To try and understand Mac Miller, it’s somewhat necessary to understand the conversations people are having about him. One might start by mentioning some of the talked-about contradictions of the young, white rapper from Pittsburgh: Miller has been able to flaunt his white-Jewishness like a badge of honor and make a name for himself, but he has not been met with charges of cultural appropriation directed at the likes of Macklemore and Iggy Azalea.
More notable than Miller’s acclaim as a white rapper, though, is the transformation he has made from frat-house dingus to boundary-breaking artist. The only thing that ties together songs like the quite awful single “Donald Trump” (2011) and newer singles like “100 Grandkids,” a track on “GO:OD AM” (2015), is his nonchalant, stoner-chic voice.
The first striking characteristic of “GO:OD AM” is the cover: the artist’s face, neck cropped out, is shown in what seems to be the middle of a yawn. The image could perhaps be to Miller’s brand of hip-hop what Che Guevara’s face is to modern revolutionism: an icon that conveys a sense of purpose and captures both the ambition and attitude of an affinity group. In this case, that group is high school kids who like to smoke pot, put on Biggie beats and cypher.
In a conversation with a fellow music enthusiast about Miller a couple weeks back, this reviewer mentioned the new album coming out and asked for thoughts about Miller’s somewhat abnormal career.
“I don’t know, man,” one interlocutor told me. “He put out some pretty awful shit. I heard he’s respected now, though.”
Full disclosure: by the time this reviewer found out about Miller, the latter’s hip-hop metamorphosis had already taken place. “Avian,” a single on “Watching Movies with the Sound Off” (2013), came on by accident one day. The drugged-up, semi-silly flows were surprising, as was the fact that they were so enjoyable. The track’s production — a hazy, high-reverb, liquid beat — was also unexpectedly strong. What was most striking, though, was the sense of self-conscious melancholy. There was something so endearingly washed-up about the whole thing.
“Watching Movies” was followed by “Faces” (2014), a long, dazed mixtape that explored Miller’s drug addiction, party fatigue and absurd lifestyle as a young 20-year-old that had somehow become famous.
Miller’s new album is not only an extension of those emotions, but also a resolution of his previous doubts. On the first verse of the album, Miller raps: “You know it’s been a minute since I been awake / Didn’t mean to cause you pain, I just needed to escape / They saying that I’m sober, I’m just in a better place/ I’m on my way over, I’m just running kind of late.”
He then raps about a wide range of topics, including his promise to his mother to provide her with 100 grandkids (on the track of the same name), his self-loathing yet self-indulgent party ethos and his success. The whole thing is filled with equal amounts of braggadocio and self-deprecation and features an eclectic mix of guest features.
It’s hard to understand Miller because he is an exception to the rule: his partying is reluctant and his seriousness is playful. But, ultimately, he provides thoughtful forays into his own psyche over an extremely well-produced background. Audiences were supposed to forget about him, but they didn’t — and they won’t anytime soon.