It is near impossible to listen to this album without “loss goggles,” as Mac Miller‘s producer Jon Brion put it in his interview with Zane Lowe. It’s difficult to listen to this album and wonder what the response would be if Mac were still alive to release it himself.
Listening to this record is bittersweet, but it serves as a testament to the artist. The release of Swimming in August 2018 showed the world a different side of Mac Miller. The album ditched the heavy hitting hip-hop tracks we associated with the rapper from previous records like GO:OD AM and Macadelic. Miller’s fifth studio album offered lyrical self-reflection over bass-heavy yet delicate grooves. Swimming revealed this internal dialogue of Miller’s; focusing on themes of accepting the past, learning from mistakes, and developing self-awareness.
We get to see this overlap of themes on Circles, as Miller was “well into the process of recording his companion album to Swimming” at the time of his passing. According to the post on Miller’s Instagram account, Jon Brion “dedicated himself to finishing Circles based on his time and conversations with Malcolm.” It is important to note that Brion worked with Miller on several tracks on Swimming, which he would sign on to produce.
I have never met someone who didn’t like Mac Miller. I was at a party last weekend and ended up having a 15 minute long conversation with a guy wearing a Mac Miller t-shirt. His friend apparently was getting “Fight the Feeling” tattooed on his leg when the news broke that the artist had died. We were both excited yet nervous to hear Circles—would it sound like Mac? While we were grateful to have the opportunity to hear new material from him, we were afraid it would be overproduced, or that it would not be true to his character.
I stayed up until midnight on Friday, January 17th to listen to Circles, to see if our suspicions about the album would be confirmed. As the titular track played and tears ran down my face, I had never felt as relieved in my life. All I remembered thinking was “God bless Jon Brion.”
Miller’s posthumous album begins with steady, thoughtful guitar riffs, but nothing can prepare the listener for the vocals which are introduced just short of a minute into the song. I don’t think I can put into words the feeling I experienced when I heard Miller say “Well, this is what look like right before you fall.”
A sense of comfort blended with heartache for someone I’ve never met is the closest I think I’ll get to accurately depicting that feeling. This track is beautifully simplistic as Miller’s nonchalant vocals are laid over the guitar’s numbing hum and the soft cymbals serving as a metronome. When you consider the melancholic final song of Swimming, “Circles” feels like an appropriate place to pick up. The last line in the second verse of “So It Goes” feels almost like a foreshadow now: “My god, it go on and on/ Just like a circle, I go back to where I’m from.” The titular track speaks on the repetition of cycles and the helplessness one feels when they are unable to break that cycle. Miller toys with this feeling of helplessness and turns it into some sort of reluctant acceptance of the things he cannot change, or maybe the things he feels incapable of changing. In my opinion, this song set the tone for the album—it’s Miller’s way of saying, “well, here goes nothing.”
“Good News” was the first taste we got of Circles, as it was released the week prior to the album drop. The vocals feel heavy—not just in a lyrical sense, but sonically, in the delivery of the words. This track perfectly balances the feeling of being hit by a wave of depression and giving into it, and the feeling of seeing the light after you’ve been in this dark place—for lack of better words, this shadow—for weeks. The vocals feel like that deep exhale that you take when you’re trying to get ready to face reality again. Miller’s lyrics portray that internal battle of wanting to give in versus wanting to push forward: “Well, so tired of being so tired” versus “Then I’ll finally discover/ that it ain’t that bad.”
Between Swimming and Circles, we get to see this vulnerability from Miller, which is refreshing. He has always been open about his struggle with addiction, but these two albums feel like a deeper look into Miller as a person and what he’s been dealing with internally.
The vocals on “I Can See” are soft and raspy against the iridescent melody. It feels so delicate and gentle; it is almost unbelievable to me that the person who wrote this song is the same one who gets crowds hype to “100 Grandkids”. It goes to show that Miller was not just a rapper, but a multi-talented artist with an amazing range. In an interview with New York Times, Jon Brion reveals that “there were a few songs the family gave me that he’d been working on independently that I thought fit thematically with what we had worked on. “I Can See” was one of those, also “Complicated,” “Blue World” and “Everybody.” I played some things on those tracks to make them feel like the others, but those vocals were already there.” The vocals Brion is referring to are the background vocals which have been speculated to be Ariana Grande. So, excuse me while I cry.
Throughout the album, the lyrics are unapologetically honest and portray Miller’s truth. Miller was trying to figure it all out and face his demons, all the while being incredibly honest and not hiding anything. Out of all the gut punches I experienced while listening to this album, “Once A Day” hit the hardest. A seemingly minimalist track, until you listen to the words. There isn’t a definitive structure, as the second verse flows directly into the third verse, it feels like a stream of consciousness. The motif in this song is, without a doubt, taking it one day at a time. This advice comes up in the first track as well: “Don’t you put any more stress on yourself, it’s one day at a time.” We’ve officially come full circle on this album.
When I think of artists who have made an impact and left a legacy, my immediate answer is Mac Miller. Circles offers vulnerability and depth to this incredibly gifted, creative spirit. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: God bless Jon Brion for encouraging Mac to trust himself and push his musical boundaries.
Listen to Circles on Spotify.