Mac Miller was a rapper, singer, songwriter, and producer who tragically passed away from an accidental drug overdose in 2018 at the young age of 26. The legacy of Mac Miller lives on with his posthumous album Circles, a heartbreaking yet hopeful representation of Miller’s conflicted spirit.
Miller had been working on Circles with producer Jon Brion, who dedicated himself to completing the album after Miller’s death. Circles was meant to be a companion piece to his previous album Swimming, completing the conceptual phrase: “Swimming in Circles.”
Swimming is a mix of rap and song, while Circles is more song-based; Miller had supposedly planned a third album of rap to bring him back to his roots. In the final track on Swimming, Miller sings: “Just like a circle, I go back to where I’m from.” This idea of going around in circles provided the basis for his next album. Through 12 varied tracks, Miller reveals his most vulnerable, deepest, and at times darkest self.
Substance abuse and mental health were constant struggles for Miller. Miller’s depression and drug use were intertwined; his addictions worsened with the pressures of fame, and his fame took a toll on his mental state. When Miller rose to fame as a teenager, his genre was deemed “frat rap;” his lyrics revolved around partying, marijuana, money, and women. In time, with each album, Miller matured as an artist, moving toward more introspective material. As a white rapper in a genre built by Black artists, Miller acknowledged his privilege and its role in his success but never truly thought of race when creating his music. In an interview with VladTv, Miller once said: “If you really think I was in the studio like, ‘This one’s for the white kids, the white kids gonna love this one […] let’s talk about kegs.’ […] That wasn’t what was happening at all” (01:47-02:01). Instead, he produced honest, authentic music that spoke to his life experiences and identity. This being said, Miller openly expressed his anxieties and addictions through his art.
With his singing voice front and center, Circles holds themes of regret and depression, as if Miller were sorting through his demons, but also of perseverance. As a whole, the album portrays a man seeking peace, whether this calls for recovery or merely acceptance, through indie rock, hip-hop, and soul. Miller had a unique sound; his words were usually mumbled with a groggy voice, but in a soothing, relatable, surprisingly confident manner. This casualness captured a certain intimacy in his expression of his spectrum of emotions.
The album fittingly begins with the first track entitled “Circles.” Its calm guitar strumming and soft cymbal tapping carry his raspy voice, singing: “I cannot be changed, no / Trust me, I’ve tried / I just end up right at the start of the line / Drawin’ circles.” Miller is feeling without direction; life goes in circles, and he cannot do anything about it. This somber message contradicts the relaxed melody, demonstrating an apparent acceptance to his fate. “Complicated” is the next track, with a contrastingly upbeat melody. This song has more of an electronic, techno sound, with a synthetic beat, steady drumming, and some verses ending in a robotic-like echo. Miller sings about the difficulties of life and taking them one day at a time: “Some people say they want to live forever / That’s way too long, I’ll just get through today.” He also references his struggle with mental health: “Inside my head is getting pretty cluttered / I try, but I can’t clean up this mess I made.” This cleaning metaphor is also utilized in his fourth track “Good News,” when he sings: “I spent the whole day in my head / Do a little spring cleaning,” concerning his cluttered, low-spirited mindset. The peaceful instrumentals of the drums, guitar, and pizzicato plucking highlight his sullen vocals as he describes “running out of gas” and being “so tired of being tired.” While he is open about these negative feelings, he admits: “It ain’t that bad, it could always be worse.”
The third track, “Blue World,” begins with a snippet from the song “It’s a Blue World” by The Four Freshman, released in 1950: “It’s a blue world without you / It’s a blue world alone,” which fades into a synthetic beat. Miller then raps about overthinking: “My mind it goes, it goes,” a phrase used in his previous album. Miller also consistently mentions the devil: “We don’t gotta let him in,” which is most likely a reference to his ongoing addictions. Although the subject matter is depression, it is a catchy, playful tune. Miller’s fifth track has a more euphoric feel, reminiscent of the extensive use of synthesizers of many artists in the 1980s. “I Can See” shows Miller looking at himself and how he can change; it is a search for fulfillment.
“Woods” also has a euphoric feel; the combination of the drums and the synthesizer set the dreamlike tone. Miller gently raps the verses and lightly sings the chorus of “Do I, do I, do I love? / Can I, can I, can I get enough?” as he questions his emotions. This bittersweet harmony could definitely be featured on a relaxing road trip playlist. “Hand Me Downs” is another smooth track, with a steady drum and guitar strumming, featuring Baro, an Australian rapper, on the chorus. Miller describes his self-destructive nature: “I made it, but I hate once I build it I break it down.” In the next track, “That’s on Me,” he once again addresses this self-destructiveness by taking accountability for his mental health, singing: “That’s on me, that’s on me, I know / That’s on me, that’s on me, it’s all my fault.” While he sounds hopeful and discusses helping others who struggle, it is conveyed in a melancholy tone. He sings: “Today I’m flyin’,” which is accordingly drawn out to sound like an airplane passing through the sky.
Miller also sounds optimistic in “Surf,” singing: “I’m startin’ to see that all I have to do is get up and go.” It has a warmhearted, tender feel, sung to strums similar to that of a ukulele. An electric sounding vibration is introduced after the chorus, ending in an instrumental outro led by the bass. His most positive track on the album is “Hands,” in which he displays a certain confidence in leading his own life. The beat is led by a child-like mutter surrounded by varied orchestral percussion with playful keys. Miller speaks to his ego rapping: “You throw me off my high horse, I’d probably fall to my death,” and reassures himself by rapping: “There’s no reason to be so down.” This candid nature translates into his track “Everybody,” a cover of Arthur Lee’s song “Everybody’s Gotta Live” from 1972, when he sings “Everybody’s gotta live / And everybody’s gonna die.” The beat is guided by the piano, soon adding the drums and bass, producing a soulful melody about the inevitable complications of life.
The album ends with “Once a Day,” a beautifully mournful representation of depression. Just as Ann Cvetkovich’s notion that depression should be thought of as a “cultural and social phenomenon rather than a medical disease” (1), Miller normalizes the concept of depression by addressing his anxieties produced by social and cultural forces: the stress of tours, fame, and societal pressures to succeed. He cannot escape his own negative thoughts: “Once a day, I rise / Once a day, I fall asleep with you” but urges listeners not to keep it all inside, suggesting depression is a commonly felt experience. In these times, this has become even more prevalent with the rise in anxiety, fear, stress, and depression related to social isolation and the dangers of the pandemic. However, it is heartening and promising to hear Miller sing: “I just keep waiting for another door to come up soon,” which is exactly what society appears to be doing at the moment. The soft instrumentals pleasantly support his raw vocals, and the song ends quite abruptly, just as his sudden, devastating passing.
Overall, the album manages to combine dreamy, sorrowful, and upbeat tunes to detail Miller’s life and the heavy weight of his struggles. It successfully implements contrasting notes of both depression and hopefulness of a man trying to contemplate himself and the world around him. His reflective emotions and ever present vulnerability shine through the darkness of which he sang about, and though Miller lost the battle with his addictions, his memory and art will live on.