Mac Miller had one final gift for his fans when he left Earth in 2018: a companion album to his Grammy-nominated Swimming.
Circles (out now) is a heartbreaking and expertly produced portrait of the late rapper, pieced together and fine-tuned by producer Jon Brion as the artist’s first — and possibly only — posthumous release. A surprise start to the decade, his family announced the existence of the project only nine days before it hit streaming services.
The album starts off with the serene title track, featuring just an acoustic guitar over a simple yet heavenly rhythm. “I cannot be changed, no / Trust me, I’ve tried,” Miller croons. The lead single, “Good News,” is sonically similar, centered around sleepy guitar plucks and the rapper’s one-of-a-kind mumble as he laments about the pressure to put on a happy face in the public eye. “Haven’t seen the sun in a while / But I heard that the sky’s still blue,” he sings.
At times, the subject matter on the 12-track record is eerie given the tragic fate of its tortured creator, who died at age 26 from an accidental overdose. On “Good News,” he asks himself, “Why can’t it just be easy? / Why does everybody need me to stay?” And later on, he comes to a bittersweet realization: “There’s a whole lot more for me waitin’ on the other side.”
Miller is self-aware and reflective throughout Circles. On the funky standout “Complicated,” he admits to having a “cluttered” mind, at one point singing, “Some people say they want to live forever / That’s way too long, I’ll just get through today / Without any complications.”
Still, a quiet optimism creeps among many of the songs. Miller digs deep to find glimmers of confidence on “Blue World,” which is punctuated by electronic soundbites almost reminiscent of video game chiptunes. “S–t, I always shine / Even when the light dim / No, I ain’t God / But I’m feeling just like Him,” he boasts. The album’s beautifully written closer, “Once a Day,” meanwhile, serves as an important reminder to not rush through life. “Every now and again, why can’t we just be fine?” Miller wonders aloud.
“Everybody” and “Surf” are the biggest departures from the musician’s previous work, particularly his early mixtapes. The former opens with a melancholy Miller humming over a soft piano melody (“Everybody’s gotta live / And everybody’s gonna die / Everybody just wanna have a good, good time / I think you know the reason why”), while the latter includes elements of a synthesized electric guitar over an otherwise bare-bones foundation. The Prince-esque “Woods,” though, is where Miller especially shines, thanks in part to Brion’s puzzle-completing production. It practically begs for a second, a third and even a fourth listen. Surely Mac is proud.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
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