The son of a middle-class Jewish photographer and architect, Miller took a dogged approach to pushing his sound.
It was grizzled determination more than natural talent (though there was plenty of that too) that made a rap icon of Mac Miller.
When the Pittsburgh MC first exploded into hip-hop in 2011 with his first album, Blue Slide Park – a wide-eyed glide of airy boom-bap beats and youthful rhymes that his growing grassroots fanbase turned into the first independently distributed debut to top the US chart since 1995 – he became “the most Googled thing on the internet. It was like: diet, carrots [then] Mac Miller,” he laughed to Vulture in one of his final interviews.
The release was a commercial smash but dismissed by critics as “frat rap”, its success a reflection not of his talent but of an American mainstream listenership to whom white rappers were, depressingly, more palatable.
Miller’s moment, rap’s critical vanguard assumed, would soon pass. It didn’t. Instead, over the next seven years, the 26-year-old – real name Malcolm James McCormick, son of a middle class Jewish photographer and architect – took a dogged approach to pushing his sound and message to new brinks of sonic experimentation and lyrical neurosis-busting.
By 2013’s Watching Movies With the Sound Off, he’d evolved from playground show-off punchlines to trippy meditations on loneliness and addiction, zig-zagging clever flows in a cracked, cigarette-charred voice across beats from Alchemist, Clams Casino, Pharrell and more. It was a move that risked the fame and blockbuster sales he’d accrued by age 19. He did it anyway, disappearing into a hermetic existence until he felt his talent on the mic did justice to his new billing as a rap household name.
“It was a lot of shutting out the rest of the world and finding the inspiration inside of myself,” he told Noisey of that album’s hard-fought creation, describing its dives into darkness as “healthy and cleansing.” This was the party line, recited in interviews right up until his death, as Miller’s music began to increasingly resemble a window into the medicine cabinet of a man with deepening drug dependency issues, among other demons.
When fifth album Swimming arrived last month, following a recent DUI arrest over a hit-and-run incident and the very public breakdown of his relationship with pop star Ariana Grande in May, its artwork found Miller slumped in a suit against what could either be the inside of a private jet or a coffin, mirroring the lavish emptiness he details on songs such as Perfecto. “I’m treading water,” he warns on that track, amid troubling nods to feeling “my fingers slippin’/In a motherfuckin’ instant, I’ll be gone” on the song Small Worlds. “You never told me being rich was so lonely.”
There was playfulness, adventure and soul to balance the bleakness in Miller’s rap homilies too, though. 2016’s The Divine Feminine, in particular, was a gleeful, philosophical concept album that celebrated love in all its forms: sexual, spiritual and a more cosmic, general appreciation of “feminine energy”.
Grande was at the beating heart of that record, even if she only officially guested on one track, G-funk serenade My Favourite Part. Their two-year relationship thrust Miller into an online spotlight he found uncomfortable. Already the fallout from Miller’s death has caused the kind of internet ugliness you suspect the rapper would have despaired at: Grande’s Instagram comments have been turned off after her account was flooded with comments blaming her for Miller’s fate.
“You was Easy Mac with the cheesy raps/Who the fuck is Mac Miller?” Loaded Lux asked on Watching Movies cut Red Dot Music. The answer is an artist whose lyrical brute honesty opened the doors and debate needed for mental health-probing hits such as Logic’s 1-800-273-8255 to scale the charts. An MC who bridged old and new schools of hip-hop thought, a fact underlined by the company he kept: 70s funk-inspired bass master Thundercat, jazz futurist Flying Lotus and retro-soul revivalist Dev Hynes were just some of his regular collaborators.
A rapper who existed in the same league as Kendrick Lamar, Drake, J Cole and one-time tour support Chance The Rapper, not quite amassing the same cultural footprint as those behemoths, but rivalling them for critical kudos and radio hits. That determination paid off – Miller’s death is a tragedy whose tremors will be felt through hip-hop for a long time to come.