Mac Miller – Circles

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When Mac Miller passed away in September of 2018, hip-hop suffered an immeasurable loss. Adored by both his fans and peers, over his decade-plus long career, Mac had blossomed into one of the rap world’s most likable characters and understated musical heroes. From his early days as a free and fun-loving party rapper, to his wildly dark and experimental abstract period, to the sensual soul-tinged vibe of his later albums, his journey encompassed a myriad of emotions and sounds that will be embraced for years to come.

On January 17, 2020, Mac Miller’s estate released Circles, the first official project put out under Mac’s own name since his death. Intended as a companion piece to 2018’s Swimming, the album’s production was completed by frequent collaborator and legendary songwriter, musician and composer Jon Brion. The record features musical contributions from Wendy Melvoin, Shea Taylor and Ariana Grande, among others. Circles debuted at number three on the Billboard 200, selling 164,000 units in its first week. Its only single, “Good News,” became Mac’s highest charting song as a lead artist, peaking at number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100.

In honor of Mac Miller’s new album, ‘Circles,’ Riffs & Rhymes is hosting a special track-by-track review of the record, including words from various members of Album Book Club.

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1. “Circles”

Words by Hunter Dillman // @HDillman

When Mac passed, it had only been a month or so after Swimming had been released. I went through his discography as if it was brand new and after weeks, finally considered it to be complete. A finished body of work. We all knew he had more to offer, but there was a sense of satisfaction in his growth as both an artist and a person. I think we all felt that.

The raw emotion I had when the news dropped that we were getting Circles was overwhelming. I knew almost immediately that it would be near impossible to evaluate as being impartial to a posthumous album, especially from him.

The intro track itself is a continuation from his last verse on “So It Goes” from Swimming where he says, “My god, it go on and on. Just like a circle, I go back to where I’m from.” It’s as if the producer (Jon Brion) knew the emotion that would come with the album, because sonically speaking, the track “Circles” is very soothing. With the relaxed vibraphone melody and brushed cymbals, it’s a song that would normally ease my anxiety; however, when you look at the lyrics, it’s a challenge to hold tears back, let alone relax. 

Mac called out to each and every single one of us with this track. Talking to us, teaching us, being the big brother that he knew he was to most of us. Showing us how he was lost and felt like his life was moving in circles and there was nothing he could do to get out of them. Mac knew he was troubled, and this track was the beginning of an album full of self-growth and healing.

Listen to “Circles”

2. “Complicated”

Words by Tyler Blankinship // @_solodolo_

It would be so easy to fall into writing about this song through the lens of Mac passing. Lines like “Some people say they want to live forever / That’s way too long, I’ll just get through today” sound especially powerful in light of what’s happened. I’m going to try to avoid that angle since he doesn’t seem to be overtly pondering his own death here the way he has on songs like “Funeral” or “God Speed.”

This is a song about letting yourself experience joy in the face of the world’s complications. Mac is living his own life at his own pace. He’s not ignoring or running from his problems, but he’s not letting them control him either. 

The sound of the track really reflects his attitude beautifully. Mac layers distorted adlibs to illustrate his cluttered mind in the verses, but finds himself singing freely through the chorus and entering an ambitious falsetto by the end of the song. The big moral to this song is that there doesn’t need to be a big moral to this song. 

While writing this, I found myself struggling with the fact that nothing I write will live up to Mac’s legacy. After taking another second and really letting the song wash over me again, “Complicated” reminds me that that’s okay. 

“Does it always gotta be so complicated?”

Listen to “Complicated”

3. “Blue World”

Words by Hunter Dillman // @HDillman

Sampled flips from The Four Freshmen, Donnie Darko and Biggie references, chopped and pitched vocals, and having 1/2 of Disclosure tie it all together for us make this one of my new favorite driving songs. When the beat drops about 25 seconds in, we are immediately taken back to the old-school K.I.D.S. Mac and immersed in a sound that you can’t help but flow with. His experimental jazz with R&B tones shines through in “Blue World.”

At first it feels like Mac is talking to us about living for ourselves, but when you get to the second verse it’s very apparent that this song (along with the rest of the album) is for him. This song specifically is a reflection on the cold blue world that he’s been living in, how it did him wrong and how he did it alone. Yet somehow in the same brush stroke, he’s telling us that we’ll all make it because at the very worst, we got him – “Hey one of these days we’ll all get by.”

This song is the epitome of his growth as a rap/R&B artist. He’s done a lot more singing and new-age blue/soul music since 2016, but on this track he showed us that until his last day, he still had the energy that we all fell in love with from the beginning.

Listen to “Blue World”

4. “Good News”

Words by Roberto Johnson // @_robertojohnson

On an album that flows together so seamlessly, it’s difficult to isolate individual moments as more significant than others, but from the instant you hear the faded and warbly guitar plucks on “Good News,” anybody with a functioning set of ears can sense that it is much more than a normal song. Backed by Jon Brion’s muted keyboard strokes, Mac’s weary yet impassioned delivery taps into the surreal like never before. “Good News” is not only the emotional centerpiece of the album, it also serves as a thesis on the spiritual progression of Mac’s career, specifically his internal battles with depression and alienation, along with his restless longing to find inner peace.

These themes have long permeated Mac’s work in somewhat of a conflicting manner. As crushing as lines such as, “There’s a whole lot more for me waiting on the other side,” are to absorb in the context of his death, I feel an overwhelming sense of adoration for the way Mac always confronted his demons in order to pursue the truth and arrive at a better tomorrow. If this song serves as a guide to Mac’s gentle and tormented soul, I truly believe he was right on the cusp of finding that sanctuary.

Listen to “Good News”

5. “I Can See”

Words by Clay // @C4rt00nsNCereal

“If life is but a dream then so are we.” Listening to this album feels like a dream. Mac not being here to celebrate this album release feels like a dream. It’s difficult to listen to Circles and not be constantly reminded of his death even though this album is about the rise. On “I Can See,” Mac shows us hope. He was hopeful.

Mac goes through the emotions of reaching the top and falling. He is exploring himself and is having a difficult time, but there is so much hope in the way he says these words that you feel good about the search. As if you’re cheering him on to find what he’s looking for. When you immerse yourself, it feels like you’re searching with him.

Listen to “I Can See”

6. “Everybody”

Words by Clay // @C4rt00nsNCereal

“Everybody’s gotta live, and everybody’s gonna die.” It’s like Mac is speaking to us directly. Even when he didn’t know what it was for, he ended up being able to console us. It’s a surreal listen. “Everybody” is a cover of Arthur Lee’s 1972 song “Everybody’s Gotta Live.”

There is a true sense of want to live in this song. Everything is going to be alright and you just need to go with the flow. This should be such an easy-going song, but it now holds so much weight. I get lost listening to it. My emotions don’t go one way or the other. I just float. I float over the lyrics, over the drums, over the piano. And I don’t want to come down.

Listen to “Everybody”

7. “Woods”

Words by Liam Sment // @LSment44

In an album that radiates optimism and hope for a better future, “Woods” is one of the couple tracks on Circles that tells a story of reminiscence and regret; a sentiment that matches much of the emotional journey presented on sister album Swimming.

However, the fear of pain in a troubled relationship, the chance of the pieces just not falling together for the two romantic partners, and the internal struggles Mac is battling, don’t overweigh his need to not give up or his hope for emotional and romantic solidarity and peace. Sentiments that the entirety of Circles proclaims and perfectly contrasts the distress presented in Swimming.

The production on the track identifies itself well with the flowing emotional movement of the lyrical content. No matter how one listens to this song, it is hard not to build some level of connection. Whether the listener is met with sorrow and regret, or daydreaming and positivity, “Woods” is meant to get lost in, just as its name alludes to.

Between a blissfully hurting instrumental that leads you on a journey of floating clouds and the sun setting over our imperfect world, and the melody, flow, and lyricism of a thoughtful Mac Miller, “Woods” is a song that is a capstone to an artistic career that can not be accused of being anything if not remarkable.

Listen to “Woods”

8. “Hand Me Downs”

Words by Liam Sment // @LSment44

On the first listen through Circles, “Hand Me Downs” comes as a surprise. Baro Sura’s feature on the chorus is the only major one on the album. But despite being the outlier for an album that has such a major focus on Mac and his own thoughts, it’s a warm, welcoming, and comforting change, making “Hand Me Downs” one of the strongest songs on the album.

As a perfect predecessor to “Woods,” Mac and Sura carefully craft a story of internal struggle, hope for better, and a fight with personal demons. In the evolving style that lifted Mac from a fraternity party rapper to an internationally renowned songwriter, these simple worded lines are a perfect indicator towards said maturation and the evolution of Mac Miller’s career. His flow and singing beautifully intertwines itself with the drum and string-heavy instrumental, and is exactly what you’d expect from the Pittsburgh native at the peak of his career. 

In one of the few instances on the album where Mac raps, it brings the listener back to the songs like “Dang!” and “Ladders.” The lyrics tell a story of how he yearns for a love that can go the distance and can build a future around. However, he struggles with the fact that he can’t find ways to ease the pain and tendencies he’s buried in. It’s a saddening track to listen to as it’s obvious how much he wanted the love that seemed to evade him constantly, and he knows it’s his own fault that he could not attain it – a sentiment he would carry to his untimely passing.

“Hand Me Downs” is everything a listener would want out of a Mac Miller song in 2020; rapping reminiscent of older albums, singing that felt like home to his more current work, a heartwarming and beautiful feature for the chorus, insightful and meaningful lyricism, and an instrumental that snaps all the pieces of this puzzle together. “Hand Me Downs” is a song that should be part of everyone’s Mac Miller career highlights. 

Listen to “Hand Me Downs”

9. “That’s On Me”

Words by Roberto Johnson // @_robertojohnson

To many listeners, the lasting impression of Mac Miller’s final albums will be his embrace of a rap-adjacent sound pallet that primarily included jazz-laden R&B and neo-soul. “That’s On Me” pushes those markers even further, painting a harmonic fusion of acoustic jazz by way of a piano serenade that sounds distinct from anything else on the album. Here, Mac swaps his usually hazy vocal for a vibrant crooning effort with a simple message – I got you. It’s a valiant testimony to his enduring reputation as someone who loved people and cherished his relationships with those around him.

Listen to “That’s On Me”

10. “Hands”

Words by Roberto Johnson // @_robertojohnson

Circles is a relatively quiet album, albeit one filled with big emotions. “Hands,” however, projects maybe the most expansive soundscape on the record, adopting a Free Nationals-esque brand of plaintive soul via steady key notes and a tumbling drum beat. On a record layered with many levels of emotional complexity, it’s freeing to hear Mac let loose and approach his verses with an easy and friendly tone. He encourages his companion to brush off their problems and choose a positive mind state instead of sulking in their dilemmas – “There’s no reason to be down / Rather fly around like there’s no ground.”

Mac’s rapping here is reminiscent of his Faces-era output, a time where his sound and style naturally gravitated towards the abstract. Over a roomy instrumental, his rhyme schemes are confidently placed at the forefront of each verse, something reflective of Mac’s maturity as a lyricist. As the song progresses, his outlook grows more bleak, but never without losing its thematic punch. The writing on “Hands” is linear, cohesive and pensive from start to finish – yet another pure realization of Mac’s blossoming talents as a songwriter.

Listen to “Hands”

11. “Surf”

Words by Roberto Johnson // @_robertojohnson

I’m hard-pressed to start talking about “Surf” in any way other than in regards to how sweet and endearing of a song it is. Mac’s performance is both heartbreaking and romantic; it’s easily among the most touching tunes in his catalog.

Instrumentally, “Surf” demonstrates the restraint that Jon Brion was so adamant about maintaining on his end of the production when finishing the album. The gentle guitar melodies and subtle bass notes are crucial to delivering the song’s charming message, but their presence never seeks to overshadow Mac’s pillowy vocal.

If only for a fleeting moment, the bliss of “Surf” serves as temporary escape from a real-life tragedy, one last slow dance with a love that now only exists in a dream. It’s songs like these that channel Mac’s evolution from a rapper who created music that lived outside of the rap lane, to a multi-faceted artist whose body of work encompassed a variety of genres in a compelling way.

Listen to “Surf”

12. “Once A Day”

Words by Tyler Blankinship // @_solodolo_

Well, I guess this is it. The last Mac Miller song. We will probably end up hearing some other unreleased tracks in various contexts over the next few years, but this is the last track of the last album Mac actively worked on during his life. It’s really over. 

On “Once A Day,” Mac finds himself accepting the gentle rhythm of his life while everyone around him rushes to try to be something else. There is no judgment at all towards those rushing, no message that everyone should slow down, just an observation of humanity’s strange nature. Mac is not here to preach to you. He may be the artist, but his goal (if there is one), appears to be for the listener to become heard. 

His life is far from perfect, but he has found understanding and is at peace. Though his passing was one of the most tragic losses the music industry has ever felt, there’s a gentle comfort in knowing that Mac lived his last days mostly past the drug and fame induced anxiety that drove a lot of his earlier works, most notably Faces. To close out his last album, Mac sings with his calm, cigarette-stained rasp about how he will continue to rise every day. 

I want to come up with some writing that will make his death make sense. A paragraph that will explain how one of the most genuinely great people in the world, who somehow always managed to top his own music, and soundtracked so many major moments in my life, is gone. This song specifically has helped me to just accept that it will never make any sense. “Once a day, I try, but I can’t find a single word.”

Listen to “Once A Day”

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Album Book Club is an online book club, but for albums, started by Tyler Blankinship. To learn more about Album Book Club and how to join, follow them on Twitter.

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