Review: Mac Miller’s ‘Circles’ a fitting end to a storied career

by Charlie Palsho | 1/28/20 2:00am

Mac Miller’s posthumous album “Circles,” released on Jan. 17, is a fitting end to his respected rap career and eclectic body of music. Miller began his career at the age of 15 in Pittsburgh’s hip-hop scene, and over time became an almost entirely different artist. He evolved from his beginnings as a fratty pop-rap artist to boldly experimenting with his sound, all the while growing immensely as a rapper, producer and singer.

Miller had been working on “Circles” with esteemed American composer and producer Jon Brion. Brion is an accomplished veteran who has worked with artists like Kanye West and Fiona Apple. Brion completed the album following Miller’s death and also produced more than half of the songs on “Swimming,” Miller’s previous album released a little over a month before his death. Brion had worked closely with Miller while producing “Swimming” and “Circles,” and completed “Circles” based on his time spent and conversations with Miller. In an interview with the New York Times, Brion revealed that, “There were supposed to be three albums: the first, ‘Swimming,’ was sort of the hybridization of going between hip-hop and song form,” Brion explained. “The second, which he’d already decided would be called ‘Circles,’ would be song-based.” “Swimming” and “Circles” were intended to be part of a trilogy, but ended up complementing each other well as companion pieces.

“Swimming” was a bittersweet portrayal of Miller coming to terms with heartbreak and depression. The album is relatively slow-paced, but it’s also filled with vibrant inflections of rap, funk and down-tempo cool jazz. Heartbreak and hope are themes that Miller pairs surprisingly well together. “Circles” is quite similar in style to “Swimming” and builds upon its themes and style more than it represents a culmination of his life’s work or a drastic divergence from his established modes of style.

“Circles” is the first song on the album’s track list. The opening line of the song is, “Well, this is what it looks like right before you fall.” This is a beautifully self-aware line to open the song and a creative way to begin the album, almost like Miller saying, “Here goes nothing.” The song has a soft slow tune that contrasts greatly with the album’s next song, “Complicated.”

“Complicated” opens up with zingy synths and a strong drum presence. This song features some of Miller’s best vocal work on the album. At the end of many lines of this song he drags out the last note, wearily singing “Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh.” He reflects on life’s many complications and how he feels as though he is too young to be feeling so heartbroken every day. 

“Good News” is the centerpiece song on “Circles.” It features plucky guitar notes and slow drums. It has an upbeat minimalist style that is Mac Demarco-esque. Miller sings about how he feels like he is just going through the motions in his life and simply wants a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday. He sings, “Got the cards in my hand, I hate dealing, yeah.” He’s capable of getting everything he needs to done, but thinks that merely going through the motions constantly is purposeless and passionless. 

“Everybody” is a sad piano ballad. It is a lush and melancholic cover of Arthur Lee’s “Everybody’s Gotta Live.” There are some abstract moments of sad vivid images that Miller includes on the song, for example the lines he softly sings about a blind blues musician: “Saw a blind man standin’ on the corner, baby, yeah/And he couldn’t hardly tie his shoes, yeah/Harmonica and guitar strapped around his neck/But he sure could, he sure could play the blues.” This portrait of a struggling musician just trying to get by is an interesting mirror of Miller’s self-perception as an artist.

If Miller was stumbling in some of the more melancholic tracks on this album, in “Surf,” he was flying, singing, “I ain’t coming down/Why would I need to.” “Surf” is a song full of hope which has light guitar chords and a Jack Johnson kind of vibe. The chorus includes Miller gently singing “There’s water in the flowers, let’s grow.” While other songs may illustrate his struggle with depression and addiction, “Surf” portrays the progress he has made during his recovery.

Miller was a John Lennon superfan, and some of the production in “Circles” — like the T-rex sounding guitar on “Surf” — mimics the sound of John Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band.” A John Lennon and hip-hop connoisseur, it seems as though Miller was reconciling these two sounds before his death and died before he could perfect his sound. Although his attempt to combine these two musical styles is evident on both “Swimming” and “Circles,” he makes far more progress on the latter in creating this kind of sound. 

Miller’s 2016 album “The Divine Feminine” is perhaps the inflection point in Miller’s long artistic evolution which ultimately culminated in “Circles.” He left the pop-rap sound that characterized his first mixtapes and albums and began to pursue something more jazzy, explorative and unique. That sound was polished in “Swimming”’ and really perfected in “Circles” — a sound that has combinations of jazz, subdued funk, rap and singing. “The Divine Feminine” marked the point at which Miller began experimenting with the sounds that would eventually color “Circles,” leaving behind the youthful vibe of his earlier work like “K.I.D.S.”

Miller died of an accidental drug overdose on Sept. 17, 2018. His legacy continues to be celebrated by his friends, family, fans and other notable artists in the hip-hop community. He had accrued the respect of many legendary musicians. In 2017, Jay-Z tweeted about nearly 100 artists that had inspired him throughout his career. Only two white musicians — Eminem and Miller — were included. One of Miller’s long-time collaborators and fellow rapper, Rapsody, praised Miller in an interview after his passing: “He earned respect. He did everything the right way. He respected the culture, he came in and he would work with legends ... He just did everything right, so he earned that respect.” Miller was revered at the time of his death by the entire hip-hop community, and will be terribly missed. “Circles” is a bittersweet goodbye.