Talking in Circles: On Mac Miller's “Buttons,” “Programs” & “Small Worlds”

The 'Circles' EP is one of the most rewarding preambles Mac Miller has ever given us.
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“You ain't a rapper if my homies never heard y'all / I just spit a punchline, smile then they bird call” —Mac Miller, “Bird Call”

Mac Miller’s music felt like the work of a craftsman reaching into the forge without fear of burning his hands. Mac reached into the darkest, most scalding of pits, and managed to pull out beauty damn near every time. The morose, the ridiculous, and the hilarious all found a home in his hands and subsequently on his records. Yet, much of his music also revealed him to be anxious over being unreachable. His fear of fame manifested as a fear of becoming ephemeral, which is why after taking his first-ever break from releasing new music in 2017, Mac returned with three singles that cataloged this fear and showcased just how detached he had grown.

The release of “Buttons,” “Programs,” and “Small Worlds” was not marketed as an EP, but it may as well have been. One extended metaphor—calls made, declined, and left unanswered—link the tracks and elevate them to cohesive, EP status. Each track is in conversation with the next, with “Small Worlds” eventually landing on Swimming because it, of the three songs, felt most conclusive and hopeful. Several months removed from the album, every day it becomes more clear that Swimming was a record about wanting to live and “Small Worlds” is consequently a track about wanting to reconnect in spite of everything. That everything, of course, is the story of the, for our purposes, Circles EP.

“Yeah, there's no answer and you called twice / Nobody be at my house / I was at the studio all night / Last night I slept on the couch” —Mac Miller, “Buttons”

“Buttons” begins fairly self-explanatory. Mac Miller is unreachable by phone, and his schedule is too knotty for him to be reached in person. In that way, “Buttons” opens without solid footing for Mac. He is floating off in his own time zone, and for someone regarded by his collaborators as a regular dude, this must have been unnerving. We can assume as much when Mac spits about controlling his narrative and sharing his real self as opposed to the self we boil down from his music.

The lilt to his delivery and the elated cadence reveal Mac to be contemptuous of his situation. Switching perspectives and the shifting “you” on the track, paired with the prodding sense that informs “We keep on pushing your buttons” leave Mac sounding confounded. We hear him writhing in a state of dissonance. As a musician, he is always accessible to everyone, but as a man, he has become accessible to no one.

Said turbulence is why “Buttons” can thoughtfully open our Circles EP. Mac Miller playing the part of studio rat in his music is a one-to-one mirror of his real life, true, but there is something more emotionally taxing unfolding. The hook suggests a hard work anthem, but the verses are embroiled in loss: lost days and lost connections. Missed calls have been a Mac Miller subject since “Missed Calls,” but seven years removed from the single, we are more concerned with the fallout of fame than we are budding romance. And so the unanswered calls on “Buttons” establish the distance between Mac Miller and Malcolm. Thus, the remainder of the Circles EP and Swimming attempt to close that chasm.

“Yeah, I mean wow, do not touch that dial, I've waited a while / Been around, just like word of mouth, you gon' hear me out, and I- / And I, and I, and I put that on my house / I'm always goin' overboard, I better swim before I drown (drown)” —Mac Miller, “Programs”

If the Circles EP were a well-made play, we can consider “Programs” our rising action and climax. The link to “Programs” arrives in the first verse of “Buttons,” where Mac spits, “This is not a wakeup call / I am the hotel operator, I don't owe nobody favors.” So with some creative flexing, we can take “do not touch that dial” to be a directive that we don’t have to call nobody on Mac Miller’s behalf. Again, looking back at the opening of “Buttons,” we see “Programs” as the fallout of “We keep pretending that it’s alright.” Music may be a sublimation technique, but as we know, everything eventually overflows. As such, emotions and consequences bloom from track to track on the Circles EP.

Mac’s verse on “Programs” becomes a moment of denial, a moment where Mac cannot accept that Malcolm needs help beyond his own offering. He’ll handle this himself, as he always has, with his tried-and-true methods. Perhaps this is why the hook (“Yeah, I'm only keepin' good company / I am not talkin' to you if you don't have love for me”) is so slurred and troublesome. Consider “Programs” an intervention-of-one. Self-aware as ever, though, Mac can admit there is something awry with his state of mind (“I better swim before I drown”), but there’s no initiative taken to fix it. We rarely change until we hit bottom, so perhaps drowning is in order. Of this, Mac and Malcolm are both aware. So, vexation and difficult questions make “Programs” the essential second-act track.

There is also the note that “Programs” is a finely crafted trap banger. The single sounds nothing like “Buttons,” “Small Worlds,” or Swimming. More battering, popular in form, and bloodshot in delivery, “Programs” sounds like the irreverent high before the regretful crash. Rich strings skate and reach their upper register, giving off an icy and deranged tone. The rhythm section ricochets over thumping percussion to underscore how wall-to-wall Mac is, “upper with the echelon,” to be frank with it. Enthralled with himself, and with the thing that scares him, Mac Miller presents as a spiraling, loose cannon. On “Programs” it feels as if he’s gone rogue on himself, but no matter, everything settles in the third act of the Circles EP, as with all well-made plays.

“The world is so small 'til it ain't, yeah / I'm building up a wall 'til it break / She hate it when I call and it's late / I don't wanna keep you waiting / I hope I never keep you waiting, yeah” —Mac Miller, “Small Worlds”

Finally, “Small Worlds” is our resolution and tying up of loose ends. Sonically, we hear the ram of “Programs” subdued. “Small Worlds” opens as the most resolved and holistic of the three songs, which is precisely why it lands on Swimming. Every corner of the track is honest and nicely wounded (“You never told me being rich was so lonely / Nobody know me, oh well / Hard to complain from this five-star hotel”). The song is an exemplar of Mac’s reaching into his own forge. On “Small Worlds,” Miller may not be happy with everything he pulls out of the fire, but he does not deny it as on “Programs” and he does not let it wear him down as on “Buttons.” No, “Small Worlds” lands on Swimming because it is not mired in negativity. The single is a moment of observation and acceptance. Of the fire, the single is purified in a way both preceding tracks resisted.

While “Programs” urged us away from phone calls, on “Small Worlds,” Malcolm is ready to start reaching out once again. Yet, his time away has undone some of his sensibility. With his calls—his attempts to get a handle on his personal world—being ill-timed, we see that Mac is caught in the same realm of striving and missed connections as “Buttons.” Even so, he is striving to connect. We are free of dejection now. “Small Worlds” differs from the rest of the EP because it presents a need and pushes for more. We get our resolution; we have a satisfying curtain call. Better yet, within Mac’s acceptance of his failures, we also see his yearning to improve on the whole. The single ushers in an era of reckoning and growth for Miller, the very same that permeates through Swimming.

By predating the record, coming after one of the most optimistic tracks on the album (“Ladders”), and before another intervention-of-one similar to “Programs” (“Conversations Pt. 1”), “Small Worlds” plays an expanded role. Moving from the Circles EP to Swimming, “Small Worlds” quietly becomes the cornerstone of both projects, standing for the main motif of Mac Miller’s music, and his career: always striving for more. Remember, before Blue Slide Park was released to the public, Mac was already growing into Macadelic. Before we had a chance to digest the pivot of 2012, he was releasing his impressive pursuit of forms, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, and so on. Growth was not an “If” nor a “When,” but a “Must.”

The Circles EP tells a brief and succinct story, but it also feeds our greater understanding of Mac Miller’s artistic growth and, of course, his human struggles. Subtle, surgical, and littered with missed calls, the three singles prove how in tune Mac was with what his fans needed of him. He told stories for himself and painted pictures in the abstract for his fans to coalesce. The Circles EP is thusly one of the most rewarding things Mac Miller has given us. At the least, it sounds fucking fantastic. 

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