“How the fuck you feel? (Good!)” —Mac Miller, “Happy Birthday”
We measure our lives in milestones and landmarks. We have birthdays, we have weddings, and we have funerals. Now, we know where this is going. In 2014, Mac Miller left this plane to make a 24-track sprawl of a magnum opus entitled Faces. Holed up in his LA studio house, with those lights that made you feel like you were traversing the world in a submarine, as producer E. Dan puts it, Mac found himself in a vice grip of drugs and depression and out from the fight—he did put up a fight, which we hear about on GO:OD AM—we were gifted his definitive mixtape.
Faces is imbued with the wisdom that comes from a vast and crushing solitude—a solitude that bends reality and isolates you to your bone marrow. For all his collaborative energy, the pinnacle of Faces’ themes deal with an out-of-body, out of frame experience that is only a hair shy of killer. The tape works as a whole, but it also works as a collection of vignettes, of which the run from “Happy Birthday” to “Funeral” is the most robust and tangible. This three-piece puts life’s most universal and physical experiences in conversation with the void that swallows us up when we hit our low points.
This stretch, then, is a bridge Mac built for himself, to make it from potential ODs to the watershed days, and in turn, the three-piece becomes our bridge and our promise that the big days will come despite how dark the present grows. Certainly optimistic, “Happy Birthday,” “Wedding” and “Funeral” are not candy, and they do not sweeten a bitter pill. Like most of Mac Miller’s life music, they simply are true. Ending with “Funeral” is not ominous, it is honest and imperative, and the onus is on the listener to find the hope in this conclusion: if you’ve made it to your funeral, you’ve lived a life.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before we cross the finish line, we’ve got to enter the race, so we’ll start with “Happy Birthday.” The track is wonderfully cynical and situates us at the peak of the abstract and irreverent (“They don’t notice if I never go and show my face”) to the point of suggesting how as we grow older and our solitude becomes vaster and our pain deepens, our understanding of light’s very presence dims. Mac’s delivery on the hook is scathing. On the whole, “Happy Birthday” is sarcastic and sardonic, a weighty critique of his lifestyle to the point of noting that no matter the occasion or status, we can still be so fucking unhappy, but at least the people have gathered to “Sing me a motherfucking song,” right?
“Happy birthday, (Thanks) / How the fuck you feel? (Good!) / Do you ever sit and wonder what is real? (Huh) / Do you ever reach to touch her but there's nothing there? (There) / Do you tell her that you love her but she doesn't care? (Care) / Does she tell you that you hurt her and you're unaware? (No!) / Did you hear about a heaven now you running there? (Go!)” —Mac Miller, “Happy Birthday”
The larger message of “Happy Birthday,” as it relates to the following two tracks, unfolds in pieces. The first half of the song is a shrill attempt to enjoy the unenjoyable, mounting a scoffing and elitist position as a form of coping with displeasure. By the second verse, though, Mac begins unpacking his existential dread; the call and response of the second verse flicks at our oft-hidden nerves. Birthdays mark so much in our lives; the pressure is on to make something of ourselves from date to date, and yet once we lightly prod at the surface of our existence, things become grim no matter who you are and what you’ve accomplished.
Themes of broken relationships, ephemeral women, and the pursuit of heaven make “Happy Birthday” a staple Mac Miller song. They also set the stage for “Wedding” and “Funeral” to take us through life’s processes in a brutally honest fashion. The truth of “Happy Birthday” is that the party ignores so much, forces us to ignore so much. Mac’s second verse plays so subversively because you would be greatly discouraged from delivering a birthday speech tackling all manner of death and woe.
And yet, he just can’t help himself; why should he? The birthday is also the promise of an ever-approaching death. There’s no time to wait, we must ask questions now. Without questions and the pursuit of answers, there is no impetus to live and seek out the “Wedding” and live a life worthy of celebration at the “Funeral.” So, Mac asks, which, across his career, has been so very kind of him.
We make it through the birthday party, several, in fact. As a relationship-driven society, the major milestone of the first half of our lives is to find a partner and make it work until the wedding day. Though not yet the swooning type on 2016’s The Divine Feminine, “Wedding” is one of Mac Miller’s most honest love songs if only because he makes responsibility the focus and not the love itself. Most notably, the two hooks oscillate between “Girl, I’m the worst” and “Girl, you the worst,” illustrating how it always takes four hands to build or destroy a precious thing.
Of course, Mac opens this track with a quote from the Charles Bukowski biopic, so it’s only right we visit Bukowski’s collection, On Love, and draw some parallels. Looking at titles alone, we see “love is a piece of paper torn to bits,” “sleeping woman,” and “raw with love (for N.W.).” The latter features imagery not dissimilar from “Wedding:” “when it comes time to / put the knife / I won’t blame / you.” and “you have no / knife. it’s / mine and I don’t want to use it / yet.”
What to make of these connections? For one, intensity is king, and intensity is painful (“Love you so much that it hurts”). Mac Miller’s love affair on “Wedding” is not pretty. It is not written to be idealized. It is destroyed by infidelities and mood swings, by inconsideration of the highest order and general ignorance of the other. The romance he pens feature two culpable parties chasing the high of each other while burning themselves to the ground; there’s a potent toxicity to “Wedding,” and within that, too, a truth. This is not the wide-eyed and simmered romance of The Divine Feminine, this is an airborne chaotic event.
Much like “Happy Birthday,” “Wedding” is about the bitterness that comes with arrival. You’ve found someone, you’ve chosen each other, and it’s not fucking easy. The beauty comes from the work itself, but neither life nor love are beautiful on their own. At our lowest points, we often seek out quick fixes to brighten our days, but the truth is that we have to make light and we have to forge beauty. In that, though, is power. Both tracks present the essential truth that we have it within us to craft the lives we so desire—a lot of fucking work, true, but work that can be done. That allusion to work, then, is how Mac Miller bridges the abstract lows of depression, the confounding nature of life’s landmarks, and general optimism to live another day.
“I heard the legends never died / Oh this lonely hell of mine / There never was a better time to better myself / Forever I melt and float away like waves in the ocean” —Mac Miller, “Funeral”
All of this brings us to the end, which we should rejoice. Conclusions, for Mac, have never been wholly somber, and “Funeral” is no exception. Cataloging all of his potential failings as a man—abandoned children, lost loves, addiction—Mac ends his verses with the pursuit of peace. Peace is always possible in his creative world, which four years later will grow into the ethos of his final album, Swimming. Unlike “Happy Birthday,” where the directive to party was snide, Mac’s request to party is shared only between himself and the listeners. It sounds all the more earnest and subdued. We’ve worked this hard and come this far, allow us now to celebrate the journey.
There is much to take from “Funeral,” but Mac’s realization that this entire time he could have bettered himself is the most essential lesson. There are so many days before the final day, and with the fragility of life, each day could stand to be the final one. Within that, we, again, have the power to make something of our lives, to make our lives beautiful. As Mac melts into the ocean, and the three-song arc concludes, we are left with scaling guitar notes and the soothing calm of resolution.
Oh, it certainly gets better. We can make it so.