How Mac Miller Grew Into His Own on Stage

Mac Miller found his shelter on stage.
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Careers live or die on the stage. With televised and taped performances becoming a must, the ascent or crash of an artist is forever memorialized. For our purposes—Year of Mac purposes—this is, of course, a fantastic thing. Whole concerts, fully produced live sessions, and performances on The Late Show exist in abundance online for us to comb through. In the digital era, nothing truly passes away, and we are given the rare opportunity to witness an artist find his center, lay his roots, and bloom before our eyes time and time again.

From Mac Miller’s oldest shows on college campuses and generally glorified beer-soaked mosh pits to his final performances at The Hotel Café and NPR’s Tiny Desk concert, the evolution of his musician’s soul can be traced. While no one show was inherently better than the other, Miller, teeming with energy, simply learned how to morph and reinvent his stage presence. Where energy cannot be destroyed, Mac Miller found ways to compound and redress his energy from blown out speakers to live bands, to intimate orchestral arrangements. And he was always on stage with a smile on his face. Always.

Now, allow me to take it back to 2010 when we still used Facebook to keep track of our concerts.

The Club Zoo show would be Mac’s first Pittsburgh show following the release of his breakout mixtape, K.I.D.S. This would be the first of Mac’s many homecomings as the star of his city. Appearances from Taylor Gang and the staple presence of Treejay on stage made this a classic moment. Artist or not, when we are driven, we are blessed with moments of pure lucidity en route to the thing we so desire. These are the moments where we look at our team and ourselves and think: “Wow, what if it really happens?” On stage at Club Zoo, there are hundreds of hands in the air; it was happening for Mac Miller—and it was going to keep happening for a long, long time.

Sentiment aside, let’s also agree this show had some flaws. First, Mac was performing over his own vocals. We all know this is a technical faux pas. It could be the career kiss of death. Sure, the fans are going crazy, more tuned into the vibe than the quality of the sound design, but fans grow up. Mac Miller knew that, experienced it. He was our artist, and he grew up with us, and thus his live show followed suit; no reason to fret over backing vocals when he would grow into a meticulous and fine-tuned touring artist.

Between touring his debut album and The Macadelic Tour, Miller, of course, sharpened his performances. Bigger venues, bigger budgets, this was the natural order of things. His presence on stage remained magnetic, and his backstage energy appeared non-dimmable. In 2013, though, is when we were graced with the true second phase of Mac Miller’s live performance career. Teaming up with The Internet, Mac released a series of live renditions of Watching Movies With The Sound Off cuts, as well as took the band out to London in June 2013 to preview the album in all its sonically rich glory.

Both the Space Migration sessions and The Space Migration Tour were stunning works of art, produced by an artist in too much motion for his own good. For anyone still trying to corral Malcolm into the “frat/party rap” category, these performances were proverbial duct tape over the mouth. The Space Migration sessions captured the melding of soul and soul, that is Mac’s soul and the soul of the music.

A very natural spirituality emanates from Mac and The Internet; syllables waterfall out of the speaker as they perform the most luxurious version of “S.D.S..” Perhaps the most striking feature of this rendition of the cut is the unprecedented control Mac Miller has over his explosive tendencies. Blown out speakers be damned, at the climaxes of “S.D.S.” Miller is at once nebulous and microcosmic; there’s needlepoint precision to his manic delivery over a precious and glassy instrumental. His spiraling energy, once tightly wound, is unraveling with a haggard elegance.

That same elegance laces up old classics during the London performance. Imbued with a fresh and downy musicality, “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza” and “Best Day Ever” are lifted into a new realm of significance. Giving new life to staples of Mac Miller’s lighter fare proved him to be an artist approaching timelessness. Consider these renditions a polite bird to critics who doubted Miller’s staying power and musical prowess. Most Dope means no tune left behind, after all.

The surgical and wanton quality of “S.D.S.” went on to inform Miller’s performances of both Faces and GO:OD AM, two records that felt at times like confessionals and at others like worrisome loose cannons. Across his discography, Mac Miller found himself everywhere at once—worn out and inspired by his roving mind and addictions. Come his eventual settling down on 2016’s The Divine Feminine, the live show and the musical landscape Miller had curated for himself once again evolved. It was time to spare yet another moment for jazz, and time for Mac to discover how to translate an overtly feeling album onto the stage without appearing contrived.

Suffice to say, Mac figured it out. Releasing four live cuts—“Dang!,” “We,” “Soulmate,” and “My Favorite Part”—from The Divine Feminine as part of the Audience Network concert series, Mac’s stage presence was all the more fluid and enchanting. He was one with music like water. At the least, the tunes moved through him with that level of ease and symbiosis. By this point in his career, questions of Miller’s skill as an artist are largely out the window. The blessed thing about these performances comes down to the minute details—namely, the way his body folds and ebbs as if he were the whole heartbeat of the track.

There is also the adoration Miller brings to the stage. He loves his collaborators so genuinely, looking as enamored by CeeLo Green’s contributions on “We” as he does with Ariana Grande. Yes, at the time Grande and Mac were a couple, but their love broached new heights when they shared a stage. Mac’s whimsy and sly humor—the spin and handshake with Grande stole the show—made the live performance of “My Favorite Part” a Hallmark moment in his history book.

And so we arrive at Mac Miller’s final live performances of his heavenly personal reckoning, Swimming. The last album Mac released, Swimming was the grand sum of every lesson Mac had learned in his quest to be a pinnacle musician. From his days playing with The Internet to Swimming, Mac’s ear for arrangement and his understanding of live instrumentation made this record his strongest technical outing to date. Of course, it’s no surprise Mac’s live renditions of the album were phenomenal, if not bittersweet. With so much upward growth, it would be disingenuous to say Miller was at his peak at the time of Swimming. For him, there was no peak. All he knew was up.

Mac’s unique blend of swagger and passion graced the stage of The Late Show in August 2018 when he performed “Ladders” with a jittery poise. The track was a hit waiting to happen, but the real joy was watching Mac dance and clap his hands all giddy during the instrumental breaks. This was a man entirely absorbed by the music around him and, as evidenced by the endearing honorific bow he gives his band at the end of the song, eternally grateful for it. 

In 2010, the goal was to move the crowd, and in 2018, that goal transformed into a means of communication. As in, how can Mac Miller communicate to his audience that music is all we have?

Between his performance on NPR and the footage of “Hurt Feelings,” Mac’s final performance at The Hotel Café, we see he evolved into a radiant artist. The sputtering energy of his youth refined itself into a desire to share and disseminate passion. Choosing to pass on banter and go straight to the music, if there is one thing to be gleaned from the NPR performance, it is that Mac Miller made a home for himself in his creativity. The live show was just one of his many avenues; one of his many safe havens. Perhaps this is why his final tweets about needing his tour to begin read like cries for help. On the stage, Mac Miller evidently found shelter. We found shelter with him.

The one universal truth of watching Mac Miller perform live: the young man belonged on the stage. He was spiritually bonded to performance. At every iteration of his artistic arc, he appeared electric and engaged, and always projected a deep love for his musicians. They were not backing him, but moving in time with him. It was a spiritual and transmuted thing. The Mac Miller live performance was a unilateral experience, as captivating and endearing as the precious bow he gave his players after each set. Touching and ephemeral, it will live on as Mac Miller will live on, with every avenue of his career establishing some form of legacy.

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