Humans are a stubborn species. Once we get an idea in our heads, there is very little that can be done to change our opinion; just ask Galileo, Darwin or the thousands of otherwise rational people who don't believe in global warming. Bottom line, if someone doesn't want to believe something, they will find every reason not to. The same holds true for hip-hop heads. We are a stubborn lot and once we develop ideas and listening habits, they are hard to break. Case in point, my relationship with the one and only Mac Miller.
Friday nights in college were always an epic struggle. No, I'm not talking about trying to lug your roommate up a flight of stairs only to let him pass out in the laundry room, although that was tough, I'm talking about the fight over music. As a hip-hop nerd who lived with people who didn't spend countless nights digging for new music, trying to find the right party music was always a conflict. Where I wanted something like Wu-Tang or Pharcyde blasting out of our speakers, my roommates tastes were more radio friendly. Sandwiched between chipmunk versions of 50 Cent (I wish I was kidding) and "Low" was the bane of my existence; Mac Miller's "Donald Trump." Perhaps the longest lasting fight we ever had over music was "Donald Trump."
For what had to be years, I boycotted that song. Every time it would come on I would make my feelings on Mac well known by yelling obscenities loud enough to drown out that annoying Kidz Bop sample. Then one day, I actually listened to Mac Miller talk about wanting to get his nuts kissed and I was sold (yeah I know how that sounds). Shit. Turns out I actually kind of dug "Donald Trump"....
But that's where my Mac Miller experience started and for the most part ended. Fair or not (definitely not) Mac was always "Donald Trump" to me. Because of that lackluster (yet catchy) effort, there was a general malaise in my feelings toward him. I didn't hate him, I was overwhelmingly apathetic. I never checked out another song (aside from that "Moves Like Jagger Remix" or his effort on Rapsody's "Extra Extra") because to me, he was always that goofy pot-head who made frat boy music. There was no animosity, but there was no interest. Whenever Mac's growing hip-hop abilities were mentioned, I was too busy hearing that Nick Jr. "La La La'" sample from "Donald Trump" to listen.
Well, somewhere along the way, Mac changed, but it wasn't until recently that I did something very few rappers have every made me do; I changed my opinion. Which leads me to my main question, one that has sent me into an existential spiral and left my mind more twisted than a cinnamon sugar Auntie Anne's pretzel; yo, when did Mac Miller get so dope? When did he go from rapping about big booties and getting his nuts kissed to rapping about death and drugs over Duke Ellington flips?
I'm still trying to pinpoint exactly when this change happened. I've been rifling through his library, searching for clues so I can figure out when the shift in his sound happened. Was it on his Watching Movies album, earlier? His You EP? Macadelic? I still don't know exactly, but I can tell you when I got interested in finding out. It was the moment I heard "Diablo."
What drew me in initially was that sample of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane's "In A Sentimental Mood," which is one of my all-time favorite songs; it's amazing the emotion those two evoked without ever having to say a word. No lie, I listen to this song every night before bed. I don't know a ton about jazz, but I feel safe saying this is one of the best jazz compositions ever. The way Mac (A.K.A Larry Fisherman) flipped it was masterful. I never thought I would hear that song flipped - I mean, it's just too damn perfect to be rapped over - but Mac absolutely killed it on the boards. He managed to capture the essence of the original yet make it hip-hop friendly. My first few listens were all about the beat, when the horns really kick in at the 1:25 mark I get a fuzzy feeling in my soul parts. I always knew Mac was a producer, but there was a certain amount of "street cred" he received from flipping a song as amazing as "Sentimental Mood." It showed me he is a true scholar of music and really earned my respect; it's amazing what a perfectly flipped sample can do for a rap nerd.
The beat was what drew me in, but then I started to listen to the lyrics. Sure Mac's goofy, clever bars were still there (a few Mighty Duck references will always do the trick) but there was more than that here. Lines like "Finally, I don't even need my fucking eyes to see / Come and die with me" and "I'm gettin' faded 'till the angels come," or a hook that repeats "everybody got dead homies," really jumped out. There was a casual darkness to them which, when draped over Coltrane and Ellington's brass tango, really burned into my brain in a much different way than "Donald Trump." With "Diablo," and by extension, his new release, "Just Some Raps, Nothing to See Here, Move Along," I hear a different, more sophisticated, and maybe, haunted emcee than that goofy kid who made a song about this guy. Where did this change come from?
Somewhat sadly, it sounds like it comes from Mac being in a much darker place. As I go back and listen to Faces, an album I completely dismissed months ago (because "Donald Trump") I am both frightened and compelled. Mac is clearly not in the best place right now, both mentally and physically, but it's causing this shift to a more compelling artist. Instead of Kool Aid and izza it's alcohol and depression and..."Angel Dust"?!
Everyone's afraid of what I do inside my studio
Worried I'mma lose control
(My brain fried, always chasing the same high
I'm too fucked up to function, do nothing but waste time)
Woke up annihilated, lying on the pavement
Covered in items I regurgitated under a fire escape
And I know that it's Friday, cause every Friday they have a parade
In-front of city hall, hear them celebrate, they having a ball
My pupils dilated, highly dehydrated
I'm lost inside a giant matrix
Isolate myself from eyes I find contagious
Jump above the come down
I'm strung out and not in ops inside the dugout
That's a far cry from the happy go lucky kid we heard on "Donald Trump." I hate to say it, but I think Mac's inner-demons diablos are playing a large role in my paradigm shift. Like so many greats - Hendrix, Cobain, Mathers - drug use and depression seem to have brought out the musical best in Mac. It's like seeing a car crash on the other side of the highway, you know you shouldn't look, but there is some carnal instinct that turns you into a gumby neck, slowing down to see the aftermath. It's the same thing here. It's scary and selfish, but essentially I'm saying the same thing we say to any artist who is clearly wrestling with issues. "Hey I know you are going through some stuff, but if you could keep making music like this at the expense of you and your loved ones physical and emotional health, so I have a new great song to add to my library, that would be great." As a human being, I hope the best for Mac, but as a music fan, this new Mac is compelling and I'm excited to hear more.
So now that he has $10 million after signing a deal with Warner Bros., will he spend it on rehab and therapy or more PCP? Will he continue to push himself and his music to new, unexplored territory? I'm not really sure. I don't know where he goes from here, even he might not know where he's headed. I'm still learning this new Mac Miller, but one things for sure, now that I have officially turned the corner on Mac Miller, I will be paying attention to every new note he drops.
The world is round, global warming is real and Mac Miller is dope.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]