Maturity isn’t a good fit for every rapper (see: Kanye’s bedraggled coming-to-Jesus phase). But through 2018 it was working a treat for former bad boy — and Ariana Grande’s ex — Mac Miller. But then his story turned to tragedy as that September, the 26 year-old died of an accidental drug overdose.
He had at that point already given us a clue where his music was going with his fifth album Swimming. And now comes Circles, his heartbreaking sign-off completed posthumously by producer Jon Brion.
Even outside of the context of Miller’s death, the record is deeply affecting as the rapper takes stock of his life, mistakes made, his hopes and fears for the future.
But when listened to in the context of what was to follow just months after the recording sessions, the effect is at moments searingly emotive.
The charge against Miller was that he was more mumbler than rapper. He certainly takes a lo-fi stance on Circles, delivering his lines in an often world-weary mutter.
When paired with gentle orchestration from Brion — who has produced everything from Kanye’s Late Registration to Rufus Wainwright’s Want — the impact is devastating.
He simmers with anguish on a cover of Love’s ‘Everybody’s Gotta Live’ (listed simply as Everybody). Miller here comes over like a young Tom Waits experimenting in hip hop and unsure if it’s quite his thing. The tentativeness is what makes the moment. Miller is anxious and ardent, determined to bare his soul.
Again and again, Miller holds up a mirror and doesn’t like what he sees. Confessional angst seeps through the pores of ‘That’s One Me’ (“It’s all my fault” he stutters.).
A chilling fatalism is meanwhile discernible on the single ‘Good News’. “I haven’t seen the sun in a while but I heard the sky’s still blue.”
He sounds like someone in a dark place, dreaming of the light.