The night CIRCLES was released, I was working (I’m a bartender) and I had a customer tell me that he was approaching his eight-year anniversary of living in New York City. He told me that some people say you’re not a “real” New Yorker until you’ve lived there for a decade, but that he disagreed with that. He instead suggested you become a “real” New Yorker after you cry on the subway. I closed the bar that night around 1:00 A.M. and rode the subway home, listening to Mac Miller’s posthumous release, CIRCLES, and officially became a “real” New Yorker.
When Mac passed, he was in the midst of making the best art of his entire life. I always liked Mac alright when I was younger (some of the kids who were older and cooler than me all listened to Mac in high school, so that rubbed off on me), but I always found BLUE SLIDE PARK (2011) to be rather amateurish, and though I liked WATCHING MOVIES WITH THE SOUND OFF (2013) because it has one of my favorite Mac songs ever on it, I recognize it’s a flawed album.
THE DIVINE FEMININE (2016) was when I really came back around on Mac. It was concise (something his earlier projects always suffered from was that they were needlessly bloated), shockingly tender, and a bit deeper (in an authentic way) than any previous Mac project. There was an undeniable influence that Ariana Grande had on Mac’s life and, especially, his music, and it’s most notable on this project. It will probably always be my favorite of Mac’s.
In 2018, right before Mac passed, he released what many consider his finest work ever: SWIMMING. There was a confidence that Mac displayed on that album as a creative and as a songwriter that he had never displayed up to that point. He felt comfortable and in total command of his music-making abilities, whereas at times before, he may have seemed slightly over-eager or too earnest. With SWIMMING, especially some of the finer tracks, like “2009”, “Wings”, “Ladders”, etc, he felt in total control of his pen and almost at ease. Even if the things he was rapping/singing about were uncomfortable topics to address (addiction, break-ups, death, etc), he seemed breezy in the way he handled them. It was a warm album.
Of course, after Mac passed, SWIMMING became a rather difficult album to revisit. And for me, it also made me appreciate the album more. Perhaps that’s viewing art through a death lens, but I can’t deny it. SWIMMING went from an album I really liked to one that felt deeply personal to me and became one of my more listened to projects from 2018. Granted, going to school in Pittsburgh may have exacerbated that (I’ll never forget discovering his overdose while in my school gym and within minutes, it was being talked about all through the gym), but regardless, SWIMMING was an exceptional tape. And that brings us to CIRCLES, Mac’s first posthumous album, which was finished by producer Jon Brion after Mac’s passing.
CIRCLES is an excellent complementary piece to pair with SWIMMING, even if it feels a tad bleaker. Where SWIMMING felt like an album about a man floating through the world struggling and dealing with all of the difficult things Mac had to deal with (namely, his struggles with anxieties and addiction) but trying to find his proper footing, CIRCLES feels like an album about a man has accepted that even though he has the problems to deal with, he has the faculties to manage those struggles and handle them. As in control as Mac seemed on SWIMMING, when looking at the lyrics and delivery of some of his songs, there still is a sense of anxiousness from Mac. On CIRCLES, Mac feels like he’s making music as simply as he’s breathing. There’s an effortlessness through the whole album and Mac feels like he’s floating. Some might say that effortlessness could be just mistaken with music that sounds unfinished (I have a friend that’s a huge rap fan that said CIRCLES reminded him of “background noise”), but I think that’s an unfair characterization.
There’s an airiness that’s simply marvelous in CIRCLES. This is largely due in part to the breathy and somber nature of Mac’s voice. He always sounds sort of tired and weary, especially when he sings or sing/raps, but this has always worked to Mac’s advantage. We as listeners are (most likely) aware of Mac’s history and his life and all that he had to deal with, so his weariness is easily understood and almost works to be endearing. A perfect example of this is on “That’s On Me”, a truly sublime song that comes around the middle of the tape, as he half-breathes, half-sings the start of the second verse (“I don’t know where I’ve been lately but I’ve been alright/I said good morning this morning and I’ll say goodnight”).
If SWIMMING was an album about a man floating through life just trying to find comfort and peace, despite all of the adversity that said man has gone through, CIRCLES feels like an album about a man who’s finally found some slight solace and has been able to begin finding comfort in often being uncomfortable and understanding how to live with all of his uncertainties and anxieties. What’s so difficult about that comes from knowing what happened to Mac, which makes CIRCLES painfully profound.
“Everybody”, a slight cover of Arthur Lee’s “Everybody’s Gotta Live”, is an especially poignant piece, given Mac’s death, with lyrics like “Everybody’s gotta live/And everybody’s gonna die/Everybody just wanna have a good, good time/I think ya know the reason why”, but Mac sounds extremely mature and self-assured as he sings those words. He doesn’t sing it with as much sadness as listeners will probably hear (understandably), but rather with a headstrong matter-of-factness that’s rather evocative and interesting.
Though it happens rarely on the album, there are few moments of levity. “Blue World” is the most “bouncy” song on the album, and longtime Mac fans will find it to be a fairly familiar song, as far as where it sits musically in Mac’s canon. It’s much brighter than the rest of the album and it feels lovely to imagine Mac and Ariana driving around listening to themselves in his car, like he references in the second verse (“See I was in the whip riding, me and my bitch/We was listening to us, no one else, that’s it/That’s a flex, just a bit, let me talk my shit”).
The album isn’t perfect, by any stretch (pretty hard for any posthumous album to be, to be fair). The tape really hits stride in the middle and the ending isn’t completely able to sustain that. I like “Surf” and “Once a Day” alright, but they’re probably the weakest tracks on the tape, which is unfortunate, because listeners want the ending of a tape to feel climatic (I understand that the type of music Mac made on CIRCLES makes it hard to have a legitimate climax, but still). There also is a slight redundancy to the production. While it’s effective in that, sonically, it feels very cohesive in its structure and creates an appropriate atmosphere, sometimes the music blends together so seamlessly that it’s hard to tell when one song ends and another begins.
The best stretch of the tape occurs directly in the middle of the album, starting with the somber “Woods” into “Hand Me Downs”, which is far and away the strongest track on the album, and finally, the earlier-mentioned “That’s On Me”. I would venture to go as far as saying that it’s the best three-track stretch of Mac’s career, to be honest.
“Woods” is stark. Mac skillfully raps bars like “Hey love, Heartbreak will have you bankrupt/Too many days in a daze, Better wake up” as he reminisces on the days when he was with the person he was in love with and what that feeling was like. He displays some of his more technically skilled rhymes on “Woods” and musically, it’s slightly more intriguing than some of the other tracks, especially the outro of the song.
“Hand Me Downs” was the song that broke me on the way home. Like the rest of the album, the production isn’t really the focus (it’s fairly simple, with light strings and boom-baps), but moreso what Mac does with his voice. He croons beautiful sentences (“And all I ever needed was somebody with some reason who can keep me sane”) all throughout the track. It’s also the only track where Mac doesn’t sing his own chorus, and that additional voice works to break up a bit of the monotony of the tape. It also features one of my favorite bars from the album, which is overly earnest in the best way, like Mac so often was: “I move carelessly, that’s why I’m always tripping/I guess it’s like electrolytes, you help me go the distance”). Like so much of the music on THE DIVINE FEMININE, “Hand Me Downs” just feels like what being in love feels like.
CIRCLES is a wonderful album, especially given the fact that much of it was completed without Mac being present. It feels perfect to pair with SWIMMING and shows continued growth in Mac as both a singer and a songwriter. It’s remarkable how easy it is on the ears, given the tragedy of knowing that you’re listening to an artist who was hitting his creative peak who no longer has the ability to pursue creating. It is a shame we won’t be able to continue to hear that growth, but we should just be grateful for Jon Brion and Mac’s family for sharing this project, which feels like as satisfying a conclusion as possible for an artist that was taken from us far too soon.