Mac Miller was almost there. The Pittsburgh rapper had long left behind the days of his goofy mixtapes and stoner bro persona, mixing his passions for rock and R&B into his increasingly-layered music. He’d always had that goofy smile and sense of humor, but he was starting to truly define himself as an artist. His 2018 album Swimming emphasized that acceptance of change, pulling himself out of a spiral and ready for something more. And that above all else might be the greatest tragedy of Miller’s death that same year, that he had so much more to give and was ready to give it. He was almost there and then he wasn’t, but dammit if he didn’t come close.
It’s a miracle that Circles, the final project Miller was working on before he died, has come out as complete as it is. Posthumous album releases are a dime a dozen, occasionally mining a diamond (Joy Division’s Closer, Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death) in the never-ending rough (Michael Jackson’s Michael, XXXTentacion’s Bad Vibes Forever). The good news is that Circles is not a hodgepodge of demos slapped together into half-baked songs. Miller was working with producer Jon Brion (Kanye West, Fiona Apple) on a companion piece to Swimming and it certainly sounds like Brion had a lot to work with.
Whereas Swimming was a mixture of Mac’s evolved rapping and dips in singing, Circles is basically Mac’s attempt at a full-on R&B record. It actually has a lot in common with his 2016 effort The Divine Feminine, a candy-sweet neo-soul tribute to the women who inspired him. “Complicated,” “Blue World” and “I Can See” features some excellent futuristic synths, either creating a relaxing haze or chopped up for a head-bopping beat. The rest of the album is well-layered with instrumentals, harkening back to his lauded Faces mixtape. The title track, “Good News,” “Hand Me Downs” and “Surf” sound like studio sessions with a live backing band and Miller coming off like a heartbroken lounge singer. Hell, Rufus Wainwright would likely take a crack at “Everybody” or “That’s on Me.” Swimming might’ve actually been a better title for Circles, considering it’s the sound of Mac floating in a sea of his own thoughts without care. Yet Brion has done an outstanding job crafting whatever vision Mac had for this record. As limited as his vocal range is, the music elevates it to sound endearing. It’s not as haunting as one would think, rather calming instead. That’s the other tragedy of Circles: Mac finally sounds at peace with everything.
Of course Mac had no intention of dying young, but his lyrics suggest that he was almost expecting his death. Or maybe helping someone else in the process. The title track has Mac stuck in a rut, all by his own doing and feeling an impending dread (“Well, this is what it look like right before you fall”). Mac’s self-awareness has always been one of his most defining traits and his not shy about admitting to his vices on “I Can See” (“I’m so close I can taste it/The man on the moon keep playing/Practical jokes, planting the mirrors and smoke/That I fade away in”) and what they do to his perception (“Yeah, don’t tell me to stop/Let me keep goin’ until I cannot/Life is a fantasy until you wake up in shock”). But how aware was Mac of his own demise? “Hand Me Downs” has Mac fading away further and further (“’Cause you care, and I swear that I’m here, but I’m there/It’s getting harder to hunt me down”) despite trying to get out of his hole (“I try to minus the problems that I attract/And half the time the wheels that’s in the back of my mind/Just keep on turning ’til the tires flat and burn until the fire crack”). And he keeps wanting to leave, asking “Can I come too?” on both “Surf” and “Woods.” It’s a cry for help, both for love and consolation.
But in the end, Mac finds closure for whatever self-doubt he was feeling. Circles has a completion, a finality to Mac’s vision of a musician. He honestly might’ve retired from rapping after dropping this album if he lived to see it. Instead, Circles is an occasionally tragic but as a whole comforting farewell to one of the most unique artists in rap history. For all the negative feelings Mac puts forth on Circles, he knows something better is around the corner. “There’s a whole lot more for me waitin’ on the other side,” he says on lead single “Good News.” On album closer “Once a Day,” he asks everyone to feel the same way (“But every now and again, why can’t we just be fine?”). Mac was fine, at least he almost was.