Pittsburgh artist Mac Miller’s posthumous album, “Circles,” dropped last Friday to an outpouring of acclaim from critics, fans and fellow artists. The album, an extension of 2018’s “Swimming,” was being worked on by Miller before his untimely death and offers a fitting culmination to his eclectic and transformative career.
Miller gained prominence with a pair of mixtapes in the early part of the decade, “K.I.D.S.” in 2010 and “Best Day Ever” in 2011. His debut album, “Blue Slide Park,” found remarkable success as it topped the Billboard Top 200 as an independent release, facilitating Miller’s rise as a star in the rap ecosystem for years to come. However, Miller passed away from an accidental drug overdose in September of 2018.
“Circles” was originally intended to be a direct accompaniment to Miller’s 2018 album, “Swimming,” the most sonically complex and critically successful release of his career. The album netted Miller a posthumous Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album. However, Miller passed away just a month after its release, leaving much of “Circles” unfinished.
Across “Swimming,” Miller worked closely with producer and friend, Jon Brion, who had a hand in several of the most popular and emblematic tracks on the album. When Miller died, his family reached out to Brion and asked that he finish what he and Miller had done with “Circles.”
On “Circles,” Miller moves further away from his origins within frat rap and leans more into the R&B singer/songwriter aesthetic he began exploring on his 2016 album, “The Divine Feminine,” and fully embraced on “Swimming.” This new sound has pushed him into a more avant-garde setting within the hip-hop world and encouraged his growth as an artist.
As a whole, “Circles” offers an honest and sweetly optimistic look inside Miller’s head. The context of hearing him sing about his mental health improvements in the wake of his overdose adds a great deal of emotional gravity. Lyrics like “Yeah, well I’m just being honest / My conscience ain’t doin’ bad / Because I try to minus the problems that I attract” on “Hand Me Downs” sound eerie in the wake of his untimely death.
The album still contains moments of easygoing listening that Miller fans have become used to across songs like “Dang” off “The Divine Feminine,” with the tracks “Blue World” and “Good News,” the album’s lead single.
“Blue World” presents a much different sound than the rest of the album. Miller samples the 1955 song “It’s A Blue World,” by the group The Four Freshmen. The soothing vocal sample plays uninterrupted for 25 seconds at the beginning of the song before being dissected as its different sounds are taken apart and reassembled into a hypnotic beat, which Miller effortlessly drops in on and begins rapping with his signature charisma.
“Good News” is both smooth and plucky as it expertly juggles both soft and rough strings along with Miller’s crooning voice. He tactfully combines sadness with optimistic imagery with lyrics like “Wake up to the moon / Haven’t seen the sun in a while / But I heard that the sky’s still blue.” These melancholic lyrics and soft instrumental foster an environment for contemplation that few Miller songs have ever created.
These uncanny lyrics and new musical styles Miller has explored push him away from classic slow tempo rap songs like “Jet Fuel” or “The Mourning After,” with this album offering little beyond “Hands.” However, the song does a great job of bringing a touch of nostalgia for longtime fans of Miller. He raps about his sexual prowess, reminiscent of his early work, saying “Call me what you want / She call me “daddy” / Got a knack for gettin’ nasty / Every day we keepin’ tally, yeah.”
Yet the song also features more introspective bars as well, like “Don’t know why I’m always talkin’ if I’m not makin’ sense / I’ve spent my life livin’ with a lot of regrets / You throw me off my high horse, I’d probably fall to my death.” This line, in particular, about the dangers of his ego, ring eerily in light of his death, like many of the lyrics on the album.
The album as a whole is a fitting send-off for Miller. It functions as a capstone to his career of artistic exploration, from what began as a teenager rapping about girls, drugs and clothes on “Blue Slide Park,” to his growth achieving mainstream success as a singer-songwriter who attracted high level collaborators and different styles. “Circles” captures tastes of Miller’s past and brings them together with his contemporary work, featuring his life and work coming full circle.