Year of Mac: Welcome to ‘The High Life’

Mac Miller did not take his time for granted, and ‘The High Life’ is our proof.
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“It’s time travel here, step into my portal” —Mac Miller, “Class President”

Two thousand nine: a year, an anthem, and grief’s calling card all in one. A self-appointed bookend by Mac himself, 2009 marks the first precipice of Mac Miller’s career. Remember, he was an artist frequently falling upwards. 

On December 1, 2009, Miller released his third mixtape, The High Life. Before we venture into poetics, let’s be frank. The High Life was a fritzy, high school senior’s hip-hop fantasy. There were Beastie Boys impressions (“Musical Chairs”) and punchline fests that struggled to impress the greats (“Class President”), and there were endless questions of taste (The High Life) as we would expect.

Looking at The High Life alone is fun, but ultimately moot. This project wasn’t the project, wasn’t K.I.D.S., but it was a worthy stepping stone. Of course, a stone is only a stone until a lowly writer comes along and makes it essential. With hours upon hours of music to place in conversation with The High Life, we will do exactly that. We will make The High Life essential, and take a look at the threads a much younger Mac Miller did not know he was spinning but are present nonetheless.

What did 2009 sound like for Mac Miller? Rough and carefree, to start. The High Life runs an impressive 21 songs, or, one hour and eight minutes—or, half of a Migos album. Jokes aside, The High Life is obviously sonically dated. Is that endearing? Sure, but beneath a production style best left buried, there are endless gems to be discovered. Take the forced husk and bite in Miller’s delivery on “Musical Chairs.” Not only is this a very compelling Beastie Boys impression, but it also reminds us that while Mac Miller was in search of a form, he still moved as a student of the game.

In light of his passing and ever-darkening material he released in the last five years, The High Life plays as redeeming. After a tragedy, it became so easy to forget that Mac Miller was once as childish as can be. And thank goodness for that. In the grand conversation of legacy and imprint, there should also be room for some levity. With that, “Jerome Weinberg Interlude” does it all: a nasally skit that’s meant to showcase Mac Miller as the coolest guy in class, with the most girls, the freshest clothes, and the baddest lifestyle.

The skit is perhaps a bit jarring, too, because if you were to isolate this moment, you would be liable to dislike Mac. Certainly, any music fan or critic could admit openly that they hated this body of work and we could not blame them. Within that admission, though, is yet another: Mac Miller’s growth trajectory was crazy. That shock is the joy of The High Life. Isolated, it would be impossible to imagine the boy who wrote “Crushin' Round the Clock” and “Fly In Her Nikes” also made the ode to true love that is The Divine Feminine.

The transition from “She got a little bit of beauty, little bit of class / Little bit of lips, Little bit of ass / Little bit of style, dressed to kill, little bit of freak, with a sex appeal / Um, I'm so down for whatever baby, always dressed fresh and wavy” to “My angel, what do you want with me? / Too high, slow pace / My eyes closed, your body all I see / I think you're too divine for my human mind / When I'm with you, what do you do? Bring me to life” is both stark and admirable. The beauty of this seven-year arc is that Mac Miller was nicely afforded the space to grow. And grow he did. Miller did not take his time for granted, and The High Life is our founding proof.

Aside from growing up and reframing his understanding of relationships, Mac Miller also laid the foundation for one of his long-standing motifs. Mac’s money anthems have rarely dominated his discography, but the throughline from The High Life’s “A Million Dollars” to GO:OD AM’s “100 Grandkids” to a handful of bars on his final freestyle “Inertia” raise hairs, to say the least. The obvious take here is that across a decade, Mac Miller’s priorities and financial responsibilities have adjusted to reflect both adulthood and a sense of responsibility to his loved ones, but we can dive deeper.

“A Million Dollars” is a plain-stated track about manifesting Miller’s childhood dreams of raking in one million dollars. How would he spend that money? On college (cute), equipment for right-hand man Treejay, money to his parents, and then, of course, the rest would go toward weed and women. While it’s precious that Mac Miller wants to share the wealth with his family and friends, and the “four models” he plans to take to dinner, these are hardly the financial literacy raps we get in shades on “100 Grandkids.”

“I made a promise to my mama / That I'll bless her with some grandkids, she can spoil them / Until then, I'm getting dollars, I'm just doing what I gotta / Can a man live? And it's all day (homie)” —Mac Miller, “100 Grandkids”

Here, we have to take these lyrics with the implied gravity of giving your Jewish mother grandchildren. This is a very important cultural responsibility that no one is allowed to take lightly. In this endearing context, the hook of “100 Grandkids” is a promise to be there for his family, to never forget that they need him. This theme resurfaces across GO:OD AM, too. So, while Miller cannot fulfill one familial duty, he uses the money as an alternative. What we witness on “100 Grandkids” is an exchange and an understanding. Beyond paying back his father, Miller wants to pay it forward to his family in as many ways as possible. What a guy.

The bridge recalls Miller’s first real bag, and the dreams he had in 2009, but as he declares he thought he was “a king,” we can tell there’s an underpinning sadness. One hundred thousand dollars is just simply not enough money. It’s a bag to be sure, but not one to fund a full life. Perhaps that is what Mac means on “Inertia,” when he spits “I made a million and it killed me / My second million got me mothafucking filthy.” The money was not enough to make him happy or fulfilled, and when it was enough, it played a heavy role in enabling his addiction.

Perhaps the most interesting—if not harrowing—thing about The High Life is that weed acts as the big villain of the record. On “One of a Kind,” the character of Mac's father is worried because his son smokes too much weed. The moment is shades of silly and dismissive, something all the high school stoners could relate to. Well, as it seems, we just didn't know shit. At times, listening to The High Life, it’s easy to laugh and feel young. At others, the mixtape takes unexpectedly chilling turns.

Now that we’re all grown up, we still don’t know shit. How can anyone contend with that? The High Life is special because it is a moment of uncorrupted youth, but it is also a looking glass into the soul of a young man with a glaring expiration date. 

Things get heavier before they get lighter, so I’ll let Mac close this one out with a line from “Another Night”: “And to my peoples who've gone, we'll meet at heaven's gate.

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