Over a year after the sudden and unfortunate passing of Malcolm James McCormick, also known as Mac Miller, the family of the late star has given Warner Records permission to release his final album, Circles. It’s his only posthumous album and rounds out a prolific career that consists of six major studio albums and multiple mixtapes. Circles is Miller’s fourth album to be released through Warner Records.
It’s no secret the beloved rapper underwent a major evolution across his career since his early mixtape days in 2009. That artistic maturation has been lauded by many music snobs; however, his transition from psychedelic cloud-rap to upbeat pop-rap to neo-soul balladry on his latest projects has been divisive for some fans.
While critically acclaimed, 2018’s Swimming is arguably an inconsistent album. Since Circles was tagged as a sister album to go in conjunction with Swimming, originally conceived as part of a trilogy that Miller was unable to complete before his passing, it was easy to forecast that this latest LP would be dabbling in similar styles and themes.
Despite sharing many of the same characteristics as the malaise and often lackadaisical Swimming, Circles surpasses his last album in nearly every way. Jon Brion, an American singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, majorly contributed to polishing up the production on the album after Miller’s passing and is the second credit behind Miller on nearly all of the beats here. As a result, the production is paced, gentle and serene, providing a perfect platform for Miller’s emotional deluge. Brion did a masterful job arranging the album and crafting a sound that conveys the raw feelings that Miller poured out throughout the album’s 48-minute runtime.
To a degree that is unusual for most albums, the unique way Circles is arranged is supremely conducive to its success. The intimacy and closeness of its compositions gives Miller’s lyrics an impact that feels more tangible, real and crushing. Many of the tracks are so emotionally immersive that it feels like a singer-songwriter odyssey from the other side of death, given straight to us from Miller’s spirit. Hearing the subtleties in the vocals, the crispness of each word, brings a new character to the songwriting and allows it to shine brighter than ever before.
Going into the lyrics of each track in would be laborious for readers, but what’s important to note is there are many extremely revealing bars that are worth reading into, especially for Mac Miller fans. The title track opens with the lines:
“Well, this is what it looks like right before you fall / Stumblin' around, you've been guessing your direction / Next step, you can't see at all / And I don't have a name, I don't have a name, no / Who am I to blame? Who am I to blame, though?”
The opening refers to the message conveyed in Swimming’s last track, “So It Goes,” and continues focusing on the themes of isolation, despair and hopelessness — themes that are prevalent throughout the whole album. Miller does a great job of varying his lyricism and delivery at various points to keep the concept from becoming stale.
That is another point of contrast from Swimming, which was sometimes banal in its portrayal of Mac’s dejection and emotional vulnerability. One of the best tracks on Circles is easily “Woods,” which presents his thoughts on fading away to something he accepts as an inevitability, and also his reluctance to love, saying that attachment is futile and will only bring him pain.
“Hand Me Downs,” the following track, depicts Miller already in a relationship that he sees as being weighed down by his own flaws and destructive tendencies. He is thankful to this person for caring and trying to keep him afloat, but he concedes the battle and warns them that he is “full of darkness.” The narrative is so strong and compelling that it makes up for much of the repetitive nature of the instrumentals and the melodies, and that goes for most of the songs on the project.
The dynamics in the storytelling and emotional vulnerability of the album exhibited on tracks like “Good News,” “Everybody” and “Complicated” reach a much higher impact than any album Miller released to this point, and that speaks to his growth as an artist.
Another area of growth the album exemplifies is Miller’s singing voice. Never before has he come off so tortured, broken and isolated, and that’s because the melodies and vocal parts are executed better than ever before. The intimacy of the mixing may also have something to do with it, as well as the gentle tone that Miller rarely strays from, but there is no question the singing on this project is consistently good at enhancing the emotional dejection contained in Miller’s words alone.
The level of growth and maturation displayed across Circles is wonderful to hear — but is also tormenting at the same time. Where Miller’s talents could have taken him past this is something that fans will ponder for a very long time.
Regardless, the album is a powerful showcase of the skills that he acquired over the course of his all-too-short career. Circles should bring consolation and confirmation to all Mac Miller fans that his musical legacy will triumph his passing, and that his run as an artist ended on the strongest note it could have.