Well, here we are. What is there to say, really? How do I introduce this man, this album, this moment? We know the drill. It’s Circles, Mac Miller’s sixth studio album, and first posthumous release. A faithful companion record to Swimming. We know how much it sucks, having Mac gone. We know his death broke hip-hop’s heart. We know. But, here we are, together, bonding over a new Mac record, perhaps for the last time.
I want to take you all to the first time I heard Circles in early October 2019. I was nervous. I was scared of what emotions the album would pull out of me. Of course, I cried. I cried my eyes out from the first hint of Mac’s voice to the final note of Circles. Too, though, I was smiling. Mac sounded so in tune with himself, so alive. He sounded like he had finally stepped into the man he was always aiming to become. He sounded like he had harnessed his magic once and for all.
While the album played, I felt Malcolm’s energy casing the room. His whole heart blanketed the space. There was an unseasonable chill wafting about as we moved from song to song. Let me say this: If Circles teaches us anything, it’s that Mac Miller will never die. His spirit cannot be extinguished. Everything about him and his life’s work is forever. With all this weight on our collective shoulders as MacHeads, let’s get on to the album.
As the static of Swimming’s closer “So It Goes” fades, Circles opens with “Circles,” with Malcolm’s gentle voice warbling over twinkling instrumentation. “Well, this is what it look like / Right before you fall,” Mac greets us. The softness of it, the whispering nature of it, makes Swimming feel like a bombastic rap album. Immediately, we realize Circles is Mac as we’ve never heard him. In 2019, his publicist and dear friend, Nick Dierl, told me Malcolm’s opus was forthcoming. Listening to “Circles,” we realize Nick was spot on.
“That level of aspiration and seeing him put his talents to use in a new way… You can feel that he was working toward what would have been the opus.”—Nick Dierl
There’s nothing but beauty dripping from Malcolm’s every word on this album opener. Lines about whiskey and wine, delivered with an unprecedented tenderness and body, leave “Circles” as the first of many impressively startling moments on Circles. We realize single “Good News” is not the outlier, but the rule for Circles. In the context of the album, “Good News” slides right in to give us a breather from the synth-heavy moments preceding it. It also works to remind us Circles is home to a new Malcolm, one who is forward-thinking and focused on singing and songwriting his way through his pain.
For those of us looking for a more traditional rap record, we have “Blue World,” a mostly pure rap moment on Circles. Even still, it features Malcolm’s gentle singing. This song works to remind us of Malcolm’s roots as he evolves hand over hand on Circles. Lines about being a God and absconding the devil on his doorstep fit right into Mac’s canon. For as self-effacing as the music sounds this time around, Mac’s raps still have their signature swagger and ease: “Mmm, don’t trip.”
Mac replicates this swagger on “I Can See,” between moments saying, “I need somebody to save me,” and slipping into a syrupy singing section. The dreamy hook feels like a salve on our hearts. It’s exorcising all darkness out of our collective chests. And just like that, we’re back to a quietly breathless verse. Finally, “Hands” features some nice spoken word, treading the same surface of swagger and signature slurring. The song reminds us of GO:OD AM, of simpler times, and how much we love Mac’s spitting.
Mac’s versatility in the incubator that is Circles is admirable. Within songs, he wows us with musical reveals and impressive turns. The way “Complicated” twists and evolves sounds as if it’s going through a wormhole of emotion and synths, and melts right into the sample and stutter of “Blue World,” is just one of many moments where the songs on Circles take on their own isolated and stunning life. On “Everybody,” Mac reminds us how he spoke so thoughtfully through the piano, and its unveiling of a chorus and strutting melody is nothing short of captivating.
And the writing, my goodness, the writing! Take this early line off “Woods”: “Things like this ain’t built to last / I might just fade like those before me.” I’m not going to preach to you about Malcolm’s cognizance of his finality. He wrestled with mortality for his entire discography. What I am going to tell you is that Circles features his most matured and wizened writing. Every bar is a personal quotable, a lyric to keep pressed to the chest for a rainy or sunny day. If he stripped himself bare on Swimming, then, on Circles, Mac drills into his bone marrow and digs out every last bit of himself, serving it up to us on a circular platter.
Take all of “That’s On Me,” the early standout from Circles. Its waltzing instrumentation underscores how Malcolm was glaring at himself in the mirror: “That’s on me, that’s on me, I know / That’s on me, that’s on me, it’s all my fault.” Or his achy voice on “Surf,” singing: “Where are you going? / Can I come, too?” before slipping into a ballad born of the days of The Divine Feminine. Both lines amplify Mac’s desperation and pursuit of life. Then, we end on “Once A Day”: “Once a day, I try, but I can’t find a single word.” Look at how Malcolm wrestles with the futility of language to reveal the depths of his mind. How he tries anyway; fans love him for that.
Lyrically, Mac spends much of this album wrestling with the futility of life, as he does on Faces. Think: “I don’t have a name, I don’t have a name, no / Who am I to blame, who am I to blame?” and “I just end up right at the start of the line, drawing circles” off “Circles.” Or “Some people say they want to live forever / That’s way too long, I’ll just get through today” off “Complicated.” Then there’s “All I ever needed was somebody with some reason, who could keep me sane / Ever since I can remember, I’ve been keeping it together, but I’m feeling strange” on “Hand Me Downs” and “They love to see me lonely / Hate to see me happy” off “Hands.”
This time, though, instead of rushing through the cocaine ether and damaging his health, as was the motto of Faces, on Circles, Mac contends with life by making meaning out of everything—and by keeping us in his heart. “I can keep you safe, I can keep you safe,” he says to open Circles. Then we have the ethos of “Good News,” which is a guide to knowing there’s a whole lot more for us in this life. Across Circles, every chord is a door to a better place. Every dancy progression and swipe of synth a portal to a galaxy only Malcolm could access. Every sung note a chance to rediscover himself and invent a life worth living. And make no mistake, Mac saw life as all the way worth living.
Going back to “That’s On Me,” recall how Mac sings, “I don’t know where I’ve been lately, but I’ve been alright.” There is hope and healing baked into Circles. It is not the somber and downcast affair it sounds like—or that we instinctively make it. Mac Miller was never as dour as his music. There was always light popping through his melodies and raps. For all the mentions of “clutter” in his mind, the album equally brings sparkle and sanity to the table. Malcolm’s heart is matched only by his promise to us that he’s getting on just fine.
We come away from Circles realizing Mac Miller was a musician’s musician, destined for a long life of strumming away and writing out his whole soul. I write all of this analysis on the album, but what I want to write is that I am thankful. I am so thankful for Mac Miller’s Circles, for yet another album that unpacks who I am and gives me security in myself. I’m thankful for every “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” I’m thankful for where Mac and his legacy have taken me during Year Of Mac and beyond. I’m thankful for how Malcolm has and continues to touch my life. I’m thankful to have an artist of my life, one so talented and so fearless.
Circles is the moment Mac comes into himself as a man, as Malcolm. “Everybody mean something / When they’re stuck on your mind,” Malcolm sings on “Once A Day,” to remind us of his eternal nature. There’s no guessing left; there are no questions unanswered. Circles is everything Mac Miller was meant for in his cut-short life, and then some. We were so lucky to have been able to witness Mac Miller. From all of us, thank you, Mac. We love you.