The Pursuit of Forms: Five Years of ‘Watching Movies with the Sound Off’ with Mac Miller

“Who the fuck is Mac Miller?” Five years ago, the answer to that question started to take shape.
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“There's a bird, in the sky / Look at him fly, why? / Why, why, why, why, why, why, why, why? / Why, why, why, why, why, why, why, why? / Let the money pile, I'll be running wild / Life's a mothafuckin' joke so we fuck around” —Mac Miller, “Avian”

Mac Miller is a rapper in the pursuit of forms. This is why he appears naked on the cover of his 2013 sophomore album, Watching Movies with the Sound Off. The messaging is dangerously heavy-handed, but with the arresting look Mac puts forward with his headshot, we’re primed to take him very seriously. “It was a lot of shutting out the rest of the world and finding the inspiration inside of myself,” he told Noisey in 2013. “It was healthy and cleansing,” and evidently demanded no clothing.

From the cover, we knew we were pressing play on a definitive moment. But stepping back a bit, let’s recall Blue Slide Park “earning” a 1.0 from Pitchfork, a score that still feels disingenuous but also ceremonial. BSP was Mac Miller bubbling in his forge while Watching Movies is closer to cooling steel, to true form. And Mac knew it, telling Complex that he was “in a different place mentally,” in 2013, “a little more secluded and a little more slowed down—which was nice because I needed the space and time.”

Take the first verse of “S.D.S.,” where Mac bemoans insomnia but also manifests his future. “It's harder than it seems, I'm underwater in my dreams,” he spits. In the context of his discography, this lyric is eerily prophetic. The next year-and-a-half of Miller’s music would evidence itself to be a series of churning fever dreams before he finally woke up on GO:OD AM. With these little nuggets of foreshadowing, it's easier to admit that, at the very least, Watching Movies with the Sound Off was Mac Miller’s most earnest step forward as an artist.

Yet, tracking Miller purely by album is partly disingenuous. As an artist, he flourishes in the undertow of mixtapes. There can be no Watching Movies, no understood form, without the sultry mania of 2012’s Macadelic. A winding and youthful din of sex, drugs, and depression marked Macadelic as a true departure from the easy playground raps of Blue Slide Park, a concept album more so in name. Classic Mac cuts like “Fight the Feeling,” “Loud,” and “America” paved the way for the refined raucous and outpouring of emotion that made Watching Movies so immediately compelling.

There are frayed and jagged edges to the album, surely, but the rough-and-tumble nature of Mac’s pursuit keeps us engaged. There are moments on Watching Movies that feel shapeless, that allude to the aural breakdown that will become Delusional Thomas and then, finally, Faces. Take the transient nature of the vocal pitching and how Miller cycles through moods before the listener can catch their breath. This feature, among others, personifies the neurons firing in Mac’s brain, and makes Watching Movies a challenging listen—the album is a scavenger hunt for form and meaning for the listener and the creator.

“Look, I'm posing a question / How many been empty and holding aggression? / Close to depression / Open your eyes and just focus a second / Fuck a recession, my brother / My mind is my weapon, I'm letting it go” —Mac Miller, “I Am Who Am (Killin’ Time)”

Where there is a challenge, then, there must be a reward. The reward for weaving through the eclectic and whacked out whimsy of the first arc of the album comes with the candid and gnawing pivot that is “I Am Who Am (Killin’ Time).” While Miller told Billboard that “Avian,” specifically the hook, was the “heart and soul” of the album, we can go a step further to say that “I Am Who Am” is the body—Miller’s first true foray into the body—for its propensity to scar and bruise, and display these wounds so openly.

“[Watching Movies with the Sound Off is] a lot more personal,” he told Noisey. “I’ve always wanted to have a record that was more of something to just sit and listen to. I always used to be scared to do that. I’d make a mixtape that had all these songs that were chill, but then it’d come down to the album process and I’d think that I needed to have bangers… But this time I went with my gut and followed through with my vision and did what I set out to do.”

With that, “I Am Who Am” is marked by urgency and desperation, and steeped in layers of Jewish guilt. Mac’s delivery is punchy to the point of needling you with imagery and the clawing dissonance of hopelessness and assumed optimism. Then we get to the crux of the matter as Miller confesses: “Yahweh put the world in my hands, I'm giving it back.” Here, he is grappling with the weight of being Chosen, be it by way of religious upbringing or his increasing fame. Here, he is being granted a form with which to work and returning it out of either resignation or rebellion. Or, more simply, Mac Miller would like to be left alone.

Miller speaks to a particular neurosis in the most succinct way possible, which is the mark of a poet if there ever was a singular definition. For all of his ambling imagery on this album, it’s his ability to spring back to a single weighty bar that makes him a fine writer. On “I Am Who Am,” each line cuts deeper than the next, making the track something of an all-consuming entity in the most subtle way possible.

The subsequent “Objects In the Mirror” cashes in on that nebulous feeling with candid commentary on depression. The patter of Miller’s vocals as he sings “I wish you caught me on a different day / When it was easier to be happy” carries such a lightness, listeners can fold into the accessible and dark pockets of his music just as easily as they can skate over them. The pursuit of form, then, becomes the pursuit for happiness and thus the reward of the album is clear: Mac Miller is leveling with all of us, Jewish and depressed, and otherwise.

From this point on—and for the remainder of his career—Mac Miller will exist as an artist bare. The haze of “Red Dot Music” concludes with a scathing verse of his critiques from venerable battler Loaded Lux. His bars are caustic, knocking everything from Mac’s earliest music to his fronting a drug-dealing lifestyle in the early 2000s, to his being a White boy in a Black art form, and ends with a heavy question: “Who the fuck is Mac Miller?

The answer comes on the next song, “Gees”: “Uh, ignorant-ass white kid.” This is self-aware satire that might just have some truth in it, and that’s a pursuit of form, too. Even the format of the album is painfully self-aware, with “O.K.,” the standout on the album’s deluxe edition featuring the all-too-real admission “Album filled with all sad songs / but this the one that I can laugh on,” followed by an encouraging chant from Tyler, The Creator: “Get ‘em, Mac.

And he does get them. With the releases of GO:OD AM and The Divine Feminine, Miller finds and refines his forms gleefully. The dots connect and a lineage is drawn, but all of this leaves us with one final question: five years later, do we finally know why the sound has to be off? 

While Mac Miller has given a grip of explanations for the album’s title over the years, most of which fall in the let-the-fans-decide camp, there was one thing he said in passing that ties his themes and pursuits together. That is, he told Complex: “I wanna make movies. I love movies, obviously, but I wanna make movies and I’ll do it. I just want it to be right. I wanna do a really serious role.”

Perhaps that is why the sound is off: for Mac to be able to concentrate in full, do some directing, find the form, and let it breathe. Or, the sound is off for some other, better, more obvious reason, and this was all too esoteric to ever hold weight. 

Either way, that’s Mac Miller for you.

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