesn’t take long to break: “I was drowning, but now I’m swimming.” It’s unfailingly earnest in its belief that things will get better, and impossibly tragic to listen to today.