September 7th marked the one-year anniversary of rapper and producer Mac Miller’s passing. Miller’s death, due to drug overdose, stirred up the emotions of hip-hop fans across the spectrum. For those who listened to him, his death was both unexpected and felt too close to home. Since his tragic passing, music listeners have been largely unable to let Miller go. In the time directly following his passing, much was made of denying the possibility of a desire to end his own life. There were popular sentiments that fickle fans had contributed to his emotional downfall by not supporting his last musical project. Similarly, a concerted effort went into shaming his ex-girlfriend, Ariana Grande, for the breakdown of their relationship that many believed was related to his untimely passing. In the week anniversary of his passing, a source exposed text messages between Miller and his alleged drug dealer, illuminating the highly developed addiction that lurked under the surface for the rapper. Before his passing, Miller made one last project about regret, despair and hope.
Swimming, in many ways, sounds like the work of someone who is working through things. Miller’s discography, beginning with the anthemic Blue Slide Park, is the audio tale of a person on the journey to figuring out where to start their life. The album opens with ‘Come Back to Earth’, a slow and sombre lullaby about regret and reflection. Over the soft piano keys, he sing/raps “I got neighbours, they’re more like strangers, we could be friends. I just need a way out, of my head.” In many ways, the opening track of the album is the introduction to where the artist is, mentally. It seems on this song, as it will for the rest of the album, that a part of Miller is concerned with missing out on the good parts of life.
From the beginning, Swimming announces itself as the project that will continue to play with the musicality that Miller had been developing over the last few years. The album is lush with trumpets, strings and pianos that find a place on almost every song. The kind of samples (like the clip of dancehall icon Cutty Ranks’ ‘the Stopper’ on Jet Fuel) and funk and soul-infused instrumentation that Miller uses on Swimming pop up on earlier projects, most notably The Divine Feminine and his work as the alter-ego, Larry Lovestein and the Velvet Revival. The growth, both lyrically and sonically, from K.I.D.Sto Swimming is a musical journey of its own. With K.I.D’S, we saw Miller trapped in the frat-boy rap trope, buoyed on either side by his fellow 2010-era white rappers Asher Roth and Macklemore. The successful ageing of Miller’s music career is, in large part, because of the promise of talent and absence of gimmick. It’s the kind of development that marks true artistry, the ability to explore facets of one’s sound, a lot of which has fallen to the wayside in the era of strip club, mumble-rap.
In 2016, Miller was in love and basking in it. The Divine Feminine sounds like a love letter to both Ariana Grande and the idea of love. Songs like “Stay” and “We” are a little bit about sex, but a lot about the happiness that comes with making a partner feel happy for a moment: especially when you have little else to offer. To hear Grande tell it, the demise of their relationship ultimately came because of Miller’s “inability to keep his shit together”. From a close listen, it seems that drugs (in the way that they usually do) melded with personal baggage and created a wave of chaos. By 2018, Mac Miller seemed to be out of love and reflecting on how he lost it. At different points on the album, Miller picks up on the complexities of being in your early 20s and in love. On “Dunno” he raps about a relationship that, in 2009, would have been filed on Facebook as ‘it’s complicated’. Of his lover, he raps “you was coughing when you hit my weed, but I’ve never seen you feel that free, so cute you wanna be like me, wouldn’t you rather get along?”. The idea of using love as a vessel through which to search for yourself and sort out one’s own demons crops up often on the album. It comes up most starkly on “Perfecto”, which culminates in what sounds like the late-night college-bedroom answer to “Marvin’s Room”.
In the wake of Miller’s passing, the internet was awash with opinions. Some were sympathetic to the idea that he might have wanted (even if subconsciously) to end his own life. Others were fiercely defendant of his will to live and saw the drug overdose as a pure accident. It’s wholly possibly for both those truths to exist at the same time. What’s arguably most interesting about the project released just before his passing is how notes of it seemed to foreshadow what was to come. The video for “Self Care” (the leading visual for the album) has Miller in a coffin for the duration of the film. In the video, he is restless in the coffin, smoking a joint and scratching ‘memento mori’ on the ceiling while trying to break out. When he eventually does emerge from the coffin, the world around him is chaotic and destroyed, filled with fire and ash. In many very obvious ways, this feels like a statement about his own impending fate. On the poetic “2009”, Miller reflects on his own journey from the release of the epic that was K.I.D’sto his present. In the song, he raps about the wisdom that he’s gained on his journey saying “I’m tryna start believing in God, now when it gets hard, I don’t panic, I don’t sound the alarm”. While on the surface they seem triumphant, something about the tone and the music choice feels deeply sad. The final element comes in the form of Miller’s album artwork. Himself in a pink suit, shoeless with closed eyes in what looks like the aisle of an airplane. In listening to the album, it seems like the work of someone, who, in many ways, was already transcending.
People are still grieving over Mac Miller, a year later. It’s partially because his death, for many who came to adolescence after the 2010s, feels like the end of an era or a forced graduation. For many more, it’s because Miller’s battles with personal relationships and drug abuse in his music where the soundtrack accompanying those struggles in their own lives. Most painfully, Miller’s death feels like an unfinished legacy. As Sidney Madden pointed out in a brilliant NPR conversation, Miller was right in the middle. In the middle of his development as an artist and finding his success. He was in the middle of honing his craft and carving a niche for himself amongst the heavyweights of the hip-hop industry. Figuring out his growth from the suburban college kid trope he’d been stuck with to coming into his own as a full-fledged musician. With Swimming, we have Miller’s last attempt at perfecting a craft that was already perfect to tens of thousands of listeners. His final pitch to the world was the handshake between 2009 and his legacy.