It is to Mac Miller’s great credit that he became more compelling the further his career progressed. He would have made millions if he had stayed true to his humble teenage beginnings as a sentient snapback hat, Lord Finesse admirer and legal opponent, and Pittsburgh’s sauciest white boy since Terry Bradshaw. But rather than remain a torchbearer for frat rap, Miller dedicated his adult years to the earnest expansion and refinement of his artistic vision as rapper, producer, and, eventually, singer.
Before he died of an accidental drug overdose in September 2018 at age 26, Miller put out the two most complete albums of his career: The Divine Feminine, an ornate jazz-rap record, and Swimming, a profoundly bittersweet portrayal of his attempts to come to terms with depression and heartbreak. Swimming is slow-paced but hardly a slog; it is buoyed by infectious grooves spanning rap, funk, and trip-hop, as well as Miller’s surprising emotional clarity and depth. “Okay, you gotta jump in to swim / Well, the light was dim in this life of sin,” he sings on the song “2009” with the faintest twinkle in his eye. On Swimming, despair and hope fire alternately like velvet-coated pistons. The same dynamic animates Circles, companion album to Swimming and Mac Miller’s first posthumous release.
Circles doesn’t build on Swimming so much as riff off it. It’s not a fresh chapter that gestures towards Miller’s untold future, but rather a genuine companion piece, a time capsule to be placed alongside Swimming. The songwriting is comparatively languid and often carries the feeling of a dream, as Miller constantly retreats into his head, a refuge and a prison, to nurse his battered spirit. One moment he’s stumbling, the next he’s flying. He imagines himself traversing the natural world—flowers, clouds, the cosmos, the seasons. On the centerpiece and single “Good News,” pizzicato guitar strings splash like dewdrops as he sings, “Wake up to the moon/ Haven’t seen the sun in a while but I heard that the sky still blue.” On the next track “I Can See,” he emits a cry for help: “I’m in an oasis / Well, I need somebody to save me before I drive myself crazy.”
Miller was chipping away on Circles with veteran composer-producer Jon Brion when he passed away. Brion, who is credited on over half the songs on Swimming, completed Circles “based on his time and conversations with [Miller].” The result is a stripped-down style of production that serves to bring Miller’s wispy, plaintive singing style to the fore. Several songs veer close to the coffeeshop aesthetic of his popular NPR Tiny Desk Concert; they are intimate set pieces that frame him as more of a singer-songwriter than rapper. And indeed, he hardly raps on Circles at all. By deploying delicate indie rock drums, lo-fi piano, and the kind of wistful guitar strumming you might hear on a freshman quad, he and Brion recreate terrains native to artists like Teddy Pendergrass (“Hand Me Downs”), Randy Newman (“Everybody”), and Jack Johnson (“Surf”). There isn’t a lot of texture in these songs, and they don’t render Miller’s soul-bearing and star-gazing any more poignantly than the album’s more built-out, synth-heavy tracks, like “Complicated,” “Blue World,” “Woods,” and “Hands.”
Circles is full of gentle notes-to-self that emotional pain isn’t something that evaporates overnight, and that Miller need only take things one day at a time. “‘Fore I start to think about the future / First can I please get through a day?” he asks on “Complicated.” On the closer “Once a Day,” he chides himself, “Don’t keep it all in your head / The only place that you know nobody ever can see.” The woozy standout track “Woods” affirms the pursuit of love as a risk worth taking: “Never goin’ through the motions/ I’m just tryin’ to lay your body down slowly/ We can only go up.” For Miller, Circles exists as a form of therapy; as he seeks to break out of old patterns of thinking, these steady reminders to embrace the present and let go of everything else form a new pattern: a means of resilience, and maybe even a path to liberation.
As Miller demonstrates on Circles, being a sorrowful bluesman and an unwavering optimist aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. The album doesn’t possess the piercing introspection, precision or revelatory quality of Swimming, but of course, Miller wasn’t there to see it across the finish line. It serves as a fitting coda to his career, which itself embodies the Japanese self-betterment principle of kaizen (“change for better”). If there’s any solace in the fact that his musical journey may have now come to an end, it’s that he received his flowers in life. I speak, of course, of Jay Z’s rambling 2017 Twitter tribute to 90+ rappers who inspired him, which mentioned only two white artists: Eminem and Mac Miller. “Too many ..Fab , black people really magic . Mac Miller nice too though,” Hov wrote in conclusion. For Miller, there was no greater validation. He framed a print of that tweet and hung it on his wall at home. He may have still been working on himself, but he died with the knowledge that his art was loved and respected.