“You speak with your hands, and how you touch the keys.” —Mac Miller
Mac Miller was a vessel for the essence of creation. Though he spoke in tongues as a musician’s musician, how he communicated using the piano stands as one of the most becoming aspects of his artistic growth.
Casing video compilations of Malcolm playing the piano, we find that he is absolutely possessed by music. He plays the keys with reverence, excitement, and awe. The simplest chords gave him a sense of glee that few other activities could replicate. This was always the magic of Mac Miller’s piano ballads. He invoked emotion in earnest, he played with a loving sincerity. This was no gimmick for a rapper who came up as a once-Big-L-impersonator. This was the natural outgrowth of his emotional character.
Mac's evolution as an artist is best understood by his growing use of the piano, too. In 2014, he released a hilarious cover of “House Of The Rising Sun,” on piano. In the video, we see him jokingly wailing and purporting his early jockish humor, with a massive smile and positive energy emanating outwards. Yet, what begins as a cheeky moment, featuring a young man goofing around on the keys, quickly turns to an emotive cover as Mac gets more and more into playing the piano.
Mac’s voice may be a touch stiff, but his passion is evident and carries the cover. In the span of eight minutes, we watch him transform into a heartfelt piano man. By the middle of the video, Mac succumbs to his sonic wanderlust and gives himself over to the music. Of course, we return to the humor because it wouldn’t be Mac Miller without the hysterics. This is a snapshot to be sure, but one that represents how the piano allowed Mac Miller to speak emotion across his career.
All of this is why the final releases from Mac Miller, his two Spotify singles, are some of his most affecting work to date. The piano rendition of “Dunno,” in particular, plays like an emotional renaissance for a man always ready to be self-effacing. We’ve already covered the special relationship the track has in the wake of his passing, but the piano rendition adds a layer worth celebrating. There is suddenly a lithe and tear-jerking quality to the music. He speaks his feelings into the keys and out resonates a wounded and empathetic soul. The slow tread of the melody underscores that ache of “Dunno,” allowing for Mac to speak at the central emotion of the track without hip-hop bells and whistles.
Little flourishes, too, make the cut something special. A quick lilt on the keys for “Wasn’t even tripping” gives the track fresh body and personality. Literal tripping over the keys and we realize just how in tune with music Mac Miller has always been. His musicality is so celebrated by his peers, and as we play back "Dunno," it's obvious as to why. Each forte gives way to another flood of emotion. There is little left to the imagination, as we can clearly picture Mac swaying and leaning into each note as the jeers of “Kiss you ear to ear” melt away in the face of a broken man putting his pieces back together himself. By the time we get to “Let’s get lost inside the clouds,” the swell of the music has us all levitating above our woes.
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The crux of the track, “I think we just might be alright, thank God” sounds all the more convincing over a warm set of piano chords. There is so much love packed into the performance—pure love for the act of playing and performing itself. And with a little jest at the end on the keys to remind us that Mac Miller always brought his shining sense of humor to whatever project he was working on.
In three-and-a-half minutes on the keys, Mac Miller spoke to us in an unearthed tongue, spoke the same song in a language that strikes the heart without ever having to be known. That is how he employed the piano, and his love for music to give us something that will last for all-time.
“Singing, to me, just feels really vulnerable. I haven’t been as confident in my singing voice in the past, but then I just kind of realized it’s not about whether my voice is the most incredible singing voice. That’s my voice.” —Mac Miller
Mac spoke through the piano, and he used his musical phrasing to give himself the space to venture more and more into singing. The Divine Feminine was so piano-driven, and at the time sounded like the album Mac Miller was meant to make, but it was also driven by his singing voice. We got touches of what was to come on You, Watching Movies with the Sound Off (“Objects in Mirror,” “Youforia”), and GO:OD AM (“ROS”), but the transformation into TDF still felt unprecedented in the best way. With the keys, Mac Miller gave his music a new voice, but more than that, he gave himself his singing voice.
Consider how his greatest musical pivot then opens with choir and sauntering keys. This was no accident, this was Mac Miller using the piano to say to us: I’m trying something different, please come along with me. Even as Mac spits with impressive fervor for a love song on “Congratulations,” there is still the obvious note that he has firmly stepped into new territory. The piano opened that door for him, the door that leads him to jazzy melodies and touching serenades.
Recall how Mac once tweeted that the second half of “Cinderella” always gets him good. That portion is ushered in by climbing guitars and synths, but also by a sustained swell of tender piano chords. Mac leads with the keys on The Divine Feminine to say that he can only speak love through the piano.
Then there is Mac’s most recent opus record, “2009.” Standing as one of the best songs in his prolific catalog, “2009” begins with a stunning piano line that all but takes our breath away. The notes are transportive and touching, and signal Mac Miller is about to put his heart on the line in his most bare performance. His heightened vulnerability is only possible because of the piano—and because he used it to speak the truth.
Across his career, Mac led with the keys right under our noses to spell out his deepest emotions in a whirl of punchlines and hard-hitting raps. He spoke to us in tongues in his lyrics, he gave us his heart whenever possible, but more importantly, his basest humanity was spoken through the piano.