Swimming in Circles: Remembering Mac Miller and How He Helped Me Come Back to Earth

Rafael Goldstein

 Mia Gleiberman

Mia Gleiberman

“Shoulda died already” is the first line Mac Miller raps on “Inside Outside,” the first song of Faces, his last mixtape. In a later song on the tape he writes, “A drug habit like Philip Hoffman will probably put me in a coffin.” The project culminates with a song entitled “Grand Finale,” and in the last hook, Mac raps, “The world will be just fine without me.” Faces was released in May of 2014, and it does more than just allude to Mac’s thoughts of death. It’s practically his suicide note.

Miller’s struggles weren’t just evident in his music. He even noted in an interview with Billboard a year after Faces’s release that “Grand Finale” held that title because “it was supposed to be the last song [he] made on earth.” But it wasn’t his last song. In fact, he went on to release 3 more albums and appeared to be doing better. In what seems likely to be his last interview ever, which was released on September 6th, he holds a particularly optimistic view of life, even looking forward to his future. Then, just a day later, on September 7th, 2018, Mac died, at the age of 26, of a suspected overdose.

Although there are crucial parts of Mac’s life between the release of Faces and his death just a few weeks ago, the focus of this essay will be less on the events of Mac’s life, and more on his effect on me and many of my peers. More specifically, why he has had such a deep impact on my life. This is not to say that what happened in Miller’s life isn’t important; rather, I believe personal interviews with him and his friends tell a more accurate story than I could. In reality, I never met Mac Miller. Yet on September 7th, I cried more than I have in a long time about someone leaving my life. And I felt more affected by his loss, not just in comparison to when other artists have passed away, but than when people who I have actually interacted with, physically embraced in my arms, have been erased from my life. How could that be, that a person I have never met, never exchanged a word with—never even a breath—could have such an impact on my life?

I’ve been listening to Faces a lot since Mac’s death and, aside from the fact that Faces has long been my favorite project of his, I keep going back to it because it includes the songs where he talks most about his battle with depression and thoughts of suicide. This might seem odd to you; perhaps you’d prefer to listen to his happier songs, to remind you of the good times you’ve had, maybe even cheer you up a bit now that he’s gone. But if you know Mac Miller, you know that he doesn’t really have “happy” songs, at least in the traditional sense. Sure, maybe at times his songs could evoke feelings of happiness, like his love songs off Divine Feminine, and the more upbeat songs from his older projects like Best Day Ever, but that is never the whole picture when it comes to Mac’s music. And that’s what makes it so real.

Yes, there are happy lines: cute lyrics you could use as captions for Instagrams with your partner, bangers that make you want to jump…but in all of these songs, there always comes the other side. There is always at least a tinge of sadness, a drop of the morose, an additional snapshot to demonstrate the full story. If most songs I listen to are close up, cropped photos, a Mac Miller song is a full panorama. A Mac Miller song has it all. In all of its upbeat moments, like the lines you sing when you are celebrating a win, there are also always the sad ones, too. Lines that you’d listen to when you’re getting over a break-up, or a death. Because that’s what life really is, right? Nothing exists in isolation; every emotion contains its polar opposite.

In his last interview, Mac Miller profoundly adds, “I really wouldn’t want just happiness. And I don’t want just sadness either. I don’t want to be depressed. I want to be able to have good days and bad days. I feel like that’s really important.” Aside from its poetry, the quote truly encapsulates Mac’s music. For example, the first sound you hear when turning on Faces, which is regarded as documentation of some of the hardest times in his life, is an upbeat sample of The Crusaders’ My Lady. In fact, until Mac’s voice comes in, you might even think the song was going to be happy, almost like a classic Kanye soul sample. But, of course, you’d be wrong, because right after the beat begins, he raps, “Shoulda died already.” This contrast was not rare in his music; the combination of traditionally happy beats with considerably depressing lyrics, or vice versa, is peak Mac. Faces is the best example of this, but even in his latest album Swimming, songs like “Small Worlds” and “Jet Fuel” exhibit this unique Mac quality.

Craig Jenkins, who interviewed Miller most recently, also noticed this duality in his music. Jenkins points specifically to the song “Weekend,” off Mac’s 2015 album GO:OD AM. The chorus is just Mac repeating, over and over again, variations of “We going out tonight.” So you might expect the song to be just another party song, a banger that is satisfied with making you want to dance. Mac’s music is different. When you listen to the song, with lyrics like “Wondering what's the thing that keeps me breathing / Is it money, fame or neither?” you realize a song that could have been just another radio hit is really a complex piece of art that includes deep, intense emotion.

And yes, you might be thinking, True, his music is deep, but isn’t there a time when it’s alright to just listen to happy music? The answer is yes, and of course you always have a right to listen to that kind of music. That’s what makes music so great. There’s music for any activity, any feeling or mood, any person. But there is some music that words can’t fully describe, because it brings about feelings that transcend life. Mac made music like that.

In another song off Faces, titled “Funeral”, Mac writes, “A shame that my tragedy, my masterpiece.” Mac’s life is certainly a tragedy, but what makes his tragedy so unique—compared with the tragedies of many other people fighting depression—is that so many of his struggles are public, documented through his music. With that transparency, there is a certain kind of vulnerability that makes his music so important. For me, telling just a few close friends personal details about my struggles with anxiety and depression is challenging enough; I can’t even imagine telling the world, millions of people who I don’t know, something as important, as personal, and as stigmatized as mental health struggles. Mac’s honesty reaches a level mosts artists, and for that matter most people in the world (including me), are unable to reach. For that reason, he is able to speak to moments that are at the same time so personal yet so universal that all of his listeners can connect in some way.

To come back to the question I posed in the beginning of the essay (How could someone I’ve never met have had such an impact on me?), I think I am now reaching something like an answer. It’s Mac’s ability to include all aspects of  life in his music: everything from the good, to the bad, to the relaxing, to the vulnerable parts of our everyday experience. Sometimes, the way a beautiful voice sounds over a euphonious beat just makes your body feel right, even if the reasoning is impossible to pinpoint. And I think that’s enough. In truth, there is no full answer to the question, but I think Mac would be content with that. There are a lot of questions in life where we can’t find answers; certainly Mac didn’t have them all, and he didn’t pretend to, either. But his honesty, the fact that he never pretended, makes it so much easier for me to be at peace with this lack of clarity.

The last song on Miller’s last album, Swimming, is entitled “So it Goes.” Although every song on the album was released at the same time, it can be seen as the last new Mac Miller song we will likely ever hear. The last line of the last verse on “So it Goes” is, “My god, it go on and on / Just like a circle, I go back to where I'm from.” This lyric always reminds me of another Mac Miller song, “Ave Maria”, in the chorus of which he repeats, “And centers stay still, but the merry go round, and round / It all just keeps spinning / Gotta keep swimming.” Both lines bear a striking resemblance: Swimming and swimming, but going nowhere, almost as if he is trapped in a fishbowl. Although there were 4 years between Faces and Swimming, it appears Mac was still stuck in the same circle.

In the last few lines of “Ave Maria”, Mac ominously asks, “Have you found a way out?” as if the question is rhetorical, as if he’s alluding that there is no way out. In a sense, though, he found a way out. Mac Miller is no longer breathing, and as tragic as his death is, it is also an interruption from the circular path he described, an escape from the cycle of life many find so painful. We can even hope he’s in a better place now.

But this way of looking at things doesn’t do Mac justice. Mac Miller didn’t fear or question death—he had a tattoo on his wrist that read, “Memento Mori,” which loosely translates from Latin to “Remember death.” He embraced life’s inconsistencies and struggles, its unanswerable questions. Mac wouldn’t have wanted death to be an easy answer. And because of that, almost paradoxically, he’s helped me answer his own question from “Ave Maria”:

There is a way out, and it’s not through death. It’s through listening to incredibly powerful music, music like Mac’s. Music that reminds you of what matters in life, of love and emotion that so encompass your brain and your body, they are ineffable. Just think about goosebumps, the goosebumps you get when you know something, a person, a moment, a song, matters. Even though his life ended tragically, Miller’s music lives on, helping me, helping others, find our own ways out. Our own ways out of our personal struggles, through the circuitous eternity of pain and suffering. And in that, there’s salvation. In that, there’s immortality.

Rest easy, Mac.