Circles is Mac Miller’s first, and likely only posthumous release. The album comes seventeen months after the singer/rapper was found dead in his home from an apparent drug overdose. His death sent shockwaves throughout the hip-hop and music communities at large. Artists like Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Travis Scott, John Mayer, Chance the Rapper, among others, paid musical tribute to Miller in a concert. Ex-girlfriend Ariana Grande also paid tribute in various ways since his death.
Despite the tragedy that shortened Mac Miller’s life to just twenty-six years, this last album is anything but hopeless and dark. In fact, it is an album of new beginnings, a new cycle of life. It’s less of a hip-hop collection, with tones mellow and calm and that I can only describe as having the sensation of a dewy, light blue fabric. Following the success of Swimming, it’s fair to say that Miller was on his way to a year of stardom. Circles, though, takes it down just a notch. Pitchfork gave this album a 7.4, compared to a 7.5 for Swimming. That made me chuckle. The difference in the goodness of the two albums is as slim as the slight change in tone that Miller’s voice takes. The energy is lower but lighter. Circles does not musically improve, but that’s not what is important. It rewrites, maybe edits, Miller’s life story.
On the first single, “Good News,” Miller croons about having to suppress negative emotions for the benefit of others: “Good news, good news, good news / that’s all they wanna hear / no they don’t like it when I’m dumb.” It’s a minimal track, but it’s bright and even a little quirky. When listeners hear Mac has done “a little spring cleaning” in his head, I’m sure they couldn’t help but smile at the image. Towards the second half to end of the song, Mac—and this is when he feels like Mac, not “Miller”—envisions a better future. He sings, “there’s a whole lot more for me waiting on the other side,” lyrics that, while hopeful, have added unintentional weight after his passing.
The other songs on the track are just as personal. “Surf,” “Woods,” and “That’s On Me” detail personal relationships that have been affected by Mac’s mental health. “Surf” was particularly gripping, as it takes an intimate look at loneliness and having faith that someone, somewhere, somebody will understand you.
The difference in the goodness of the two albums is as slim as the slight change in tone that Miller’s voice takes. The energy is lower but lighter. Circles does not musically improve, but that’s not what is important. It rewrites, maybe edits, Miller’s life story.
And then I circle back to the title song, the first song, “Circles,” and its intro gives me chills. It lulls me into a calm place where I am able to focus on the words I’ve written here. With all of the hip-hop artists and other legends we’ve lost last year, and this year already—Nipsey Hussle, Juice WRLD, Pop Smoke—I wasn’t able to write about this album in a way I felt was right. Excited and missing Mac, I listened to Circles when it first came out and liked it, but now, in February, I embraced it even more. My emotional reaction is much stronger after the sudden deaths of Kobe Bryant, his young daughter Gianna Bryant, and six others in a late-January helicopter crash. It’s much stronger after I’ve gone through third-year midterms, my twentieth birthday, and the stress of becoming more of an adult every day.
Though he’s gone, I’m sure Mac understands all of these hardships, and that they in some form are all present in the songs that will continue to memorialize him and those we lost forever. Each game an athlete plays reflects the growth of not only their skills, but also their message, their creed, their emotional work. Each project an artist puts out reflects the same. It’s nice to remember that after their bodies have left us. Of course, then, everything turns into some kind of action of mourning. Bits and pieces of Kobe’s retirement speech were used at his memorial. His short-film and poem, “Dear Basketball,” written after he stopped playing professionally, became a self-inscribed eulogy. In the case of Circles, each lyric becomes a regret, a mistaken goodbye. In the last song on the track, “Once A Day,” Mac sings, “And everybody means something / When they’re stuck on your mind / But every now and again, why can’t we just be fine?” In his last gift to us, Mac simply and playfully reminds us that we should continue to have hope in times of loss. He gently reminds us that it’s a hard thing to do.