Mac Miller’s legacy: musical experimentation and lyrical honesty

By NIKITA SHTARKMAN | September 13, 2018

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Nicolas Völcker / CC BY-SA 4.0 Mac Miller was an artist of many talents who’s legacy in the rap world will continue to inspire new music.

It is devastatingly hard to lose someone close to you. In some cases, one can feel those same gut-wrenching feelings with the passing of someone they’ve never met. 

A lot of music fans were confronted with these dreadful emotions on Friday, Sept. 7 when rapper, artist and producer Mac Miller died at the tragically young age of 26. 

Mac Miller had one of the most unique hip-hop careers. The small, white kid from Pittsburgh, Pa. came out as one of the first frat rappers. With songs like “Best Day Ever,“ “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza” and “Senior Skip Day,” Mac wrote music that catered to young, white audiences. 

That market was massive, and it blew him up to almost immediate superstardom. While the subject matter was shallow, the songs were catchy and fun. One could find them being blasted in dorm rooms and frat houses across the country in the early 2010s.

Most frat-rap artists find themselves in artistic purgatory. They make popular, serviceable music, have millions of fans and make millions of dollars, but they’re not taken seriously by music critics and fellow musicians. They can’t escape the frat-rap label, because if they make music that isn’t frat-rap, their audience feels alienated and leaves.

Mac may have realized his precarious position when his first album, Blue Slide Park, sold well but was critically panned. It got one of the lowest scores on the popular site pitchfork.com — getting a 1.0/10. It was after that project that Mac started to experiment. 

He recorded a jazz singing album called You, under the alias Larry Lovestein, and also began to release beats he produced under the name Larry Fisherman. 

Mac was finding the only way out of the pigeonhole he was stuck in was to make better music. 

This transformation was clear on his next mixtape, Macadelic, which focused on rap features and focused lyrics. This mixtape blew up in the hip-hop world and is still one of the most popular mixtapes ever released. 

Mac’s second album, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, was what really garnered him respect. The lyrics were dense and poetic, the beats were dark and unconventional, and the themes were mature. 

“But me, I’m still trapped inside my head/It kinda feel like it’s a purgatory” is one of the first few bars of “The Star Room,” the moody opener to this project. After this project was released, it finally seemed that Mac had cemented himself as a respected member of the hip-hop world.

While Macadelic and Watching Movies with the Sound Off are great projects, Mac’s magnum opus is his hour and a half long mixtape, Faces. Mac is at his darkest on this project — openly struggling with his addictions. In interviews, Mac has referred to it as a “suicide album.” Themes of drugs, death and depression are on every song. Almost all of the beats are self-produced. It feels like an intimate entry into the day-to-day life of Mac at his worst. 

After Faces, it seemed like Mac had found a way to shed the darkness that had enveloped him. He declared himself sober and seemed to be getting healthier each day. GO:OD AM, his third album, was filled with bangers and fun songs and flooded with energy. After getting into a relationship with pop singer Ariana Grande, Mac released The Divine Feminine — his happiest project — filled with songs about love and light.

Sadly this phase didn’t last. There was the heavily publicized fallout of the Ariana-Mac relationship. Then rumors of renewed drug abuse. In May, Mac was charged with a DUI when he knocked over a power pole and fled the scene.

Swimming, his final project, hints at the darkness that was setting in. On the last song of the album, “So It Goes,” Mac spits the line “nine lives, never die, fuck a heaven, I’m still gettin’ high” — a bar that is especially morbid. 

But even though there are dark parts to this project, it feels like an optimistic work overall; Mac never falls into the hopelessness he explored in Faces. It feels like Mac was handling his darkness with more grace, delving deeper into the music.

You can see how much Mac meant to other artists just by seeing the heartfelt Twitter and Instagram posts they made. These aren’t cookie-cutter, PR statements — these are legitimate feelings of tragic loss.

This is a great personal tragedy and also a great cultural tragedy. To many who only knew of him from blogs or TMZ, Mac was just “the rapper who dated Ariana Grande,” or “the guy that made those pop songs five years ago.”

In reality, he was one of the few artists who valued artistic integrity over money. He was an artist who grew into his own over time, was frank about his issues and was constantly innovating his sound. No two of Mac’s albums sound the same. Each album has its own unique and distinct sound.

It is hard to end an article like this. One itches to fall into the age old cliches about keeping Mac in our hearts, playing his music to keep him alive or waxing poetic about his legacy. All of these routes seem unsatisfying and empty. 

Instead, I’ll let Mac finish this piece with a few lines from “Grand Finale,” the last song on Faces: “Let us have a grand finale/The world will be just fine without me.”

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