Mac Miller’s sixth and final studio album, “Circles,” eludes rigidity and definition. It’s a “rap” album only half-filled with “rap” songs. It hangs its head with dejection, yet stands tall and proud on its own two feet. It’s a roller coaster of competing hopes and fears, harnessing the anxious butterflies through all the dips and dives in between. It is a beautiful celebration of contradiction.
“Circles” was released on Jan. 17, almost a year and a half after Mac Miller’s accidental overdose in 2018. The album is a dynamic experience that brings Mac and his emotional journey to life. Billboard listed the album as “Rap,” but Mac has an eclectic way of meshing and often dismissing genre. “That’s On Me” is a rock ballad featuring a punchy, waltzing piano and bright electric guitar arpeggios. The washing synths and bright electronic embellishments on “Woods” and “I Can See” feel inspired by dream-pop and retrowave. The songs “Circles” and “Once A Day” feature Mac as more of a singer-songwriter, playing his guitar or keyboard in a more naked, intimate atmosphere.
The album’s opening track, “Circles,” begins with a whispering conversation between a smooth bass guitar, a pillowy vibraphone and shimmering harmonic strings. Bright electronic keys and a warm electric guitar take turns flitting on top of the music, like rays of sun peeking over the morning horizon. Mac’s vocal entrance is gentle and resigned: “Well, this is what it looks like right before you fall.” His performance is weary but unwavering, and there’s a sort of fateful acceptance behind his soft, slurred singing. Throughout the track, harmonic strings lightly pant behind the music, counting each beat like persistent steps on a long walk. Ironically, the beginning of the album feels like you’re approaching the end of a long journey, finding yourself on the path back homeward, “drawing circles.”
Mac also explores interesting emotional contradictions. “Blue World” opens with a vintage sample from the song “It’s a Blue World” by the ’50s vocal quartet, The Four Freshman. The singers crunch out shimmering dissonant chords, with burgeoning power and yearning, “It’s a blue world without you, it’s a blue world alone.” The final chord is twisted into an upbeat chorus of choppy, robotic tones driven by machine-like percussion. Mac breaks into an anthemic rap, asserting his refusal to “kiss babies” and give into others’ negative opinions of him — sassily repeating the mantra “mmm, Don’t Trip,” a phrase that fans often associate with Mac from a hat he wore during his NPR Tiny Music Desk concert. The choir of robots and intermittent self-sung backing vocals gives the track an assertive and rebellious me-against-the-world attitude. In this raw and boisterous anthem, Mac accepts loneliness as a natural product of cutting fat.
As anthemic and devil-may-care as “Blue World” feels, it’s immediately followed by the track “Good News,” which feels more like an introspective exploration of the psychological effects of loneliness and maneuvering public opinion. The track begins with muted, staccato guitar pluckings, the immediacy and precision of which are muddled with slightly staggered double-tracking and echoing reverb effects, giving the music an uneasy push and pull between sharp attacks and their ghostly lingering. The guitars feel like they could open up and roar at any point, but they never do, sustaining a sort of atmospheric tension. A soft marimba peeks out from under the guitars, rounding off the main chords. Mac again adopts a fairly subdued tone on this track, muttering and slurring his lines, and he frequently switches up his flows and rhyme schemes (“Got everything that I need, then I’m — gone. But I ain’t stealing”), often in ways that feel sort of awkward or unexpected and keep up with the uneasiness in the music. “Good news, that’s all they wanna hear,” he sings on top of a smooth, descending major scale progression, spiking back up to a tense, discomforting minor second for “No, they don’t like it when I’m down.”
This track boasts much less of the chest-thumping confidence from “Blue World” and instead explores the inner and outer battles Mac faces with loneliness and depression, as well as the resulting tensions he can’t seem to resolve. The last verse of the song, however, reiterates a glimmer of hope that “there’s a whole lot more waiting for [him] on the other side” — an optimism and self-assurance which, it feels, he sort of takes and runs with in “Blue World.” These explorations of the nature of paradoxes and the relationships between opposites is an important theme that fills “Circles” with palpable depth and emotional intimacy.
“Circles,” as gripping of an overall experience that it presents, does fall short sometimes. “Surf,” even with its well-crafted low-key beach aesthetics, feels repetitive and musically one-dimensional for a six-minute track — especially (as the penultimate song) at such a crucial point in the experience of the album. “Once A Day,” as a closing track, is beautifully raw and brings a similar intimacy but contrasting sense of pessimism leading full-circle into the opening song. But right after “Surf,” I wasn’t nearly as ecstatic as I should have been for another helping of that kind of minimalist experience.
Mac Miller’s “Circles” is an artful, genre-bending-and-ignoring, celebration of life’s contradictions — hope and fear, self-deprecation and self-love, loneliness and companionship and feelings in between. Low points eventually lead to high points, and vice versa, in a never-ending circle.
Until it ends.
Mac Miller’s untimely death, indeed, adds some sentimentality to the way we might see his work. But it doesn’t turn a bad album into a good one. “Circles” stands on its own as a beautifully-crafted encouragement to endure and appreciate all parts of the human experience while we can. “It ain’t that bad,” he sings. “I haven’t seen the sun in a while, but I heard that the sky’s still blue.”
Kiscada Hastings | firstname.lastname@example.org