it is what it is, till it ain't...posthumously drowning sorrows in Mac Miller's 'Swimming'
Part I: A Wuddery-Eyed, Sober Mea Culpa
I’ll keep it a buck, prior to his passing a week ago, I didn’t listen to Mac Miller much.
Don’t get me wrong, I would never go as far as to say I actively disliked him either.
Well, perhaps just a little bit, once upon a time, around 2009, when he first broke.
The first decade of the 2000’s was an odd time for rap fans of a certain lineage.
We discussed it a bit last summer, while discussing Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy.
To fans coming up in the late 80’s Golden Age, navigating adolescence during rap’s unprecedented rise to cultural and eventual commercial dominance in the nineties, the 2000’s were an oddly transitional time, with results that despite preliminary hype, often turned out to be less than satisfying.
Movements once championed (Rawkus, The Soulquarians, Wu-Tang’s W as a brand-you-could trust, Los Angeles as one of the genre’s meccas, Gritty Pre-9/11 New York City, OutKast & Goodie Mobb) faded, devolved, or became compromised, while stale outbreaks (G-Unit, Snap Music, Trap Music, Crunk) metastasized.
One of the worst developments was a late-2000’s fad soon to be known as “Frat Rap”.
This seemingly industry-planted trend is best surmised by Asher Roth’s Weezer-jack smash, “I Love College”:
Don’t get me wrong, I once loved college too.
Loved it almost as much, for nearly as long, as Charles DeMar did high-school.
But I was way too much of an iconoclast, or a righteously indignant, pretentious music snob, to give this brand of bullshit a pass.
By the time Mac Miller was old enough to attend college, he’d become, for better or worse, in the minds of most journalists, fans, and haters alike, to be a Summa Cum Laude member of that Frat-Rap class.
So for awhile, that told me all I really needed to know about Mac Miller.
There were some younger people in my life circa 2010, specifically the teenage children of my boss (shout-out to Dustin) and co-worker (toast to Haley) while living in L.A., who tried to tell me that Mac Miller was different, and better, than this reduction.
In fairness, his early offerings weren’t bad, or dripping in the pasty pastiche of a sub-genre’s gimmicky stink, nearly as much as “I Love College”.
The Nas-sampling “Nikes On My Feet” was a decent K.I.D.S. bop.
And the 1995 Lord Finesse beat that an 18-year-old Miller resurrected on his mixtape hit “Kool Aid and Frozen Pizza” was from a song (“Hip 2 Da Game”) even I’d forgot.
But topically, aesthetically, reflexively white-rapper-resistant-ly, whatever else the case may be, neither the artist or his fan base really felt like it was meant for me.
Short story long, for most of a subsequently decade-long career, I rarely checked for this suburban Pittsburgh kid named after Malcolm X with the Irish last-name, Malcolm McCormick, before his untimely passing on September 7th, at the tender age of 26.
It ain’t 2009 no more.
And like Mac’s father’s favorite artist, Bob Dylan, once sang:
“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”.
As Miller stated, on “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza”, “we just some mothafuckin kids”.
At 17-18, of course he was.
Shit, even in mid-twenties, still is.
Or sadly, still was.
Suddenly, he’s gone.
And with it this grown-kid’s superficial reasons for skimming his career are too.
Malcolm McCormick did and accomplished more grown things by 26 than I could likely hope to do, as an artist or a man, before 46, 56 or probably even 66.
But since passing his last album, released a month ago, Swimming, has me transfixed.
Part II: Mac Miller’s Place in the Funk-Soul Renaissance of 2010’s Los Angeles
I’ve said before, most recently while reviewing The Internet’s Hive Mind for Albumism:
The Los Angeles funk-soul-jazz-hip-hop renaissance that’s taken place over the course of this decade, trumps the entire rest of the world’s collective efforts, spanning across all genres of popular music over that same period of time, combined.
This is a theory for which I truly feel that I can make a strong case.
I may end up doing so in book form one day, with the proper amount of budget, access, plus publishing house willing to pay (form an orderly queue in my inbox, qualified folks).
Some names will be familiar, others perhaps not, but during the 2010’s, these L.A.-based artists/producers/musicians have contributed a lot:
Anderson Paak, Kendrick Lamar, YG, Thundercat, Robert Glasper, Syd Tha Kid, Steve Lacy, The Internet, Earl Sweatshirt, Ty Dolla Sign, DJ Mustard, Schoolboy Q, Vince Staples, Kamasi Washington, Frank Ocean, Flying Lotus, Dam-Funk, Tyler The Creator, Ronald Bruner Jr., Miles Mosley, Cameron Graves, The Alchemist, Miguel, Black Hippy, Casey Veggies, Alexander Spit, Nipsey Hussle, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock.
That’s not necessarily a complete list, but you can take that entire noteworthy lineup and find at least one common root: a link to Mac Miller.
All since his move from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles in 2012, only 20 years old but wealthy enough to cop an L.A. home due to his debut Blue Slide Park becoming the first-and-still-only independent album to reach #1 on Billboard in the 21st Century so far.
A link that includes countless studio sessions, musical products collaboration, time spent jamming, or just hanging out at Miller’s famously open-doors-to-friends-and-fellow-artists-haven of his Studio City home.
In the case of The Internet or Thundercat, it meant tours in Miller’s backing band.
In the case of then-up-and-coming L.A. MC’s like Schoolboy Q, Earl Sweatshirt, and Vince Staples, it meant Mac as a trusted mentor and close personal friend.
Some mostly inconsequential, but cool trappings of La-La Land Fame would follow.
A memorable cameo alongside Snoop Dogg in Scary Movie 5.
Two seasons of an MTV reality-comedic-documentary series, Mac Miller and the Most Dope Family, followed in 2013-14, based upon Mac and his Pittsburgh crew adjusting to their new Southern California surroundings.
And a two-year-relationship with pop-ingenue Ariana Grande, ending in early 2018.
Despite these dalliances, Miller eschewed the pop chart success and accompanying super stardom readily available to a young heartthrob white rapper.
Those same pop trappings Eminem leaned into, despite pretending to hate, on each of his first four albums, which all feature carnival-sounding lead singles, filled with dated pop-culture references, during Em’s own heady commercial heyday, from 1999’s The Slim Shady LP thru Encore in 2004.
Miller never received that big industry co-sign, a la Dr. Dre.
He released at least twice as many mixtapes as studio albums.
Not a single song he ever made received major radio play or cracked the Top 40.
Still, all five of his official albums debuted inside Billboard’s U.S. Top 5.
Miller was not considered a “lyricist”, on a tier occupied by rap legends of yesteryear.
There isn’t a musical style that he can be accurately described as having helped ‘pioneer’.
But he was a musician’s musician, capable of playing bass, guitar, piano, and percussion.
He produced much of his own work, and for others, under the pseudonym Larry Fisherman.
He was growing increasingly comfortable in utilizing his singing voice, a voice heard cracking, croaking, squeaking, smoking in discomfort, which somehow made his music feel more authentic and affectingly human, dating back to 2013’s Space Migration tour.
That progressed after linking with singer/rapper extraordinaire Anderson Paak in 2016.
But it was on full display on Swimming, indicating the live direction he was about to take, whether on a network TV stage like Late Show With Stephen Colbert in August:
Or in the small, cozy confines of a Los Angeles club many of my own far-less-famous friends (shout-out to Jesse Cole & Company!) used to regularly play, Hotel Cafe.
When Self-Care Fades into Oblivion, the Swan Song Becomes Swimming
Let’s not tell lies, we’re not having this talk if Mac Miller is still alive.
That shit makes me feel some kinda way, mostly sad, but also a bit guilty inside.
It was all good just two weeks ago.
A swan song is a wild thing.
For an artist, or a person with a mind of an artist, a swan song can be a dream.
We’re all gonna die one day.
But not many of us get to plan exactly how it’s gonna be when you do it.
My childhood neighbor, Marilyn, matriarch of the Legendary Sanchez Clan (Centre Street Crew, You Know How We Do) became afflicted with ALS.
Her oldest daughter, my homegirl/sister Tina (one of five siblings) and I were in our mid-twenties at the time.
Trust me, you can’t think of a more terrible disease.
It literally takes every piece of you, slowly, limb by limb, nerve by nerve.
But the final thing it takes is your brain.
The helplessness you must feel while wrestling with it must be insane.
But one beautiful thing you can do is plot your endgame.
You literally get to direct your own funeral.
So best believe Marilyn did everything left in her power to storyboard that thing like it was The Last Waltz by Martin Scorsese.
On an a musical level, the best example I can come up with is David Bowie.
Nobody but his beautiful wife Iman, son Duncan, daughter Alexandria and a select few who’d earned the trust of the family knew David Bowie was going to die.
But before he did, a man who spent his whole artistic existence reaching into the cosmic ether to become better experienced in human understanding, got a chance to craft a final work confronting all mortal possibility.
That is a true swan song.
An artist crafting a departing narrative designed to reverberate after they’re gone.
This Mac Miller album is not that same thing.
Or at least it wasn’t supposed to be that.
This is a 26-year-old, coming off a public breakup, wrestling with self-medication and coping with some all-too-common form of depression, going thru something.
When I listen to Swimming, I have no doubt, without ever meeting Mac Miller, or thinking hard about him until recently, that he was working towards figuring it out.
But opiate-based prescription pills, which our government tacitly, greedily endorses, while pharmaceutical corporations churn product out, far past the point an entire legitimately prescribed planet could ever possibly account, will come for your scalp.
They will take you out.
They’ve done it to too many people I love.
They’ve done it to countless more people I’ve never met.
As a fellow empath, in ongoing revulsion at this and other symptoms of societal sickness, I know too well the feeling when Mac said “I just need a way out, of my head”.
That can sometimes becomes booze, women, or whatever else.
Those vices come with their own slew of issues, and degrees of misuse.
But these synthesized opiates above all else, far too often, lead to young, talented people never waking up, found dead in their own bed.
Last weekend I dropped off some SUPREME stickers at my local graveyard, laid them down next to headstones of brothers known since childhood, celebrating a birthday of one, as my co-conspirator and I, armed with blue-tooth speaker plus customary attitude, introduced stones representing their spirits, to the likes of Mac Miller and Lil Peep.
I don’t really know how either went, but Rest In Peace.
I haven’t been able to make much more sense of this mess since they left, but can also say that I’m not ready to sleep.
Speaking of sleeping, I’m imaging what many must be thinking if still reading…
Bomb, we’re 2500 words in, can you talk about the damn album?
My Bad, YES!
Stellar effort, plus potential dreams of future greatness now deferred, from Malcolm.
In a word, FRESH.
But anyway, here’s a few more specific snapshots, with the time we have left:
My regrets look just like texts I shouldn't send
And I got neighbors, they're more like strangers
We could be friends…
Opening bars are a crucial thing, particularly in hip-hop.
But even better if they set the tone for an album, telling us what it’s about.
Those words off “Come Back to Earth”, will forevermore stand out.
I’m always sayin’ I won’t change but,
I ain’t the same/
Everything is different,
I can’t complain/
Don’t know what your missin’,
shame on you, yeah, shame on you.
These kind of lines make me think Mac Miller may be trolling me from the grave.
That’s more a byproduct of my own narcissism, especially since by 2018, Mac seemed comfortable enough in his own skill, and skin, to not care who wasn’t fucking with him.
But still, shame on me.
Malcolm McCormick, wherever you now might be, ya boy Bomb can’t disagree.
Speaking of bombs, the one undeniable heater, the banger above all others, the one joint that if you can’t dig it, I can’t even be bothered with you, is “What’s The Use?”
This song is a straight THUMPER.
Led by Thundercat’s bass line, followed up by the Mac Miller jab-stepping, high-key freaking on his verse the moment he declares “the clock is ticking”, all the way down to the oddly-hard-to-decipher-but-still noticeable-to-a-keen-ear contributions of Snoop Dogg on the chorus. This song, produced by Mac + Dam-Funk, is a classic L.A. groove, embodying the spirit of their progenitors while filtered thru some funky offspring.
Things keep going and flowing from here, to oblivion on “Self Care”, or an angel getting its “Wings” elsewhere, onto bigger and better things, making us wish this talented 26-year-old hung on long enough to “see all the wonder and the joy life brings”(c)Slick Rick
Where would you like to wake up?
I would probably like to wake up at the house I grew up in.
What would you like to achieve on your last day?
The amount of recording and songs that would be made on my last day on Earth… That’s really all that I would do. That’s kind of my whole recording style: you could die at any time, so record like you never know if you’re going to wake up the next day.
What’s the last song you’d want to hear?
The Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’.
If you could be resurrected the next day, what would you come back as?
I wanna be a whale. I saw a whale the other day. They’re just out here chilling. You can’t really f*ck with a whale, and they don’t really f*ck with you. They seem pretty peaceful.