The Difficulty of Listening to Free Nationals' "Time" Featuring Mac Miller

Where Mac Miller’s music brings me comfort, peace, and a fresh perspective, “Time” just hurt my heart.
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Free Nationals "Time" single, 2019

The Free Nationals’ “Time” is a soulful, stunning, stimulating single. The music is golden, silky, and blooms beneath the lightness of Kali Uchis’ knowing vocals. The song is welcoming and loving, thoughtful and just moody enough. It should be my song of the summer—too bad little in hip-hop goes to plan.

After a minute and 30 seconds of smooth sailing, Mac Miller enters. When his voice rises up to spit “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” in that muddy, bluesman tone he mastered on 2015’s GO:OD AM, I am immediately overcome with emotion. From my first playthrough, I knew he would be on the track, and yet, something about his feature unsettled me. Mac sounds so alive. In fact, the whole of the single reeks with life—it is damn near unfair.

But for Mac’s verse, the music peels back, with only one strutting guitar riff as the backsplash for his familiar voice. With the production ceding space to Malcolm, it felt as if some greater being understood the weight of this moment. This was Mac’s moment to communicate with us once more.

Still, everything felt off balance. This was the first time since his passing that his music came on and I didn’t know the words. I wasn’t sure what to expect or what bar would come next. I was not singing along; I was waiting on Malcolm. 

“Time” reminds me of Mac Miller’s skill, his natural chemistry with the groovy side of hip-hop, and his ability to speak lovelorn truths. But beyond that, “Time” is a reminder we lost Mac Miller.

There's something harrowing about posthumous work. We hear artists at their most lithe, doing the thing they were placed on this earth to do, and we hear them do it well. It sounds so glorious and perfectly crafted. And yet, they’re not here. All the music must be appreciated in the past tense, despite our enjoying it in the present. It muddles our conceptions of time. It just fucking hurts. 

“Time” is a phenomenal song. Kali Uchis’ hook captures the pitfalls of love in your 20s, the Free Nationals’ instrumentation is an airtight fit. Yet, there’s something so—and perhaps there is no word for this—unfitting about Mac Miller’s literal absence from the scene of the song. He is present, and he is not; “Time” places us in the liminal space. 

We are caught in a double-bind of sorts: Don’t think about Mac Miller being dead, but what else could possibly come to mind? How can we possibly treat posthumous work as work and not read so deeply into it? How can we let go? There is an art of Zen thought that escapes invested music fans.

With that, hearing Mac rap “And in the end, everything will be fine, that's by design / Well, I don't trip, but I slip, I fall / Sleep all day, maybe miss your calls / Like I been missing you,” we can place the song as being recorded at the time of Swimming and the Circles EP. There’s the allusion to “Ladders,” and the consistent motif of missed calls that gives us the sense Mac recorded these songs in the lead up to his final album. Piecing all of this together, while rewarding, feels wrong. There’s something so heavy to the project of working out a life that’s no longer with us.

After my first playthrough of “Time,” as jarring as it was, I had to press play again. I wanted to hear Mac Miller come to life with a startling grandiosity once more. This was how we would collectively cheat his death, I thought. Sadly, expecting him on the cut, his liveliness is gone. In its place was a depressive shade that cast over the track—for as immaculate as it was. The song grew heavier with each subsequent listen—three in total—before I had to step away from the music and assess my feelings.

For the past few days, I’ve been away and had ample time to play the single, introduce the single to friends, and write about the single. I’ve done none of that—until now. I’ve avoided “Time” like one might avoid advancing forward a commitment. The music was on my mind, but it felt more like an offensive portrait of reality than a portal into which I would be happy to escape. Where Mac’s music brings me comfort, peace, and a fresh perspective, “Time” just hurt my heart.

After some time away from the single—which is a hilarious thing to say given Kali Uchis’ hook—I pressed play again on Monday. I love Mac’s verse—it’s so him. I understand the single as a celebration of Mac's life and talent, not a reminder he is no longer with us. As difficult as it is to put his death out of my mind, “Time” is becoming less of a trigger and more a piece in the Mac Miller puzzle I’ve tasked myself with completing. There’s no telling how I would react to a full, posthumous album, but if it’s anything like my reaction to “Time,” I’ll be ready, I’ll be astounded, and I’ll be scared. 

Let one thing be clear, though: I will always press play. Call it cosmic or call it a neurosis, but I feel a responsibility to his music unlike anything I've ever felt. I belong to the music and it to me, and for as painful as a listen may feel, that hurt will never trump the force of his work. I will always listen, and now, it will always mean the world to me.

With that, “Time” reminds me I am far from done grieving Mac Miller’s death. And that's more than okay. The song does not open up old wounds, just places the spotlight on the healing. Think of how a bruise changes color before disappearing entirely. “Time” is another color blotched upon our skin, is simply another step towards feeling better in the face of loss. Part of grief is the rejection of grieving, and another part, too, is the resolution of that. 

Everything posthumously done by Mac Miller will push us to a place of acceptance. Eventually—if more music is released—there will be posthumous tunes that do not rub in our faces that Mac is gone, instead, propping up the man he was while we still had him. And, in so many ways, we still do.

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