MAC MILLER LEAVES HIS MOST CANDID MARK ON THE COSMOS WITH 'CIRCLES'
Words by Victoria Kamila
"Heaven is on a beach somewhere with Malcolm, the two of you just watching the waves crash in as he strums on a ukulele, musing over the obscurities of life."
They say ‘acceptance’ is the first step towards resolving some form of inner conflict. We acknowledge that a problem exists, and we accept a call to action to confront it. But we hear less often that it’s also something we cycle back to as an epilogue of sorts. After a string of attempts to change, some successful and some perhaps not, we inevitably arrive at a contemplative headspace that derives hope from acceptance. No matter the effort, the amount of growth we’ve undertaken, or course of change we’ve dedicated our entire being to, we accept that sometimes, things just are. And they may continue to be despite our best efforts. Such is the idea communicated to us through Mac Miller on his sixth studio album, Circles. The optimism we find in accepting the absurdity of the present.
Circles is a posthumous companion album to Swimming; the two together communicating the idea of ‘swimming in circles’. Swimming is regarded as one of Mac's most sonically and thematically concise albums, a sign of an artist stepping into his own with profoundly honest lyricism complemented by soulful R&B, jazz, funk, and rap. It’s one of Mac’s least hip-hop-heavy pieces of work, the orchestral opening of ‘2009’ easing listeners into Mac’s bluesy vocals seamlessly. The production of half of its tracks are credited to legendary producer and film score composer Jon Brion, who has praised Malcolm’s musical talent and his ability to garner “a lot of approval very quickly” early on in their relationship.
Mac’s collaborative relationship with Brion is a testament to the Pittsburgh rapper’s ability to push the boundaries of what others expected from him, particularly in the face of his frat-rap origins. He was devoted to his development as an artist and spent a majority of his career studying different sounds and genres, most notably jazz, blues, funk, and classic rock. Brion described Malcolm’s incessant curiosity as “mercurial”; he wanted to know everything about everything. We see the fruits of these exploits most poignantly in his last three releases, The Divine Feminine, Swimming, and Circles; a rich display of the musical legacy this all would lead to.
After Mac’s death in September of 2018, his family passed Circles, then unfinished, onto Brion to be completed. Jon described the impact the music had on him as “like a knife in the heart”; specifically, it was the sincerity in the way Mac addressed his demons with both humour and critical self-awareness. Brion elevates these elements of Mac to the forefront of each track by bringing a stripped-back, live instrumental quality to the production, primarily composed of lo-fi piano and soft-spoken guitar melodies expertly offset with more upbeat, electronic synth lines. The coexistence of each sound communicating a duality of moods channels Malcolm’s melancholy joie de vivre fittingly.
Circles is a quieter album than its predecessor. More pensive. Swimming gifted us an artist stepping into a soliloquy of self-actualization, and Circles follows up with Mac traversing from this cycle to one of self-reformation. Mac lays the foundation for Circles in the closing track of Swimming, where he briefly touches on the recurring theme of circles in his life, “My god, it go on and on / just like a circle, I go back to where I’m from”.
The inner dialogue conveyed in his lyrics could be somber, leading him to believe his depression and his vices may stick around forever; a conclusion he draws right off the bat in the opening line of Circles’ first track, 'Circles', “And I cannot be changed, I cannot be changed, no / Trust me I’ve tried / I just end up right at the start of the line / Drawing circles”.
His convoluted mind is a constant weight he discusses, like on Swimming’s 'Come Back To Earth', “I just need a way out of my head / I’ll do anything for a way out / of my head”, and Circles’ 'Complicated', “Inside my head is gettin' pretty cluttered / I tried but can't clean up this mess I made”. The moods he expresses waver between honesty and resiliency, constantly circling back to one another. One moment he’s his own worst enemy, “Why I gotta build something beautiful just to go set it on fire?”, the next he’s giving himself the space to take things one day at a time, “Some people say they want to live forever / That’s way too long I’ll just get through today”.
The album’s widespread theme of accepting uncertainty continues on the lighthearted ‘Surf’. Though he doesn’t dive as deeply into his struggles on Surf as he does on other parts of the album, there’s still a special type of intimacy coated in the innocence of lyrics like, “Until we get old / There’s water in the flowers, let’s grow”. It’s a level of purity that’s enough to convince you heaven is on a beach somewhere with Malcolm, the two of you just watching the waves crash in as he strums on a ukulele, musing over the obscurities of life.
Mac had a tendency to treat his depression the same way most of us do; like a cloaked stranger we can only come to know better through conversation. Although fans were eager to receive some form of closure surrounding Malcolm’s thoughts on life, death, and everything in between with the release of Circles, there still lies an intensely painful tragedy in his death and the reality that Mac was an artist just on the brink of manifesting the climax of his opus. We may never find the answers we’re looking for, no matter how much more closely a posthumous release of work draws fans to search for meaning between the lines. Things may never make sense. We’ll keep on swimming anyhow.
The concept of ‘swimming’ was something Mac embedded into the atoms of both albums. Brion has commented on the aquatic themes the two explored together, how they experimented with replicating the sounds of water (heard as water droplets on the old school R&B track, ‘Woods’). Water is a running theme throughout both albums, as a symbol for life; swimming through it, drowning deeper in it, and clambering your way up out of it, gasping for air. How one moment it could be the source of life itself, the next a perplexing, unknown and terrifying dark mass of endless blue. The use of water as an overarching statement on the highs and lows of life’s infinite cycles makes for a wondrous, prophetic statement from the artist; something we’ll likely hear ringing throughout the cosmos for many years to come.