With his fifth album Swimming, Mac Miller has finally abandoned his frat-rap reputation for good. Sonically, it’s a continuation of 2016’s The Divine Feminine, with a silky, deep vibe redolent of the L.A. alternative soul scene. But while that album tried to create a romantic vibe and mostly ended up vague and unfocused — with the Anderson .Paak-augmented single “Dang!” a terrific exception — the emotional stakes seem higher on Swimming, which he assembled with help from onetime Kanye West collaborator Jon Brion. As Miller struggles with introspection after a high-profile breakup with Ariana Grande (and a subsequent arrest for driving while intoxicated), he reveals himself to be a sympathetic, even winning presence. It becomes clear why the self-described “chill dude” has become a regular presence in the top 10 of Billboard’s albums chart despite never landing a major radio hit.
Until now, Mac Miller has been something of an enigma. His biggest song to date is a 2011 platinum-certified mixtape track that’s regrettably named after the president. (Rae Sremmurd of “Up Like Trump” fame can empathize.) More importantly, he’s an undeniably talented songwriter (and producer, under the name Larry Fisherman). There’s something alchemical about his ability to create unassuming yet entertaining hit albums, helping him craft the hip-hop equivalent of a middle-class existence. But with their reductive themes of success, money, sex, and occasionally wondering what it all means, they’ve all felt decidedly low stakes.
Unlike, say, Earl Sweatshirt, Miller isn’t the type of rapper who rhapsodizes about details — the cities he travels to, the women he dates, the famous people he kicks it with. Instead, he excels at crafting a mood he can carry throughout an entire album. On Swimming, he makes frequent reference to keeping his head above water…or not. “Got my head underwater, but I ain’t in the shower, and I ain’t getting baptized,” he raps over the sluggish, dancehall-inflected trip-hop of “Jet Fuel.” We can only guess that it’s life in general that’s overwhelming him – he never clarifies. But for every admission that something is getting the better of him, he responds with fragile self-confidence. “But I never run out of jet fuel,” he boasts.
Yet give him credit for admitting that his rapper pose is simply that. The murky, slightly depressive tone of Swimming, from the halting vocals and cracked, electronic blues of “Perfecto” and “Wings” to the downcast, Dam-Funk-produced groove “What’s the Use?” (which has a subtle, nearly imperceptible cameo from Snoop Dogg), is an acknowledgment that Miller is weathering some kind of personal wreckage. And he manages to shift musical tones just enough to hold our interest: when the Alexander Spit-produced “Wings” threatens to slip into a torpid flow, he drops the buoyant if slightly melancholy horn-fueled boogie of “Ladders.”
“Sometimes, sometimes I wish I took a simpler route/Instead of having demons as big as my house,” says Miller on “2009.” If he could surface those demons with more vivid details and add texture to his lyrics instead of simply using them as a rhythmic device, then he may have a genuinely classic album in him yet. But if Swimming doesn’t quite achieve greatness, it connects. You can hear his pain and perseverance, even if he struggles to put it into words.