When Mac Miller’s estate unveiled the rapper’s first posthumous single Good News earlier this month, an entire generation of hip hop lovers collectively lost their mind in a mixture of jubilation and surprise, but also intense grief upon hearing Miller’s voice once again. Produced by iconic composer Jon Brion, and accompanied by an animated video of Miller journeying through fantastic landscapes of lush green fields and deep majestic space, Good News sent shivers down the spine thanks to its unsettling – even prophetic – lyrics in light of the rapper’s tragic demise: “So tired of being so tired, there’s a whole lot more for me waitin’ on the other side.” Fan response? #MacMiller trended across Twitter for the first time since the rapper’s death in 2018, as people around the globe posted teary selfies while listening to Good News.
But the best news of all was that Good News was just the first taste of things to come. As revealed by both Brion and the rapper’s family, Miller had been well into completing a ‘companion album’ to the 2018 Grammy-nominated Swimming at the time of his passing. Entitled Circles, the 12-track album and its predecessor were described as two sides of the same coin – “Two different styles complementing each other, completing a circle,” where “swimming in circles was the concept”. Following the rapper’s death, Brion dedicated himself entirely to finishing the incomplete Circles out of sheer respect for Miller and admiration for his unique artistic vision. “He was passionate in a real way,” Brion said of his friend, “Most people have a dumb social ladder they want to climb, but not Malcolm. He was very open about who he was and how he was. A nice piece of music from a nice guy is a dime a dozen.”
Why I gotta build something beautiful just to go set it on fire?
It was never supposed to be this way. Just days before his fatal overdose, Miller was in the best mental and physical condition he’d been in years. Musically, he was unquestionably at this creative peak. Fifth album Swimming had just debuted at #3 on the Billboard charts and featured co-production duties from his long-time idol, Brion – a dream collaboration, according to Miller’s long-time manager, Christian Clancy. “He was genuinely blown away to be working with Jon. He was like, ‘Shit, if Jon Brion likes this, then I’m onto something!” But on the morning of 7th September 2018, Miller’s lifeless body was discovered in his bedroom and the rapper, aged just 26, was pronounced dead at the scene. According to an autopsy report, Miller died from an accidental drug overdose, with fentanyl, cocaine and alcohol all present in his system. “That’s why all of this is surreal,” Clancy wrote in The Guardian’s obituary, “He knew the progress he had made – it wasn’t easy, but he was doing it and feeling the rewards.”
Miller made no secret of his struggle with drug addiction and openly admitted he was prone to ‘slip-ups’ in recent times. His problems became obvious by 2012’s Macadelic mixtape as he continued to delve even deeper into drugs on 2014’s Faces. The downward spiral continued after the highly-publicised breakup with Ariana Grande, after which the rapper was arrested on DUI charges and a hit-and-run. But Miller begged to differ that he had a real problem, insisting the music was always king. After all – in just 26 years – he’d managed to release a total of 12 mixtapes, five albums and two EPs, establishing himself as one of the hardest-working voices in the hip hop community. Surely, he wasn’t about to let all of that go: “I record music like a fucking meth addict,” he told Rolling Stone in August 2018, “but these people think I’m super fucked-up on drugs when I’m not.” In an interview with The Fader, Miller claimed, “Overdosing is just not cool. There’s no legendary romance. You don’t go down in history because you overdose. You just die.”
I spent the whole day in my head, do a little spring cleanin
Indeed, right up until the very end, Miller immersed himself in what he did best – making new music. Swimming might have been the most successful album of his career by now, but Miller wasn’t one to stop and smell the roses. “The idea of Circles was already there,” Clancy confirms. “The songs just complemented each other simultaneously. They sounded raw and vulnerable – we’re talking about a genre [hip hop] that doesn’t necessarily cheerlead that kind of thing. He was expanding and he really wanted that affirmation. But there was some fear there, yes.” According to Brion, Miller “was nervous about it all. It’s up-tempo material. These lyrics are hard as shit to listen to because he was talking honestly about himself, but that’s why I find it so beautiful, honest and heartfelt. He didn’t do the finger-pointing-thing that some singer-songwriters do. He didn’t suffer that. He side-stepped that. He was culpable, self-aware. He’s facing himself on this album rigorously. This is what was, this is what happened.”
Circles is a testament that sometimes the best art really does come from turmoil and anguish. Lyrically, Miller is raw, unguarded and completely transparent – while sonically, things are laid-back and chilled-out with woozy, mellow production and an overwhelming sense of surrender. Kicking off with a thick, rich bass, Miller sets the overall melancholy mood of the record with opener Circles which features world-weary, whiskey-soaked and half-slurred vocals that make him sound twice his age. It’s a brief, unfussy and simple intro that carries over into Complicated which picks up the tempo slightly as a more upbeat track that gets the head bobbing and toes tapping. “I’m way too young to be getting old,” Miller croons, with barely a rap in sight amidst the watercolour synth washes of electronica. The internal dialogue continues in full display on Hands, where Miller questions the possibility that life’s just an illusion, though perhaps one that’s more akin to a nightmare: “Why don’t you wake up from your bad dream?”
I know maybe I'm too late, I could make it there some other time
Despite the oftentimes bleak lyrical content, there are a lot of beautiful, up-beat, zen-like moments on Circles too – take the Beatle-esque piano-led melodies of Everybody, which sees a strong Abbey Road influence seeping through. According to Warner A&R Jeff Sosnow, who worked with Miller during the Circles sessions, The Beatles were one of his favourite bands, “He said, ‘We gotta get the mic and gear that they recorded on’ and that turned into recording at Abbey Road Studios.” And it certainly shows through Everybody – a track featuring a melody that Lennon himself could have easily penned. Then there’s the infectious, fuzzy guitar and space-funk of Surf where Miller and Brion really get playful with minimalist soundscapes and synthy drones. Brion recalls, “We spent a lot of time laughing and talking about things, like on Surf. That song has a distortion paddle which Malcolm called ‘The sound you didn’t know your speakers can make’.”
In a heartfelt statement from the Miller family following the release of Good News, it was confirmed that Circles would be the rapper’s last gift to his beloved fans. “We simply know that it was important to Malcolm for the world to hear it,” it said. “We are left to imagine where Malcolm was going and to appreciate where he was. We hope you take the time to listen. The look on his face when everyone was listening said it all.” While for some, the news was met with an outpouring of grief, most fans were ecstatic and overjoyed in anticipation of hearing brand new tracks they never thought would see the light of day. Judging from their reactions worldwide, it’s a safe bet there’d be a triumphant smile on Malcolm’s face.