“I waste away in a room spitting these raps / Yahweh put the world in my hands, I'm giving it back” —Mac Miller, “I Am Who Am”
I did not ask to be chosen; neither did Mac Miller. The Jewish condition is one of pressure and expectations. There is so much I must be to qualify as worthy. There is even more working against me on the worth-scorecard drawn up by tradition. Somewhere along the way of my formative years, I arrived at the conclusion that my life was a fluke. I carried with me the sense that I outsmarted death and was meant to die on the operating table when they took out the brain tumor. Cheating death, I reasoned, is why I felt so much like a burden, so much so displaced and out of frame, and so much so abandoned by life itself.
Obviously, I didn’t cheat death. I’m meant to be alive and I’m happy I lived, but in the interim, I needed a pathway to finding meaning in life and to making my life feel precious and necessary. This is where “I Am Who Am” comes in. To put it lightly, “I Am Who Am” means the world to me; it’s my favorite song. In five minutes, Mac Miller touches on a very niche brand of neurosis, suicide, growth, and makes life worth it as a point of hard work. Each word carries more weight than the last, and the ultimate conclusion of “I Am Who Am” is to live because we must, to live because we have it within ourselves to make life precious and we must make it to our next joy. “I Am Who Am” transforms the pressures of the Jewish condition into an imperative to live for yourself, and for that I am grateful. The only conceivable way to do this track justice, then, is to go line by line and break down exactly how “I Am Who Am” is alchemic.
To begin, “I Am Who Am” is so effective because it is a conversation. If it feels like Mac is speaking directly to you, that’s because we open with two lines from his alter ego, Delusional Thomas: “I think I'm getting sick / Being in this room like I was hidin’ from something.” The stage is set such that we, at our lowest, are Delusional Thomas. There is an immediate, wintry air to this song. Notes of isolation, denial, and spiritual confrontation mimic the chilling and effacing quality of relentless snow. Mac Miller finds us when we are huddled and alone, and we establish an instant intimacy as he begins: “Look, I'm posing a question / How many been empty and holding aggression? / Close to depression / Open your eyes and just focus a second.”
Not only do we raise our hands at the question, but we also shoot up as Mac has our attention. He hears us, and he has something to say. Thirty seconds in and the stage is set: a dimly lit room, an exposed wood table, and just the two of us. That is, just us and Malcolm. He’s come to level with us in a way no other artist could. He offers up his own confusion and manic tendencies as a basis of connection. He does not simply hear us, he knows at his core what it means to toil away at his own suffering and feel slighted by the results. Yet, he knows, too, that the work cannot stop simply because the work appears unappreciated.
“Praise me I'd rather you not / Cause it's driving me crazy / The fact that you pay to make me into something I love / You come to the club searching for drugs / Drunk, fucking these sluts / God loves me, what if he does, what does it mean? / You're wasting away doing nothing, you're fronting / Why ain't you chasing your dreams?” —Mac Miller, “I Am Who Am”
Everyone we’ve spoken to for Year of Mac has stressed that Mac Miller was a regular person. He was not exactly suited for fame, but he was suited for music and building relationships with people on a massive scale. Sadly, one could not exist without the other, and the ires of fame prompt much of the first verse of “I Am Who Am.” We get shifting perspectives: Mac speaking to us, to Thomas, and to himself all in one. All to the point of saying that these vices are obvious and escapes can be sexy, but there is still real life to contend with. Then we get the invocation of the Jewish condition, worrying over what it means to be chosen and whether or not we are worthy. This is our first tie-in to the Yahweh coda that gives “I Am Who Am” its spiritual body.
Bars about the perils of money and the cold and lonely usher us along to the first half of the heart of “I Am Who Am,” that is, to the moment Mac Miller takes and transposes the negative energies found on his first verse into a refusal and a plodding forward. “I waste away in a room spitting these raps / Yahweh put the world in my hands, I'm giving it back,” he says assuredly. This is the two-piece that reset my thinking. For one, I identify with Mac’s consuming creative process. I cope through sublimation, my work is my center and the way I measure my self-worth. To be entirely immersed in something until I am rotting away in the name of, that is the dream and also the ultimate value statement.
The backend of the lyric, too, strikes my soul. “Yahweh put the world in my hands, I’m giving it back” is my humanity in a single sentence. The lyric is so multiple and procedural, is the arc of my healing in one bar. We start with the Jewish condition, as always, and a refusal. Yahweh put the world in Mac’s hand when he was chosen, and by the nature of fame, Mac Miller is chosen in more ways than one, but on “I Am Who Am,” he is not having it. I understand him. No one asks to be special in some ethereal capacity. To return the world, in the first understanding of this bar, is to reject being chosen.
But to return the world, too, could mean to consider killing yourself, to consider your life a fluke and to feel the pressure to right a bodily wrong. You see what I’m getting at. For the whole of my struggling with simply being alive, I thought of Yahweh mistakenly taking a chance on me, I thought of my resigning the world as a point of order because I caught on to a grave error. Years went by with me feeling an incredible guilt every day for being. I could only imagine myself as an obstruction to the lives of the people I cared for, all because my cards were read wrong. I wrestled with the notion that it was not my fault I lived, but clearly, I should not have, and how will I repent for this? How will I return the world, this thing that is not rightfully mine?
But, to return the world could also mean choosing to craft your own. That choice is what “I Am Who Am” urges in the end. Niki Randa’s hook thusly plays as a well-timed directive to live: “It's a gift / Our, our time to be alive / No earthly vehicle / Can contain this drive.” The drive she sings of is the very energy Mac harnesses to shake off pressure and spin his own life free of neurosis. We are, after all, a resourceful people. “I Am Who Am,” then, is a simple song. Mac Miller is saying, in as many words, “You have to live,” and we listen and we thank him.
Once the ghost of Randa’s voice lifts from the track, Mac returns to where the Yahweh coda left us: a perceived resignation. Adopting imagery of swords, soldiers, and morgues, the writing appears to suggest Mac Miller has given up, when in fact he has simply changed the rules of the game. The world is his now, and that is how we can arrive at the second half of the song’s heart. And for those keeping up with the metaphor, Randa’s hook is just as essential as these two heart-halves. Consider her the valves, or the blood of the track. Her hook keeps the song alive.
“Dealing with death like he work in the morgue, absorbing the souls / Forgotten, he lost his way / Starring down that barrel, thinking not today / Life's so precious, Lord knows that life is so precious / Fight to the death, 'til there's nobody left / You're holding your breath because you might get infected” —Mac Miller, “I Am Who Am”
The “he” of the second verse is universal, much like the “you” of the first verse. This is a storytelling segment. Remember, all of this is a conversation with Delusional Thomas. Think of the second verse as a Genesis myth, a tale of creation wherein we are all the creators of a life we deserve. With that, Mac is making an example out of the enigmatic “he,” to the point of urging us to be better to ourselves. This nameless figure is embroiled in despair but still makes the conscious choice to live—at least for the moment. When Mac remarks on the precious quality of life and fighting to the death, we can take that to mean, in order to make life precious, we must fight for the rest of our lives. It does not sound glamorous, and it will not always be so, but we must do it as is the necessity of husbanding a sacred thing.
All of this leads us to the final invocation of Jewish condition and returning of the world to Yahweh. Mac returns the world he is expected to be a part of, as he has found his life to be worthy without externalities to define him. He’s regular, and the life he can summon suits him just fine, and that is the lesson he bestows upon us. Our life is made precious by virtue of it being ours, and what we choose to do with that truth is infinite and empowering. And for those of us looking for more reason to stay alive, Mac Miller reminds us that we will always make it to our next joy, however small it may seem, with a pitched-down and comical outro. There will always be just one more laugh. And just like that, we made it. And just like that, we lived.