After a tumultuous year in tabloid headlines, the rapper dropped off the map to make ‘Swimming,’ his most ambitious album to date
Mac Miller is walking through Manhattan when two twenty-something fans stop him on the sidewalk. “Easy Mac with the cheesy raps!” one says to him with a goofy smile, reciting an early catchphrase that the rapper can no longer stand. “I hate that I ever said that,” he says, shaking his head as they walk away.
It’s a rare public outing for Miller, 26, who dropped off the grid for a few months earlier this year, tired of being bombarded by paparazzi and seeing his face splashed across the tabloids. He’s been so secluded, he says, that he has almost no idea what’s hot on the charts. “I literally just heard ‘Despacito’ for the first time a few weeks ago,” he admits with a laugh, reclining into a plush sofa in the lobby of New York’s Bowery Hotel. “That’s why the airport fucked me up,” he says of the grating trek he took through LAX to get here. “There were just so many people there. It was a bit uncomfortable.”
Miller is a natural-born conversationalist, a people person, so it’s a little jarring to hear him say this. But it’s been anything but a typical year for Miller. This past May, Miller and his pop star girlfriend of roughly two years, Ariana Grande, officially announced they’d broken up, citing busy schedules. A few days later, the rapper was arrested on D.U.I. and hit-and-run charges after he allegedly crashed his Mercedes SUV into a power pole near his L.A. home and fled the scene. When police arrived at his home, the rapper — whose blood-alcohol level was reportedly 0.15, nearly twice the legal limit — confessed. If that wasn’t bad enough, when a Twitter user implied Grande was to blame for Miller’s troubles, she offered up a pointed response: Her and Miller’s relationship was “toxic,” she wrote. “I am not a babysitter or a mother and no woman should feel that they need to be. I have cared for [Miller] and tried to support his sobriety & prayed for his balance for years.”
It’s painful stuff, and Miller now says he hasn’t talked to Grande since they broke up, nor has he followed her engagement to the actor Pete Davidson only six weeks after breaking up with him. Still, the rapper says he harbors no ill will towards his ex.
“I’ve cared about her for a long time as a person,” he says the next day over a late-afternoon salad at a restaurant on the Lower East Side. He and Grande had known each other for years before dating. And her engagement? “I am genuinely happy that that’s how she moved. That’s good for her. Go, go, keep going! As she should. I’m just being real. That’s good. Now I have space for me. And that’s great too.”
After the breakup, Miller says he wasn’t particularly concerned with whether anyone outside his family and close friends knew how he was doing. “Because at the end of the day, I was serving myself most by just chilling and enjoying my shift in life,” he says. “I was getting my bearings, figuring out how to move. So I didn’t feel like I owed anyone an answer. No one’s entitled to anything. Would I rather that no one said anything and life just moved on normally? Of course. But you know what? I’m OK with that. I really am. I know what actually happened in reality, and that’s enough for me.”
Miller has admitted to using promethazine and cocaine in the years following the release of his chart-topping 2012 debut album, Blue Slide Park. But he says that’s all in his past — even if people believe otherwise. “If a bunch of people think I am a huge drug addict, OK. Cool. What can I really do? Go talk to all those people and be like ‘Naw man, it’s really not that simple?'” he says. “Have I done drugs? Yeah. But am I a drug addict? No.”
Still, Miller recognizes his D.U.I. didn’t help. “I loaded the gun for them,” he says. “I got into that shit. That’s my mistake. What does that specific event mean for my whole character? That’s a different conversation. But people are going to draw their own conclusions. And I have a past history with that shit, so they’re going to naturally assume that that means I’m back going through it. I can’t change it. I’m not going to lose sleep over it, though. I’d rather just continue living my life and see where that goes.”
For Miller, that requires reentering the world in a major way as he releases his third major-label album (and fifth overall), Swimming. The 13-track set is a sonic head-trip drenched in synths, sultry grooves and funky hooks. More notably, for someone who only weeks prior aimed to keep the outside world at bay, it’s an intensely revealing diary speaking to Miller’s trials with depression, paranoia and, ultimately, self-acceptance. “I’m just looking for a way out of my head,” he raps on “Come Back to Earth.” Later, on “Small Worlds,” he croons, “Tell myself to hold on/I can feel my fingers slipping/In a motherfucking instant I’ll be gone.”
Despite the soul-baring, Miller insists he’s in a great headspace these days. He’s been working out every morning (“It’s good for the chemicals in your brain. It puts my mind in the proper place to start the day”) and in the run-up to his new album, he’s returned — albeit cautiously — to social media. Much to his surprise, Miller says he’s found most people to be generally complimentary of his new music. “Though you can still find any narrative about yourself if you want on there,” he says of occasionally scrolling through Twitter or Instagram. “I can find people that say they like my old shit better. I can find people that say they wish I would just rap and not sing. I can find people that say they wish I would sing and not rap. All that shit is confusing. You might as well just figure out yourself what you wanna do.”
His manager, Christian Clancy, who helped guide Odd Future through their music-industry ascent, admits in recent months he’s had to shield Miller from getting distracted by such outside noise. “Trying to protect him from all of that stuff is part of the gig,” Clancy says. “That’s part’s not easy.”
But as he walks the streets of Manhattan on a humid summer afternoon, Miller, outfitted in his “daily uniform” of a plain white t-shirt and black athletic shorts, is all smiles and laughs. In the several hours we spend together, including a haircut (“It’s low-key a nice reset. Very important”) and shopping for a new plain white t-shirt, Miller is often either laughing hysterically or ribbing members of his team. It’s refreshing to be back out in public, Miller insists, especially in the city where he lived for just over a year circa 2015.
If nothing else, he says, being out in the world and seeing those that care about him is the best prescription for putting his recent trials in perspective. “When you actually go out into the world and you get a lot of love from people you realize how little that shit actually matters,” he says. “I’ve been in the tabloids so much randomly recently that I’ve realized that I just don’t care what people think of me. Why stress things that you can’t control?”
Ever since he was a child growing up in Pittsburgh, the son of a photographer mother and architect father, Miller, born Malcolm James McCormick, bent the world to his will. Even before he began holing up all night in his basement during high school, a move that prompted his mom to put a padlock on the door to prevent him from doing so, he’d create fan fiction for movies he’d just finished watching. “Whenever the movie would end I would spend a couple hours after acting out what I thought happened next,” he recalls with a smile. “Say I was watching a sports movie, like a basketball movie, and it ends with them winning the championship, right? I would go to the basketball hoop and be like, ‘Now he’s in the NBA!’ Or I’d watch ‘Men in Black’ and then be like, ‘And now the next mission!'”
As he gained success, Miller did the same thing to himself, plotting out a new phase for his career after each accomplishment, making progressively more ambitious music. He’s grown from the bro-friendly backpack rapper of Blue Slide Park to a far more vulnerable and self-aware thinker on his breakout LP, 2013’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off. On 2016’s The Divine Feminine and now Swimming, Miller says he’s been more interested in creating a cohesive piece of art that functions as a timestamp for a specific period of his life than in making pop hits.
For his most effective albums, like Movies and Feminine, Miller tends to recede from the spotlight to focus on his music. His recent retreat from public life was no different — he spent extensive time in the studio for Swimming, going through months of false starts and dead ends before he realized he needed to create a throughline for the album, or at least a specific vibe to aim toward.
That vibe was a “watery” one, all funk and sultry soul. It’s why he gave the album its title, and its improvisational implications are why he felt it essential to recruit a diverse crop of musicians to help achieve his vision, including Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, the bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, and John Mayer, who adds jazz guitar flourishes on the trippy “Small Worlds.”
Miller also recruited producer/multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West) to assist with songwriting and add instrumental flourishes — organ, vibraphone, shaking a bag of change one morning at 6 a.m. in an attempt to get the right percussion sound — to more than half the songs on the album. The producer admits he was barely familiar with Miller’s work before meeting in the studio, but, according to Miller, he came armed “with a semi-truck full of instruments, many probably from the 1930s, and just started playing things on as many records as I needed.”
Brion says he was quickly drawn to Miller’s way of pushing hip-hop’s boundaries, veering from rapid-fire rhymes to sensual singing, sometimes in the same song: “Some of the most interesting stuff is when the line is blurred between him having any kind of flow or just being song-like.”
Miller’s musical choices on the album even surprised his longtime engineer, Victor Wainstein. “I can’t even fathom how he takes some of those kinds of risks,” Wainstein, who has worked with Miller since 2013, says. “Because it could end up just being really bad. But that’s how you know when someone is special. It’s their ability to relate to others and be willing to step into a world that they’re not used to and figure it out.”
“I feel like he’s always got a vision. He’s a monster of his craft,” adds Thundercat, a close friend who worked on a handful of Swimming tracks, including the G-funk-slathered “What’s the Use?” The pair, who are touring together this fall, refer to each other like family. “It’s pretty simple for me with Mac,” the bassist adds. “I really love him a lot.”
Tonight, in New York, Miller has a listening party scheduled where he’ll play the album for a few invited guests. He’s not too thrilled (“That shit is mad awkward”), but he knows it’s all part of the process of reintegrating himself into the public sphere. And even if people ultimately are no longer interested in what he has to say, he’ll be happy knowing he’s not pretending to be something he’s not. “Because then you have to live your whole life making sure that everything you do compliments that character,” Miller says. “That, to me, sounds like the most stressful shit ever. If all I have to do at the end of the day is live with myself, I can figure that out.”
The following afternoon, Miller is back in L.A. After the listening party, he took a red-eye back west, stayed up until the early-morning hours and then, after a few hours of sleep, woke up at noon. “I was walking everywhere today,” he says. “I literally walked all the way down to the closest street I could walk to just to get coffee. It felt great.”
In between rehearsals for his upcoming tour, Miller says he’s making a conscious effort to “just be more focused on my reality.” As someone who says he compulsively “makes music like a meth addict,” that’s naturally involved spending time with fellow musicians in the studio. Last week, Miller says, he, Post Malone, Thundercat and the producer Frank Dukes met up for an impromptu jam session.
“Me and Post have been talking about doing an album,” he says, “so we got together. And then Frank Dukes has worked on a bunch of my records, but we had never met, so he came through too. And then Thundercat appeared and we all started jamming.” Malone was playing the bongos and, well, Miller doesn’t really remember what anyone else was doing. “But it was beautiful,” he says. “We were just having a great time.”
Miller is in a sunny, optimistic mood, but he lets out a massive laugh when asked if he’ll be entering into a new romantic relationship anytime soon. “Hell no! Bro, I’m not about to be in another relationship,” Miller says. “I’m chilling. I can barely take care of my dog.”
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