“I wake up, but where? I don’t just think this, I actually voice the question to myself: ‘Where am I?’ As if I didn’t know: I’m here. In my life.” —Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance
We’ve made it to the season of rebirth. The season of pulpy, leftover snow, budded trees, and blooming flowers. We’ve made it perhaps further than we originally imagined, but we’ve made it here nonetheless and here is beautiful. Consider this a “somehow” arrival.
Similarly, Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance is a fantastic novel that begins in a state of disorient. Much like spring unfolds suddenly, and we only notice we’ve arrived somewhere once we are firmly planted in that place. As if we didn’t know. The same can be said for Mac Miller’s Swimming, which arrived in a state of disorient. An ended relationship, a near-fatal car crash, and one freestyle—apart from a handful of singles—usher in a definitive album. To fully appreciate the album, though, we must first wholly appreciate the disorient of the entrance. Mac Miller untangles himself on Swimming, but he also teaches us to love the knots. Consider this an ode to the knots that came before.
Murkami once wrote, in his second novella Pinball, that we only come to understand the function of our past darkness once we are sufficiently removed from it. Otherwise, it is just our present and the present is not for understanding. The present is for living; for making it. We reserve our understandings to the past.
If Swimming is an album about wanting to live life for all that it’s worth, then “Inertia”—the freestyle Mac Miller dropped two days before the album’s release, with its themes of constant movement, time bending, and rebirth—is the prologue. The knots Mac Miller untangles on Swimming tighten and slack on “Inertia.” “Inertia” is our past darkness, and is our foray into the rebirth of Mac Miller.
This is why “Interia” begins in The Before: “I've been a God way before a synagogue.” Before recorded religion, before systems of thought and belief, there was Mac Miller. Before a mostly understood way of life, there was Mac Miller. Even more cerebral, the video for “Inertia” begins before the music, with Mac poking around and playing out the beat. All of these details suggest Mac Miller is the master of his own timeline, much like Swimming sets out to prove that Mac is the master of his own life and destiny. He has agency, and as he samples on The Divine Feminine’s “Soulmate,” he is bound by nothing.
“Inertia” does not romanticize The Before. Mac quickly makes it a point to draw lines between desire and reality (“This is not what you wanted, but this is what you got / You live with what you got”) amidst images of liquor and magic brews. The gentle surrealist bent suggests Mac is aware of the knots of his past and while there is an attractive element to escaping in the present, he does not want to simply run to his vices any longer. We aren’t getting Faces or “cocaine ether”s, we are getting redemption and growth.
In four bars, Mac skillfully sets up the past and brings us towards a bright future. The rest of “Inertia” is wholly concerned with the present and what it means to live in and be reborn from your tangled darkness.
“And you ain’t nothing to the planet but a little dot / Suddenly hit the water like the line that’s on a fishing rod / Simple thoughts got me itching like the chicken pox / Knitted socks, with fingers tryna scratch a lotto ticket off / When I made it I was getting all the bitches off / See I was faded, now I’m counting up the minutes lost” —Mac Miller, “Inertia”
There are myriad notes across the verse that hint at Mac Miller being a changed man. Here we see him in his writer’s bag, taking stock of his minute place in the world and battling back against the aggrandizement of celebrity that he has feared and resented across his discography. Of course, we get the direct allusion to Swimming when we “hit the water” and perhaps a secondary nod to producer alter-ego Larry Fisherman.
Recall how “Come Back to Earth” opens with: “And I was drowning, but now I'm swimming.” “Inertia” is the drowning, but as we only grow from anguish, we only learn to swim by flailing in a dire situation. So, the freestyle is not an admonishing of struggle, but rather a verified thank you. Taken in concert with the album, “Inertia” is a celebration of pain—not a glorification—and a note to how important it is to cherish where the hurt can take you if you allow yourself to feel.
The grand discomfort in these bars suggests Mac Miller is actively untangling. He’s been putting in the work to grow into the man capable of making an album as self-effacing as Swimming. When you are in the midst of growing and changing, there is often that nettling pain and uncertainty, where you cannot see the forest for the trees but you can certainly feel the unrest. That unrest is the business of wholeness coming into frame, which is why these bars are packed both with Mac Miller’s neurosis as well as his ultimate regrets from The Before of his professed sobriety.
Eventually, The Before and The Now collide and Mac incites a conversation with himself. Few of the previous works he has released have been as openly self-effacing. “I overdid it like the way the roller coaster spinning / Homie, that’s inertia / I’m the moon to the sun how I birthed ya,” he prattles. Mac is careful with how he speaks to and about himself and his addiction, which is critical, too, to his growth. He does not reprimand himself needlessly but rather speaks in the absolutes of the situation.
Mac speaks to his fears in tongues—the eventual hard stop that comes to objects in motion, because, homie, that’s inertia—and acts as one with his rebirth. He becomes a new man by his own hand, not by a stroke of luck. In the journey of his growth, Mac Miller is an agent of his own ascension. That’s the purest rebirth.
Finally, we arrive at conversations of death and immortalization. Mac suggests he can never die, that his music has made him immortal. In the context of rebirth, we believe him. There is no reality in which Mac Miller falls out of frame because his prolific output has cemented him in every hip-hop conversation worth having. There is also the notion that rebirth is not a death, but an extension of the self. Everyone is always changing, and the always of the situation implies everyone is always staying the same. Or, our base character does not radically shift but simply refines and improves.
We are dynamic, but we are careful not to lose ourselves on a quest to get better. Mac Miller knows who he is, that’s how he stays swimming.
All of this is why the final couplet of “Inertia” is a relentless punch to the stomach. “You ain’t nothing till you die and come back to life iller / They haven’t made a motherfucker realer, Mr. Miller, yeah,” Mac declares. He comes back to life quite literally on “Come Back to Earth.” Still, “Inertia” ends in motion, and Swimming continues the motion, but freshly reborn, Mac Miller course-corrects. Instead of barreling towards his demise, on Swimming, Mac Miller plods forward to heal. Such is the mythology of his music, for all-time.