“Through rain, sleet, snow / I'ma keep gettin' dough / You can find me on my grind / So put your muthafuckin' hands in the sky” —Mac Miller, “Castle Made of Sand”
Mac Miller was a lover of motifs, both intentional and otherwise. He operated within his own adjacent and psychedelic creative unconscious. Across his albums, the threads are plentiful and thought-provoking. Mac was always sowing his seeds, so to say. For 10 years, if we’re counting writing time, Mac cultivated the image of his career and passion for growth through the lens of castles. These structures stand for the beauty and fragility of the music industry, and how Mac’s career could at once feel towering and grand and also something to be taken down and consequently something to be protected. That dichotomy speaks to Mac Miller’s work ethic. He was an always-striving musician, striving because he never doubted the fragility of the industry and his place in it. Likely mentally taxing, the tension made for an incredibly prolific career.
“Cuz I'm on the rise and I reside / In this castle made of sand” — “Castle Made of Sand,” The High Life, 2009
We begin with The High Life, one of the final remnants of an entirely lithe Malcolm McCormick. Even confident and incidental, something tells me that Mac could sense he was on the brink of fame when he recorded “Castle Made of Sand,” but certainly I cannot imagine he was plotting a discography-long motif in his bedroom when this song came to pass. Still, this is the bedrock of what becomes a sobering commentary on how Mac may have viewed fame, and how fame consequently consumed and wounded him. At his most wide-eyed and green, Mac still knew how fickle the industry would be, he knew that stable ground would become a dream as seemingly far away as early dreams of fame and castles themselves.
Yet Mac Miller’s hunger does not wane. Instability does not stave away his drive and his yearning for success, perhaps because he still does not fully know what is to come, or perhaps because the full gravity of fame’s trials is moot in the face of a determined man. Bars about Mac remaining king pepper the track, too, signaling an understanding and anxiety that this could all be washed away by an unforgiving tide. Packed sand could very well stand up to proverbial concrete, but a strong tidal wave does not care about metaphors. Sometimes fame only robs artists for all they’re worth. In the case of Mac Miller, this leads us to Faces.
Mac Miller’s creative opus, Faces, begins with one of his best songs and most subtle castle allusions. Tucked into the psychedelic layers of “Inside Outside,” at the 12-second mark, is a sample of the soundbite that plays when the player completes a level in New Super Mario Bros. 2. Mario leaps to the top of the flagpole, the flag outside the castle slides down, we’ve won the game momentarily, and all of this causes Mario to celebrate and emote. At the same time as the sample rings off, Mac raps, “I should’ve died already / Came in I was high already.” These simultaneous events leave us with plenty to unpack.
To begin with, the allusion to Mario fits right into the overarching fragility painted by the castle motif. By nature, the Mario games are based on temporary highs, repetition, and a sliding scale of difficulty. You complete one level, liberate one castle, and then—as if your progress means nothing—you start at the beginning of another level. It is at once dejecting and addictive. What else could this sensation be mimicking, if not the rat race circuit of game and glamour? Much like The High Life’s castle stands to be washed away, your successes in the Mario franchise only compound at that moment.
Coupling this repetition and the temporary feeling of victory with the opening lines of “Inside Outside,” we find ourselves upon an altogether shocked and disillusioned Mac Miller. In terms of his drug addiction, the lyrics are self-explanatory. In relation to the castle motif, success, and fame, the message is clear: his career should have wilted by now. The castle should have come down, and yet we are all still standing. Is this a beautiful thing, or perhaps something far more ominous? That answer lives on the eighth track, “Therapy.”
“Since before I was a goddamn mastermind / In that castle of mine, I came up” — “Therapy,” Faces, 2014
Perhaps the brightest song on Faces, “Therapy” is a sonically hopeful moment with underlying energy that’s nothing if not sinister. In the context of the project, we are not feeling better so much as we are experiencing a drug-fueled manic high. We can gather this mindstate from the frenzy and self-aggrandizing on the hook (“How it feel to come and hang around a motherfucker like me?”). Elated, for certain, that invincible sensation presents a dangerous and destructive state of mind, which we see across the rancor of the verses.
The castle motif comes in on the second verse, after a moment of lucidity: “I'm back on these rap songs / Feeling that's never gonna last long.” Still, in our manic state, Mac remarks on the expediency of his come up. Success, on “Therapy,” reads like an obvious and naturally deserved given. Yet, where there is the manic high, there is a subsequent crash and fallout of what we do when our inhibitions all but evaporate. Thus, we get the same fragility through the lens of a mental break on “Therapy,” and so too we get our answer: beneath every beautiful feat lies some measure of terror. Suspicion is not callous, it is welcome.
Thus, the paranoia of Faces takes on an additional meaning. Of course, a reaction to the drugs propelling the work, Faces also interfaces with fame, which not only drove Mac to drugs but also wore on his mental state as he told everyone, including Larry King. The paranoia of the album expresses a fresh concern over fame and its fickle nature. At any moment, this could all come down. Mac Miller is both living in his castle and figuratively waiting in the wings for its collapse. Yet, there is little said about doomsday preparations on any of his work, either because in his heart Mac Miller did not imagine his castle crumbling, or because he was ready to go down with his beloved structure. Regardless of the “Why not?” we’re treated to an even more ferociously delivered castle motif on GO:OD AM’s splitting banger “When In Rome.”
“Came up from the gravel to the motherfucking castle” — “When In Rome,” GO:OD AM, 2015
“Look, mom, I fucking made it” could be the subtitle for 2015’s GO:OD AM, an album about Malcolm coming into his own as a sober man, a lucid man, and a man ready to embrace fear for what it is and not the beast it stands to become. The glimmering cloud of static and chuckle that open “When In Rome” says it all. Mac Miller made it to the other side of Faces—to the summit of this chapter of his career. There is no concern over the structural integrity of this castle, no circling set of anxieties to detract from this riotous moment of celebration. What we have here is a success story. Full stop. Even when he spits, “How it is when you young, blowing up too much,” there’s no follow up admittance of struggle. Struggle is demystified on “When In Rome,” taken as something matter-of-fact, but not something cutting. We f*cking made it.
While I could go on an adjacent tangent about the false quality of making it, and how misleading it would be to assume an arrival is anything but temporary, “When In Rome” does not necessitate that. In this moment of Mac Miller’s career, stable footing was the wave, not a feature of his imagination. During the Celebration of Life concert last October, a clip played of Miller speaking with Rick Rubin about dark lyricism in Rubin’s LA studio. Mac said: “I don’t think that that’s the only aspect of life.” Per him, we can let the joy be enough.
“I turn the hotel to a castle / Livin' like a king for a grand / I don't do nothin', that's a hassle / Besides, even that castle's made of sand” — “Ladders,” Swimming, 2018
Too much can change in three years, as evidenced in all ways by Mac’s sound, career, and tragic passing. He entered a new creative renaissance with The Divine Feminine, the arc of which was taken and extended by his final album, Swimming. Where Mac was once marking down his sobriety, his disease once more had the better of him. By not releasing an album in 2017—the first time in his career he took a gap year—all of the above compounded into the bare-faced nature of Swimming. The castle motif returns, on “Ladders,” and this time seems to catalog all motifs and career highs before it, concluding with a fresh and resolved outlook on fame and its transience.
The castle bar on “Ladders” begins rather alchemic, as much of Swimming is transformative. From hotels to castles, the notion here is that Mac Miller made his career mountain up in phases, and his spheres of success may have robbed him partly of a home base, but what it did give him was an undeniable sense of accomplishment. Subsequent lines about living like a king, for as cheap as can be, begin to hint at the rickety quality of fame. We’re not in a stone structure, but rather one made of tense wood, one that creaks to make its weatherworn status known.
And so we return to our original image, the castle is made of sand. His placid delivery, not unlike his approach on The High Life, reveals that this fragility just cannot scare Mac Miller. Thinking of album closer “So It Goes,” that same mantra applies to Mac’s view of fame and status on “Ladders.” Even the castles made from hotel rooms, from tours, from seeming unshakeable career highs, can erode away. Everything, it seems, can be undone. It is eerily prophetic, but not all music stands to be seen through a lens of death when it was made during a moment of wanting so badly to live. Mac Miller does not sound put off by the castle made of sand, nor does he sound eager. No, Mac Miller simply sounds ready. He was ready for more—everyone knew it. Sadly, even his castle was made of sand.