“Somebody do something / Yeah, yeah, yeah / Somebody move something” —Mac Miller, “S.D.S.”
Mac Miller did not want to be a superhero. He began as a hero, anyway. First as the hero of big drinkers and partygoers everywhere, then as a hero for the emotionally cut up crowd, and always as a hero for music and hip-hop history. Through it all, Mac Miller remained a regular guy enamored with music, creation, and collaboration. In that, he struck a fearsome balancing act that he all but abandoned by the end of his career. The superhero motif Mac employed across his music was subtle, true, but stood to represent his ultimate desires of making music and “going down as a great one” without all the frills and fuss that come with hero status. This imagery was less about suiting up and saving lives, and more about public perception and aggrandizement.
Mac tucked nuggets of truth into his music, and for how bare his presentation, sometimes the most honest realizations were breadcrumbed across his discography for us to follow to their natural ends. In tracking the superhero motif across his studio albums (love to "Oy Vey," though), we not only get a more holistic picture of Mac Miller, but we also get the sense that while Mac ultimately changed as a man, his love for the art was always on the upswing.
“Misogynistic with a twisted mind, I'm intertwined / My trigger finger itching, all I kill is time / Initial symptoms of schizophrenic behavior / The mind is like religion, can't agree on who's its savior / The newest flavor of superhero, I'm shooting lasers” —Mac Miller, “I Am Who Am”
There is much to be written about “I Am Who Am,” one of Mac Miller’s best songs, period. When we think of celebrity worship and aggrandizement, the things Mac Miller is attempting to run from across his discography, flashes of the first verse paint a sordid picture of Mac’s take on being the hero: “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.” Not a lack of appreciation, we can take these bars to signify that the weight of the praise, the avenues it can send a man down, are far too deadly. Praise, celebrity, fame, money, access: all of this worked in concert to fuel Miller’s terminal addiction. On “I Am Who Am,” he senses the deadly combination, and he is afraid.
Even at his most decidedly super, Mac Miller was no traditional superhero. Let’s call this a defense mechanism. Across the final verse of “I Am Who Am,” Mac portrays himself as powwowing with villains, killing civilians, and shrugging at the binary concept of good and evil. He can be monstrous to himself, he suggests. How, then, can we reasonably expect him to save us in the traditional sense? The ask of “I Am Who Am,” then, becomes a thoughtful proof to leave Mac Miller to his own devices. To enjoy the music and place the pressure on someone else, even when it is well-meaning. With that, we are left with a troubling question: could this man really be a superhero? Perhaps more importantly, should he be?
Earlier on Watching Movies, on “S.D.S.,” Mac Miller is all but invincible. He’s risking his life because he knows he can. Yet, Mac’s shift from the hero of the night to regular guy takes root on “S.D.S..” Though he’s suited up as a superhero in the video, the hook and bridge, the absolution of his own responsibility, reveals something far more important: Mac Miller simply wants to be Mac Miller. Make good art, and let the rest happen as it should.
Considering all of the press Mac did leading up to Watching Movies With the Sound Off, this internal pivot makes perfect sense. In each and every interview, Mac Miller promises that Watching Movies is his most “me” project to date. “It’s the most ‘me,’ he told OFIVE TV. “It’s the most true to who I am as a person… This project is the most like Malcolm.” No persona—nor mask, nor cape—required.
Yet, Mac is not so much shirking the responsibility of inspiring and saving people, as he is opting to step into himself in his later work. If Mac Miller does any saving, he will do so as himself; and save he did. During our Year of Mac interview, E. Dan said it best: “I think dealing with being famous and doing shows, I think that stuff gave him anxiety. I mean, he loved the attention on one hand, but on the other hand, he was such a down-to-earth person.”
Corresponding with Mac Miller fans in the wake of his passing, then, we find that that earthliness E. Dan notes is exactly what drew fans to bond with Mac and project their struggles and triumphs unto his music. The symbiosis of the artist-fan relationship comes from Mac Miller’s overt dedication to humanity.
Beautiful in its own right, all of this took place during Mac’s creative renaissance of 2013. By the time 2015 and GO:OD AM come to pass, the tune changes ever so slightly. A minor note, on the album’s single “100 Grandkids,” Mac issues a call for help: “Sin everyday, someone save me please.” His fears, as communicated on “I Am Who Am” have come true (see: Faces), and now Mac admits he needs someone else to not simply take the burden of hero, but also save him in the process. By the opening of “Perfect Circle / God Speed,” Mac even imagines himself the villain:
“I came for whoever is in charge / I suggest you go and get yourself a weapon and a guard … She say ‘I thought you got sober’ / And I say ‘I wish you’d stop being a bitch / And get to minding your business’ / Told me ‘Money has changed you.’”
From there Mac challenges the conception of heroes altogether ("Every devil don’t got horns, every hero ain’t got capes"). Now, he is neither hero or villain, but simply a man caught in the undertow.
The prophetic fears of Watching Movies thusly come true, in more ways than one. As it stands, Mac Miller is no superhero not only because he apparently does not feel he deserves to be one, but because he can save no one when he is in dire need of saving himself. Such is the function of love and The Divine Feminine, an album that in this context is about how love saves us from ourselves time and time again, and without question. All of which brings us to his final album, Swimming, and the underbelly of “Jet Fuel.”
“Used to wanna be a superhero / Flyin' 'round with a cape catching bad guys / Now my head underwater / But I ain’t in the shower and I ain’t getting baptized” —Mac Miller, “Jet Fuel”
The imagery here is fairly distinct and direct. We harken back to “S.D.S.” and images of Mac as a hero as on “I Am Who Am,” but with an admission similar to the ones that permeate GO:OD AM: Mac Miller needs help. We go from admonishing fame, to having fame and access appear as a killer. If Mac were a superhero, they would be the villainous things. It reads as if succumbing to his vices not only caused him to lose the fight to the bad guys but also stripped him of his hero status.
We now have a question of agency. In 2013, Mac Miller made the active choice to step away from the hero moniker to simply be himself and allow the music to do the talking, but by 2015 and into 2018, we saw that Mac could not be the hero. It is no longer a question of want, but an insight into recovery and weight.
Mac Miller did not want to be a superhero, but he will go down as a legend all the same. In that way, at least, his dreams are still coming true.