Mac Miller and the Importance of Balance

Mac Miller passed away this Friday at 26.  His music meant many things to many people, including myself, and I highly encourage anyone reading this to at least make a shallow dive into his work in the last few years, which shows an incredibly mature perspective on life and challenges for such a young artist.  However, I don’t want to talk about his music, or at least not directly.  I also don’t want to talk about the grief I and others like me have experienced after his passing.  Pieces like Donna-Claire Chesman’s reflection on DJBooth have captured that sentiment and energy better than I ever could.  Instead, I want to talk about artists, their art, and their audience.

Miller publicly struggled with mental illness and addiction. They were major themes of his mainstream music since his sophomore album in 2013, and subtle hints would pop up from time to time on social media, in interviews, or in individual lyrics on earlier songs.  On bouncy college party anthem “Loud”, he starts off the first verse with the couplet “I got codeine in my cup/You can bet your ass I’m sipping”, a lyric first taken as innocuous that signaled a forthcoming addiction to the opiate.  Watching Movies With the Sound Off, that aforementioned sophomore release, bridged the gap both in style and content between Miller’s frat rap beginnings and his introspective future. The next mixtape, Faces, was a window into the mind of a young man tortured by substance abuse and death fixation bordering on suicidal ideation. From then onward, his music was a healing process first and foremost, exploring first happiness, then love, then finally truth.

After his passing, social media was full of posts honoring the late artist and his music, many including the songs that affected each individual personally. I myself posted a link to Faces in its entirety, and my feed (mostly rappers and rap fans) included many links to songs from that mixtape. I spent Friday night exploring his catalog again, and I was hit for the first time with the hard gut punch of a truth: he told us everything that was going to kill him four years before he died and instead of advocating a break, an intense healing, fans celebrated the content and asked for more, asked for a tour, asked for more music than any human could reasonably be expected to produce in a healthy state of mind. He still delivered, sad tracks from the cutting room floor tacked onto a live album, then a studio album that revisited his lonely emotional outlook, albeit from a more positive perspective. When he found love and expressed it through an R&B album, fans complained that it sounded too happy, why is Kendrick Lamar singing about sex instead of matching Mac bar-for-bar on more serious topics, where are the warped-sample slow-drum drug introspections, where’s Mac Miller on this album?

Mac Miller was not his art.  He was not the sadness disguised by dark jokes and intricate wordplay, just like he was not the love songs about his girlfriend or the college raps from his early work.  The public mistakes content for self, mistakes sound for identity, and mistakes relation with connection.  I found solace not in a common struggle, but in growth, from Miller rapping lethargically about the cycle of overdosing on his couch then waking up to smoke again, to him releasing a lead single called “Self-Care” and creating an album about freedom and maturity and thriving despite pain and demons.  When he was alive, his public positivity was scorned as much as it was praised.  When he passed, his audience largely celebrated his darkest art.

The media machine is so unilaterally focused on receiving, unpacking, and commenting on the latest release. Since the advent of Twitter, every release is accompanied a new conversation conducted in 280 characters or less that can often boil hours of material down to their bones—or worse, nothing more than a comparison to another album released that same day. When Miller passed, amid the public mourning from friends, collaborators, and media outlets was this striking tweet from rapper Ugly God.

“Remember when Mac dropped his Album the same night Astroworld dropped and yall were saying “y’all hear sum?” “who still listens to him” & “tell him keep it”? We had a whole convo about it & he literally told me if he died people would act like they never said it. fuck yall. RIP.”

-Ugly God (tweet since deleted)

Appreciate your favorite artists for simply being alive.  Be grateful that their talent has not been drowned by their vices.  And instead of applauding the next tortured song from Future, Danny Brown, any of the countless young rappers that have built their brand and public image around substance abuse, or even the electronic, rock, and pop artists whose music doesn’t revolve around their demons, advocate for their health.  Music you like will arrive every week from a myriad of stellar prolific voices.  Keep some of those voices alive with patience and compassion.  Even as consumers, far removed from the artists themselves, I believe we have enough responsibility for that.  Rest in peace, Mac Miller.

Stream Miller’s last album Swimming, released August 3.

Stream his 2016 album The Divine Feminine featuring Kendrick Lamar, Ariana Grande, Ty Dolla $ign, CeeLo Green, and others. 

Stream his 2013 album Watching Movies with the Sound Off featuring Flying Lotus, Pharrell Williams, Tyler, the Creator, Ab-Soul, and others.

Art by Caroline Prudente.
Photo by Clarke Tolton.
Album art for
Swimming by Mac Miller.

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