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Mac Miller, 'Faces' & Why We're Attracted to Artists Killing Themselves

We’ll watch artists fall, we’ll watch artists burn, and then shed a tear when all that's left is a burning corpse with a middle finger raised high.

"This poem is for those who think that / A man can only be a creative genius / At the very edge / Even though they never had the guts / To try it" —Charles Bukowski (“Gold In Your Eye”)

Swirling, fluorescent colors paint the music that is Mac Miller’s The Divine Feminine. The songs are dyed in pleasant pinks, bright yellows, soothing baby blues, and CeeLo’s shade of sincere green. The soul, funk and R&B influences added new tones and textures to the shading of his music, while love played the muse that guided the lyrics he sang and the bars he rapped. Warmer, vibrant hues were like a window into a happier, more joyous Malcolm McCormick. He overcame addiction, avoided death’s scythe, and didn’t lose his soul in the process—The Divine Feminine is more than an album about love, it's the first time since I Love Life, Thank You that Miller saw life through a brighter lens and not dilated pupils.

The Divine Feminine is enjoyable, a musical pack of Starburst for eardrums, but it didn’t lure me back again and again like Mac Miller’s Faces. Faces changed the way I viewed Miller, a mixtape where he was at his most exhilarating, captivating and lyrically potent. He was also full of drugs, loathing, and fear—Hunter S. Thompson rapping in Los Angeles instead of writing in Vegas. He rapped as if tomorrow was uncertain like overdosing was a possibility he considered to be drawing nearer. With the clarity of a philosopher, the transparency of an open diary and a drug problem that would receive kudos from William Burroughs, Mac Miller made his best body of work, despite it being a bit lengthy.

He begins the project with the line, “I should’ve died already,” and admits on its "Grand Finale," “I’m a bit surprised that I’m even still alive, mixin’ uppers and downers, practically suicide,” a haunting revelation. Mac was focused on the candy up his nose instead of making music that sounded like tasting the rainbow, swimming through a melancholy sewage of vices unsure if he would drown before reaching dry land. I couldn’t get enough of it, this was the first time he rapped on par with Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples and Sir Michael RocksFaces was like watching a man sink into an ocean full of sharks, enthralled by the fact that he smiles as the water slowly submerges his body.

Subconsciously, I couldn’t play the album without fearing for his life. He was too honest about the abundance of cocaine, he seemed to be on a bender headed for the edge with no return. But he had never rapped so well, it's almost as if all his potential was unlocked under this strenuous influence of poor decisions. How strange that he showed the most promise when life seemed to be writing his final chapter.

Miller reminded me of Lil Wayne during the era of “I Feel Like Dying” and “Me And My Cup,” when he was at his most high, most alien, and most at-risk of death. Wayne was musically abstract about his addiction, Mac was terse and honest about abusing substances and losing himself in the mayhem. They both were able to overcome their doomsdays, still amongst us, but they both have periods in their careers that were devastatingly dark but filled with excellent music and moments. Faces is better than both GO:OD AM and The Divine Feminine. I enjoy them all, but the two projects about surviving didn’t leave the impact like the one about fading away.

Darkness started to overcast Mac's music around the time of Macadelic in 2012, a mixtape that displayed the development of a rapper who was improving his craft. 2013's Watching Movies With The Sound Off was even better, a pleasant sophomore release that eclipsed a disappointing debut. Drugs were apparent on both projects—cups were doubled, roaches infested studio sessions, acid tabs dissolved under tongues, and whiskey was downed like water—but it wasn’t alarming since drugs are expected in modern rap music like lions are expected to appear on Animal Planet. The content grew increasingly darker, he was diving inward, exploring his own fears and doubts more often than before. Mac was getting better; more transparent, and he became a rapper who was exciting to watch evolve.

Cocaine was the muse of Faces, along with a plethora of other forms of self-medication that shouldn’t be taken together. My days weren't like his, we weren't performing any of the same reckless actions, but something connected, I felt him more than ever before. Mac needed rehab, not downloads. Mac needed help, not praise. I gave him my download, and I gave him my praise, but I felt guilty watching him self-destruct, and yet, being enamored by the flame he made. The last flame of life.

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It’s best when an artist can pull themselves from their sunken darkness, climbing out the hole that could very well become the place of their tombstone. Would I still cringe at Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” if she was actually admitted after the song's release? I'm not sure. It would be a bookmark of dark times instead of a cry for help that sadly foreshadowed a tragic future. There’s always going to be a part of me that is happy Future’s addiction to drugs wasn't completely true, an authentic drug user who abused substances to that degree would be more zombie than man. But I still play “Codeine Crazy” and know these aren’t just lyrics, you can hear in his voice that the Actavis was gripping his soul like a python wrapped tightly around a koala bear. Amy could play her resistance against help on the radio, Future had his sorrows scorching up the clubs, and Mac Miller got the loudest applause for being honest about being conquered by his ill decisions—an imbalance of admiring art and worrying about the artist.

Humans are attracted to pain, we understand the voice of struggle, and can appreciate how honest art can leave us the most impacted. True struggle is rarely fabricated; it’s hard to fake your life collapsing. There are fewer drugs on HNDRXX, but I revisit 56 Nights far more often. There’s more peace on The Divine Feminine but when I’m in the mood for Mac I settle for the chaos that is Faces.

There’s a natural fascination with subjects like violence, drugs, and sex. We are enamored by rock and roll chaotic pandemonium even though we might not live that life ourselves. It’s voyeuristic in a way, being so enamored by a slice of their life when mayhem is the biggest influence. We live in the era of watching one another, but we have long found interest in the lives of others falling apart or being rebuilt. Think about reality TV, it’s all about capturing people at a point of eruption or their attempts at redemption after going to the edge and not hitting the ground. It makes perfect sense that right now we have trap music and more artists doing drugs than selling them. Prison awaits those who display their product on social media, but a record deal is possible for anyone who isn’t afraid to showcase their dying flame in music or videos. We’ll watch you fall, we’ll watch you burn, and then shed a tear when all that's left is a burning corpse with a middle finger raised high.

Danny Brown’s “Ain’t It Funny” music video is an eerie example of an artist who has become a caricature, displaying pain and receiving only laughs in return. Danny has always carried his problems with drugs and alcohol like a rock star, there was never any fear in his bleak world—he actually had a way of livening up the grim reality by smiling through the blood, the terror, the desolate home he had made into a brand. Danny’s reality wasn’t fabricated, but he made it enjoyable; punchlines would make you laugh after hearing lyrics that made you worry. He’s another survivor he put the darker days behind him, but this would be a completely different article if he truly died like a rockstar all those years ago when he foresaw his doom.

I remember when Eminem was told by fans to return to the drugs after feeling underwhelmed by his Relapse album. They wanted more than Slim Shady’s blonde hair, they wanted the substances that added fire to his already blazing rage. I wouldn’t want Mac Miller returning to drugs, even if it means he never makes a project better than Faces. I would rather him be happy and healthy than attempt to top the project I consider his best. That’s like asking 50 Cent to get shot nine more times in hope of recreating Get Rich or Die Tryin'—being closer to death is not worth the art that might come from the descent into decadence. I always believed 50 could never become who he was again because his life had changed drastically, a point I think Mac has reached. I fear how far artists will go to try and reclaim an old feeling since you can never truly go back. Some music can only be made in a rare moment when life reaches a point that simply can't be recreated.   

Hip-hop comes from nothing; some of our favorite rappers were raised in dire situations and struggles so bleak that the only hope was a notebook and a microphone and a dream. There’s always going to be a layer of darkness around music that sprouted from the concrete; there's always going to be drugs (used and sold), fear, loathing, struggle, heartbreak and other subjects that are painful but relatable—easy to connect to and somehow still so distant. Sadly, I feel closer to the rags than the riches, to drunken genius than sober brilliance. The honesty of an addict has always been a truth that’s more compelling than the lies of a poser—the world burning is much warmer than a manufactured paradise—but I hate that some of my favorite works of art are from when artists were down and out.

Solace can be found in the struggle, especially when that struggle has the hope of becoming a success. Never lose sight of the fact that artists are people, that their words can be real, and that their lives can be lost. I’m happy for Mac Miller like I’m happy for anyone who can climb out of the gloomy grey and find a life with vibrant colors to live within. Life is dark, it’s easy to fall into the darkness, and what’s more important than the art that comes from it is how well an artist recovers. Mac Miller and many others survived when their lives were at risk; great music was made and that great music will continue to be played, but only because they made it out.

Don’t be consumed. Don’t fall victim thinking you need the darkness to be a genius. Drugs don’t make the artist, but they can take you away before becoming the man or woman you’re meant to be. Don’t lose sight of the light while swimming with the sharks, and don’t self-destruct just so they can view the fireworks. Vices can be influential but they aren’t worth the price of a life. Artists and fans have to remember this while we sing and dance to another’s pain. I want great art, I want it with a bit of blood, but I'll always place a strong heartbeat over a good song. 

By Yoh, aka Malcolm YohCormick, aka @Yoh31


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