‘Faces’: How Mac Miller Purges Death to Fight for His Life

The more we play ‘Faces,’ the more we realize it was Mac Miller’s grand attempt to make this life a bearable one.
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‘Faces’: How Mac Miller Purges Death and Fights for His Life

“So many things that I’ve created, but this right here might be my favorite.” —Mac Miller, “Here We Go”

Like most artists, I write through my trauma. This is a lesson I learned from Mac Miller time and time again, but especially from his 2014 opus, my favorite Mac Miller project, Faces. The mixtape is a paranoid stumbling through the cocaine ether, through the perceived fragility of Mac’s mortality, through Mac Miller’s death, through the anxiety of only knowing how to create and not how to live. 

It was the soundtrack to dastardly self-harm, the darkest period of my life to date, and the consequential soundtrack to my recovery. Faces may well have taught me what great writing is meant to do to another person: elevate them. Across the project’s 24 tracks, we cover damn near everything in the scope of the human condition. Faces is Mac Miller’s most expansive, trying, challenging, inaccessible, flawed, and affecting offering, which, of course, makes the project perfect to my ears.

Too long, windy, lost in itself, Faces relies on the mental state of the listener to truly reveal itself. Yet, somehow, the project is a succinct force of a record. It may well be the most important hour-and-a-half of Mac Miller’s career. For with Faces, Mac told us he wasn’t scared to die—he kills himself halfway through, leaving us with 12 tracks of the afterlife. 

Mac Miller, drug-fueled and depressed, found freedom on Faces, and so many of us used Faces to find our solace. After years of listening to the tape, I’ve come to understand it as a battle for peace, purging the death to get to life. That's why, even after his funeral, so much music comes: because music provides life after death, a life beyond and above death.

That said, the project begins by flirting with death; a swirl of jazz and Mac’s iconic proclamation that he should have died already. He’s been on the brink, he’s been high, and Faces is not a new venture but a confession. He is at his lowest, but he is rapping at his best. What are we to do as we listen? There is concern, to be sure, but a listen through Faces is a selfish one. Mac would want us to be selfish with his music. 

On Faces, we hear ourselves, fighting our own battles as best as we can, putting on our personas so no one worries. We hear the humor and hysteria of a depressive episode, we hear the nervous jitter of unraveling, and we hear a call for human contact (“I don’t need nobody, I would love somebody, though”). All of this and we are not even a minute in.

Yet, this first minute tells us all that we need to know. There is confusion (“Why the fuck you need me?”), but there is also the admission that we matter; this vexation centers Mac Miller’s career, as he often struggled with his fame. 

Here, he struggles with his deity-like status. Often, Miller referred to music as a new religion, especially on his press run for Watching Movies with the Sound Off. Consider Faces the inside of the church, standing at the altar, buried beneath smashed stained glass windows, with the heat of the devil wafting through the place. Also, consider Faces the graveyard, where we lay to rest all of our demons once we painstakingly pull their claws out of our throats. On Faces, we are bloodied warriors, we are addicts, and we are just people—people trying to get by. In the storm of this mixtape, Mac Miller never lets us forget that he is just a 22-year-old guy trying to get his mind right.

“And kill me now if I did it all for hip-hop (K-ch, blaow) / I might die before I detox” —Mac Miller, “Malibu”

There are many cruxes to Faces. It is affixed to the wall by myriad pegs, and one of them is “Malibu.” From Mac shouting “You piece of shit” at himself, to flirting with his death once more in the service of his art, to the animalistic declarations of “Well I’ll be damned if this ain’t some shit” and “I'm the only suicidal motherfucker with a smile on,” “Malibu” is packed with lines that communicate the ethos of the entire mixtape. 

These bars are simply true. Faces is not meant to be agreeable, it’s meant to be honest. When we page through lines of coke and admissions of suicidal tendencies, for as much as our skin crawls at the thought, there’s an earnest reality to each word that keeps us coming back. The fallacy of a smile—that’s the Faces ethos. The tape is an expose on the lies we tell ourselves in our fight to get better, and expulsion of those lies from Mac Miller’s fragile system.

With that, Mac flourishes in the confounding spaces of juxtaposition; about to die, about to kill himself, he sprouts and blooms. A precipice is a sexy place, everything is dire and suddenly has so much implicit meaning. There is so much intensity, it’s impossible to be bored; you are wired to your emotions in the most toxic of ways, but damn if it doesn’t feel exhilarating. For someone always on the brink of escape, for someone as searching as Mac Miller, why not set up camp on the edge of mortality, just to see what fun can be had? 

He says as much about his drug use in his FADER documentary, an entire adventure in a little room, or, an entire adventure made of his not-so-little life.

Then there is the anxiety that permeates the tape. From the demented Meatballs sample ("It Just Doesn't Matter!") to the worries over drug use and fraudulence, “It Just Doesn’t Matter” stands as one of the most human moments on Faces. The track is its own personal undoing, with nonsequiturs funneling into honest depictions of how Mac’s drug use has overtaken his life, and how as much as this saddens him, he just can’t stop. His woes are plentiful and bone-deep, with a bar like “Everyone I know ain’t nothing to God” capturing the desolation he feels locked inside The Sanctuary, trying to create his way back into the realm of the living. The more we play Faces, the more we realize that the project was Mac Miller’s grand attempt to make this life a bearable one.

“Cause I smoke dust, overdosed on the sofa, dead / Woke up from a coma / Poured up with a soda, smoked, went back to bed / Never thought I'd be such a loner” —Mac Miller, “Polo Jeans.”

Mac Miller does not simply play at death on Faces, he dies several times over. He makes himself immortal. With “Polo Jeans,” we open with the immediate reality and untimely truth of his drug addiction: he will die. Now, of course, Faces is not prophetic and reducing Mac’s legacy to one of predicting death obfuscates the point that this was music made to survive, not pass away. At once, Mac presents his death and then resurrects himself, because he can, because he is an artist. That, among all his generosity, should be his legacy. And so we witness the life and death of an artist fighting for something greater than the cards they were dealt. This is why “Polo Jeans” is a brilliant stop gap between Mac’s final death on “Funeral,” because we see the nearly unsightly literary power he has as an artist.

The message here, too, is hopeful. Caught in a cycle of drug use and depression, these bars still signify that Mac is capable of living and taking action. The very act of constructing and delivering Faces suggests that we are never as doomed as we may feel. Of course, there is the true pang of isolation, but there is always the moment we wake up. 

Considering what follows this tape is Mac’s ultimate awakening on GO:OD AM, we can remember him and Faces as something of a lust for life experiment. As in, how close to death can we fly before our unwieldy desire for life thrusts us in the opposite direction? In that way, Faces plays like a test, and for the most part, Mac Miller passes; for the most part, he lives.

This is why the placement of “Funeral” at the halfway point of the project is so thoughtful. Despite being the last day of Mac’s life, “Funeral” leads us further down the rabbit hole of Mac Miller’s unnerved self. It’s symbolic in that we realize life goes on, and it’s tragic in that we realize life goes on without us, and it’s hopeful in that we realize if life were to go on, why not be present for that life? This is why Mac Miller imagines himself as the “rap Diablo” shortly after his death. He continues immortalizing himself, he rises from his death as a new and more refined figure. Mac presents as his true self: someone obsessed with spitting some motherfucking raps.

In his death on Faces, Mac Miller finds freedom and power. Ending his verse with “Finally, I don't even need my fucking eyes to see / Come and die with me,” we get the sense he has ascended and wants to bring the whole team up with him. He repurposes death on the project, making it a necessary step to live life as it was always meant to be lived. Inventive as ever, Mac Miller may well have invented a new subset of ego death; a much more invigorating brand of ego death, to say the least.

Somehow, amidst all of this squalor, Mac manages to remind us that he is a varied artist. His psychedelic ballad “Colors and Shapes” sounds like a tender surfacing from the ether we’re been tumbling down, but also like a soothed fever dream. It is a moment of loving lucidity, of Miller appreciating the high for all it teaches him of himself, especially considering the preceding track is the story of an acid trip. “Colors and Shapes” is an illuminating moment, one where Mac catalogs all that he has learned across his many deaths and his Faces journey. We appreciate the recap, but what follows suit is a near one-to-one with the structure of GO:OD AM: the come down into the ballistic banger (“Insomniak”).

What we learn here is that peace is short-lived, and we should cherish and occupy that space for as long as it is available to us, because there is no telling when the internal temperatures will rise and we’ll be plagued with the need to shriek. 

“Colors and Shapes” may read as out of place in the scope of the barfest that is Faces, but it stands as an important element of the tape’s mission statement. For one, it reminds us that we are pursuing something across this ride through Mac’s psyche, and secondly, we get to see exactly what this ephemeral “something” looks like. For Faces to work as a project in pursuit of life, we need tangible proof that this proverbial greenery exists; that’s “Colors and Shapes,” a promise that this is not all for nothing.

“Yeah, ok, I fear nothin' on this odyssey of dark roads / God lives in my dog's soul, the devil in his dog bowl” —Mac Miller, “Grand Finale”

Mac comes up for air once more on “New Faces v2,” where he realizes that he might be taking his last breaths in the booth, and he better make them count. He recalls a time where drugs and fame terrified him, and now powder and power consume him. “Where did all that go?” he asks of his fears and consequently his humanity. This reminds us once more that Faces was made to be a journey to get back to Malcolm. This desire to return resurfaces across Mac’s career—Swimming concludes with: “Like a circle, I go back where I’m from.” Mac Miller’s ultimate desire on Faces is to return to form, where the form is the simplicity of being. A complication has thrown him down a dark tunnel, and he is starved for air and light.

All of this brings us to the “Grand Finale,” a song Mac Miller made under the impression that he would die if he ever left his studio. At once a pursuit of light and a terrorized admission that light may be his final killer, “Grand Finale” features Mac Miller’s ultimate rebirth. The freedom we find on “Diablo” reaches a new high as Mac declares he is fearless, his darkness no longer haunts him, and he is spiritually fulfilled. 

It would be easy to assume “Grand Finale” is his death, that the fireworks that pop off symbolize his end, but there is no reason why they cannot be what fireworks naturally are: a celebration of life. When Mac spits “The world will be just fine without me,” it harkens back to the open of the tape where he wonders what we need him for. Now we know. This closing message is not one of sorrow, but rather a forced realization. Mac gave us a project to help us survive. We will be just fine because he has shown us exactly how to be just fine. 

Thank you, Mac. We love you.

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