Mac Miller’s Final Album Isn’t Just About Mac Miller. It’s About Us

I am still learning about Mac, learning about what his last moments were. I guess that is why I am crying.
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I first heard “2009” when Mac performed the song for NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series on August 8, 2018. I was 20 years old. The cut, the penultimate track from Swimming, poured from the speakers of my laptop, kissed every wall of my college dorm room, and spilled into my lap. Mac, in a copper-colored “Don’t Trip” hat, plain gray shirt, and black jeans, centered himself among his five bandmates behind Bob Boilen’s desk. He had crooned through a soulful rendition of “Small Worlds” and a bubbly, upbeat lick of “What’s the Use?” with the help of longtime collaborator Thundercat. In between sips of water, he rambled about not knowing how to banter.

In a bare-bones, violin-driven rendition of “2009,” Mac navigated us through his reliving of every moment of the last decade, all while thumbing his chin, scratching against his auburn-colored beard, looking past the audience watching him. To this day, that is the only version of “2009” I listen to. In the world Mac Miller builds throughout the track, his already-memorable career offers new vignettes of his life behind-the-scenes.

Hearing “2009” for the first time, with the experience of growing up alongside Mac’s musical come-up, I relived every part of my life in each verse—but in a different world than Mac’s. I could remember getting my first iPhone in junior high and using a gift card to buy songs off of iTunes—the first one being “Frick Park Market” from Blue Slide Park. We were six years apart in age and had divergent lives—one of us a young kid from the East Side of Pittsburgh evolving into a superstar; the other a Midwestern kid in-and-out of school suspensions evolving into a college student on the Dean’s List.

I am sure the reason I still find Mac’s live version of “2009” to be so jarring is that Mac Miller is dead now, but I have been thinking a lot lately about the endless memories we have of our loved ones. The ways we process grief through posthumous findings. I have been thinking about my father and how he still learns about his brother 34 years after his death. He finds shoeboxes brimming with old Polaroids of his brother and his motorcycle gang, souvenirs from bars, wedding pictures from each of his marriages. My father, eight years younger than my uncle, has been piecing together his brother’s life for 30 years, trying to understand the parts of him he never knew existed. I have been thinking about my mother, too, and how she tells me stories about my grandmother’s childhood, how she once had a German Shepherd named Rin-Tin-Tin (named after the canine movie star), and I continue to shape my idea of her so long after she passed.

Tonight, Mac Miller’s family is hosting three exclusive pop-up exhibitions of art and listening sessions of Circles, Mac’s final studio album, unfinished at the time of his death, but completed by Jon Brion in the two years since. Fans of Mac have been given the space of two summers to grieve and can now find closure in the exhibition.

Circles is an unfinished record that says every goodbye any Mac Miller fan could ever want. “Feel like I’ve seen a million sunsets, if you’re with me I’ll never go away,” is a lyric that will stick with us forever. As long as we pass Mac’s music down to our families as we grow older, he will live on—like the limitless vault of stories we share of our loved ones, the grainy photographs we tuck away in albums on shelves, the word-of-mouth folklore that molds us. Bless the endless discovering we have to do of ourselves and loved ones; the giving and receiving of gifts; the fragments left after we’ve all passed away. There are so many fragments of Mac scattered throughout our world: in the flecks of paint on the blue slide at the playground in Pittsburgh, in the last seven seconds of Mac DeMarco’s “Heart to Heart,” in the song the wind sings that sounds like a lone white piano tumbling through space.

My uncle died on the Ides of March when he was strung out on angel dust and put a 12-gauge in his mouth. Every March 15, I was never allowed to visit my grandparents, and my father was unusually quiet while having a beer after work. Every other day of the month, my grandmother and I would play checkers and talk about my uncle’s old motorcycle gang and rock band. They called themselves Epitaph and played Motley Crue covers in the shed behind my grandparents’ house. She told me about how he never got along with my father, and that their eight-year age difference created a gap between them.

In the halcyon hours of an unusually warm January night in Ohio, I was doing a New York Times crossword puzzle on my phone. While attempting to conjure an answer for “a synonym of destitute,” a notification from Apple Music crawled onto the top of the screen: Mac Miller’s Circles is now available. My room, aside from the sliver of light creeping in from the open slit at the bottom of my door, was relatively dark. I clicked off of the crossword and into Apple Music. The album, running just under an hour, begins where Swimming once left us: a wind of hope transfixed by the contemplation of staying stagnant.

Mac Miller’s songs weren’t always perfect, but that never mattered—like when you’re driving down the highway after a thunderstorm and the sun’s gleam looks like Heaven, even if it’s shining down on a fallen down home, an open ocean, or a landfill. It’s still beautiful.

Circles is a resurrection story of triumph in the face of insecurity and burnout; of the year-long journey that I took to speak to my dead uncle through uncoordinated guitar licks; of how, in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Mac’s songs spilled out of passing cars long before they reached the big cities; of being patient enough to let the conversations with our dead relatives come to us through the archives of word-of-mouth. Like all posthumous albums, Circles begins with lyrics that carry a different meaning now than they would if Mac was still alive. Circles is the size of the Earth, opening its sprawling arms to a world longing to keep the memory of a loved one going. But, more than anything, Circles is the story of how we all find ways to learn about each other, no matter the distance resting between us.

What Mac Miller always did best was break our hearts and fill them concurrently. If he was falling one moment, he was flying the next. As is the case with every posthumous release, we hang onto the lyrics that hold a heavier meaning now that our heroes are gone. 2020 is our second calendar year without Mac Miller, and perhaps, we believe he has been gone long enough for us to create our own space for grief.

Mac opens the sixth song on Circles, “Everybody,” with a statement about how we all have to survive—even though we are all going to pass on eventually. Like so many others, including Mac, I have often thought about dying, but only once have I been close to death. I was undergoing my weekly hormone therapy—where I would take an insulin syringe full of testosterone and inject it into the fatty muscle of my thighs. In a lot of circumstances, especially Ohio, a state deep in an opioid epidemic, needles are the symbol for drug use and overdose. Still, it’s easy to forget how needles are often something that saves us.

While administering the injection, the needle went through my muscle and hit an artery. I was bleeding out onto the floor, the rug, the sink counter. I remember, at that moment, crying and wondering if this was the end. Would my body give up? When Danny Whitten, guitarist for Neil Young’s Crazy Horse, died, it was from a heroin overdose. He became an addict because he had severe rheumatoid arthritis that was quickly degenerating. No one ever talks about how the machines healing the pain can also be our downfalls, how our bodies fail us.

I came a long way to Pittsburgh for healing, if healing is what I’m here to find. 404 Suismon St. is an old auto parts shop renovated into an art gallery; the brick walls inside are lined with a mass collection of photographs, paintings, and collages made by fans, friends, and family of Mac Miller. The exhibition is aptly titled Circles: Til Infinity, and it’s a final celebration of Mac’s life. In the display cases cutting through the middle of the room, there are six custom Funko Pop figures dedicated to each of Mac’s studio albums. 

Outside, the temperature has dropped to just above 20 degrees. According to the security guard at the door, nearly 600 fans, hailing from anywhere between New Orleans and a mile away, have been waiting in line for hours to catch a glimpse of the work international artists have created in Mac’s memory. A block down the street, at 900 Middle St., just over a dozen people at a time are sitting in plush couches, in a softly lit room, listening to an Amazon Ultra HD audio version of Circles. There’s a particular type of communion resting in the air. It is supposed to snow, but the snow isn’t here yet. I’m wearing a Revolver-era shirt, because Mac loved The Beatles, and my pair of yellow Nike Blazer Mids, because of Pittsburgh.

In a line wrapped around five buildings, folks huddle close as dusk approaches. The temperature is continually dropping. One woman in front of me screams, “God, I am aching in this cold.” Though the cold weather creates more silence than usual, everyone is talking about Mac Miller. The line of people moves slowly. It is a two-and-a-half-hour wait if you are at the back of the line. Every time the door opens, we hear glimpses of Mac’s voice, as if he is inside having a conversation with every person who has come through.

6 o’clock. I am crying in E J’s Auto Parts after finally getting inside, after two hours of waiting. I am not in tears from the cold weather sending a sharp ache up my spine, or because of the beautiful art covering the walls of this shoebox-sized gallery. I have made my way to a large mural of small drawings collected by Mac’s family through social media. The speakers are playing “Hands,” the tenth track from Circles. The song offers the listener a chance to do some personal reckoning when Mac asks, “When’s the last time you took a little time for yourself?” There’s an echo in the track. Maybe there’s some unexplainable success in hiding your pain in your art.

On the 30th anniversary of my uncle’s death, I watched my father cry in our living room while listening to his iPod. The light of the muted television turned his face neon. A muffled “Home Sweet Home” by Motley Crue spilled out of his headphones. I left my father trembling in the darkness of our home and ventured towards my mother in the kitchen, where she stood solemnly. We didn’t speak about what happened. My father sat still, holding a beer in his hand, eyes closed, mucus dripping from his red nose.

I don’t remember much else from that night, and I don’t believe that the memories of those we love vanish if we stop thinking about them. Through everything, I am still learning about my uncle—just like I am still learning about Mac.

Understanding that, like all things, we are simultaneously temporal and infinite, driven together by our collective humanity.

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