“Welcome to the dark side of my bizarre mind” —Mac Miller, “San Francisco”
It’s time now for me to talk to you about fear. Fear is shapeless and unwieldy. It is an unruly mess that scales and suffocates without a second thought and much agency on the part of the afraid. It tightens in like the sky before unrelenting snow, and much like a proper winter white-out, fear is blanketing and terse. You feel it before you feel it, in your bones, then in your blood, then up to your brain, all in a moment. Fear is sly, how it moves with a name-brand quickness. Yes, fear can be fuel, but more often, fear is a vat of tar we veer off into and gasp as we try to surface from to get our legs about ourselves. Fear is awful, is what I mean.
I find myself scared often, and navigating the emotion is something akin to traversing a field lined with bear traps, the way the fits seize you up. There is much to be scared of, and that in itself causes me great anxiety. I guess you could say that my fears always cripple me, and you would be right. When things are generally positive, I am scared of the impending loss, and when things are generally negative, I am scared that feeling will last forever. I pace in my head until the spot is worn, then I make my bed up there and lie in it for all-time. My obsessive thinking is toxic and systemic and mirrored almost entirely by the way Mac Miller begins a handful of his records, working through his fears.
GO:OD AM, Swimming, and yes, even The Divine Feminine, open on a fearful note. Mac Miller begins these records trapped inside the darker side of his bizarre mind, subject to his woes, and sitting on his hands in wait of some reckoning with himself. Whether or not it comes, we realize as these intro tracks play out, is entirely up to him. We are our own victims, and we are our own assailants. We are everything that hurts us, and everything that heals, and vacillating between the two becomes our greatest triumph if we can muster the energy to move the needle. Meaning, really, this fear, it’s all in his head. Too bad that’s the crux of the issue.
“And you know I've been through all the highs / I've seen all the lows, lost track of time / I'm coming home, you know my mind / Places it goes, and it goes, and it goes” —Mac Miller, “Doors”
With that, GO:OD AM opens with an apology and an admittance. On “Doors,” Mac Miller has been distant; he’s been scared; he’s been in his head, but now he’s coming home. It’s also worth noting that in an interview with Larry King, Mac said this was his favorite record off the album. Likely, this is because the track is a self-soothing exercise. The staccato delivery of “Don’t be afraid” turning into promises that doors open and close as they should play like Mac Miller counting down from 10 to get his bearings once more. He begins GO:OD AM in the same vat of tar that I find myself in from time to time, scared of everything with a recourse of nothing. But the difference between us is that Mac Miller can become his own mode of remedy.
Talking to himself in breathy lines, we find that Mac processes fear by naming fear and looking towards the future. He finds himself as one with his fear (“One day you’ll go”) and opts to be present as opposed to the victim (“Right now, you’re here”). Imagine him standing in a mirror, speaking his mantra of “Don’t leave just yet / Don’t disappear,” and you have the makings of a prime self-help track. Mac processes fear by leveling with it, by accepting that fear is a part of life, even during his highs—at the time, GO:OD AM was his most resolved album. This methodology allows him to move without fear of the highs because he has seen enough to know fear moves in waves. But we move, too.
Mac Miller barrels through fear by way of awareness. He keeps fear present in his mind but boxed away to ensure it does not consume him. He knows what is coming, but does not succumb to it. By closing “Doors” with “Don’t disappear,” he is urging himself—and the listener—to not become reclusive in his struggles. Sinking is far easier—sitting in the fear—but we do not have to go that route. Mac processed his fear by moving in time with it, not struggling against it or running from it. He wove himself into what scared him until it was nothing more than another feeling. This is the reason why “Doors” ends appropriately with a woman urging him to wake up because his work is done. He can go about his life unencumbered.
“I just need a way out of my head / I'll do anything for a way out / Of my head” —Mac Miller, “Come Back to Earth”
In much the same vein, Swimming opens with Mac Miller afraid, but not crippled. “Come Back to Earth” thrives in its brevity, because it moves as quickly as fear grips us, but it resolves as quickly as we can simmer down. Beginning in a plagued state, we sympathize with Mac from the jump. Fear grips him, and he finds himself struggling to escape. There’s a frustration and defeatist edge to the first hook, if only because Mac can recognize he is suffering by his own hand. “Come Back to Earth,” then, becomes about the battle with the irrational, and our need to step outside of ourselves.
Of course, there is growth. Mac is moving in time with his fear, to the point of it becoming a way of life for him (“In my own way, this feel like living). He can see the horizon (“They told me it only gets better”), but in the meantime, there is a trapping sensation overtaking him. Literally, he is trapped indoors because it’s raining, though he wishes to be outside in the sun. Here, Mac Miller processes fear by looking towards the future. Where on GO:OD AM, Mac learned to move in time with his fear, now he is taking that lesson and extending it, and speeding things up. Where I worry that my fear will last forever, Mac already has his eye on the better of the situation.
This is where the ethos of Swimming breaks in. As Mac sings, “And I was drowning, but now I'm swimming / Through stressful waters to relief,” we watch him process fear in real-time. The lesson of Swimming is that we can only process what ails us if we continue ever-forward, and here we are processing fear just so. There is a symbiotic relationship between fear and healing on “Come Back to Earth,” where Mac is at once afraid and also driven. The fear is not the fuel here, but rather, the launch pad. Mac Miller fuels himself; the fear is simply the thing we are flying high away from.
“You were everything I ever wanted / Bought a wedding ring, it's in my pocket / Planned to ask the other day / Knew you'd run away, so I guess I just forgot it” —Mac Miller, “Congratulations”
All of this leaves us with one of Mac Miller’s happier albums, The Divine Feminine, and how fear can manifest even during the best of times. Looking at the first track title, “Congratulations,” we can see there’s a cause for celebration. Even so, Mac Miller presents as scared of his circumstances. It’s a sweet track, but a What’s The Catch? track all the same. Images of proposals are juxtaposed with sheepish actions and concerns over cold feet. “Congratulations” captures how, when the ducks appear in a row, it triggers us to worry and fall back.
Take the opening verse and how it relates to Swimming. Mac sings, “This sun don't shine when I'm alone / I lose my mind and I lose control.” Again we have the absence of sun, the presence of plague, and the lack of agency. We find Mac in the same place as at the start of GO:OD AM and Swimming, with the same images, in the same tone. This decision is not a mistake. We are starting in the same place, all to the point of showcasing how we arrive at a better one time after time. Mac is building an important theme across albums. Through the act of repetition, we are left with the sense that fear does not own us, that we will get through it one way or another regardless of the setting.
Mac ends GO:OD AM in a safe place. He ends Swimming as one with sound, and TDF entirely in love, with a sample that talks about love lasting through generations. We start with what terrifies us, but we process the fear and move with it to move away from it. We arrive so long as we try to. That is the ultimate lesson of Mac Miller’s processing fear: we can get somewhere as long as we apply ourselves. Thankfully, his discography gives us all the tools to do just that. And so we make it, and so we live, like always.