Applause for the Late Mac Miller’s Heart-Felt Swimming

Sonically and lyrically, “Come Back To Earth,” perfectly establishes the feel of Swimming and encapsulates all the thematic elements of the album: breakups, vulnerability, addiction,  despair, hope, and painful self-awareness. People connect with Mac Miller because he wasn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. He perfectly sums up what depression feels like when he wrote:  “And don’t you know that sunshine don’t feel right / When you inside all day / I wish it was nice out, but it looked like rain /Grey skies and I’m drifting, not living forever /They told me it only gets better.”

Now, the lyrics “I’ll do anything for a way out of my head” are just haunting.

It wasn’t until after Mac Miller died  from a powerful combination of cocaine, fentanyl, and alcohol that I heard his most recent album, Swimming, and immediately started listening to his other work, Best Day Ever, and The Divine Feminine, among others.  Like the inimitable artists who preceded him in death – Prince and Tom Petty, most recently – Miller’s reputation as a real-deal artist is not diminished due to his struggle with addiction. In a short lifespan, he managed to eat, breath, and sleep his craft, so much so that he was always writing, creating, performing, and improving. Just 26 years old after dropping his self-produced August 2018 album, Miller made an inspired appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series, mere months before his body was found.  His NPR performance immediately struck me as genuine as he bantered with his band and addressed the audience in between songs.  Plus,  Thundercat’s willingness to back you up is evidence of your awesomeness . But moreso: Mac Miller makes me feel  something, and simple though that criteria may appear, it’s an indicator for great artistry. Even though he suffered, he nobly shared his vulnerability, sadness, and hope through his music.

The late Mac Miller

Initially, the song “2009” was one of my fast favorites on the album, probably because of the self-reflective quality that the song conveys, both lyrically and instrumentally. The narrator appears to have looked back on his life having realized some hard-won truths but is ready to embrace a hopeful future. My favorite lyric is when he refers a conversation the narrator had with a woman and he cleverly characterizes her as an angel: “She tell me that I get her high ’cause a angel’s s’posed to fly”. The track has a dreamy wisdom about it that comes through the stripped-down instrumentation. Much of Miller’s music simply makes me feel good. 

Track number three, “What’s the Use” is a funky, laid back, feel-good groove featuring Snoop and that signature Thundercat bassline and  that hits in all the right places and might be my favorite tune on the album because, hello, FIVE STRING BASS in the house

Then you have the trumpet-heavy funk and disco dance tune, “Ladders”, that seems to encapsulate the hope and despair Mac embodied in his music. Such a big, bright song evokes a wild night living large in the city but against the backdrop of a sad truth looming in the near future: that the sun would rise and the fun would be over.  “Somehow we gotta find a way / No matter how many miles it takes / I know it feels so good right now / But it all comes fallin’ down / When the night meet the light /Turn to day.  Where was it Mac wanted to go? Check out his live performance of ladders and the all-star 11-piece band on the The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Melodically and rhythmically, “Self-Care”(co-written by Dev Hynes of Blood Orange)  is easily one of my favorite tunes on the album (but I’m hard-pressed to find a bad song on the album). Eerily, the music video portrays Miller lying in a coffin and nearly buried alive as he sings: “Somebody save me from myself, yeah /Tell them they can take that bullshit elsewhere / Self care, we gonna be good /Hell yeah, they lettin’ me go”. Given the trendiness of the concept of “self care” in a society marked by millenial backlash against the backdrop of growing social isolation in spite of vast widespread advancements in technology, Miller wanted to take better care of himself: he was envisioning a better life, but the question would be:  how am I gonna get there?

A review in Pitchfork states so eloquently that the feeling  of a work of art is indeed as valuable as the other more technical components of song crafting:  “As always, Miller remains a step behind the prestige artists he emulates—Chance the Rapper, Anderson.Paak, and, increasingly,Frank Ocean, whose nonchalant songcraft looms large here. Swimming is less virtuosic than those artists’ recent works, but no less heartfelt, and the album’s wistful soul and warm funk fits Miller like his oldest, coziest hoodie. He may be unable to escape his own head, as he laments on the opener “Come Back to Earth,” but he’s decided to make himself as comfortable as possible while he’s trapped there.”

Co-written by Pharell Williams (does he collaborate with everyone?) , “Hurt Feelings” (awesomely described in this article as “weirdly cocksure”)  is another super-catchy tune on the album with a beat that’s perfect for head bobbing, and oddly enough, one of the tunes I crank in the morning to psych myself up for work or life.

Check out “Swimming”  for honest, heart-felt poetry from a young soul who lived the life he rapped about only to die far too young, long before he had a chance to love himself back to life.

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