For many who grew up through the 2010s, Mac Miller’s creative growth from a Pittsburgh pop rapper to an experimental musician testing abstract hip-hop and live instrumentation signified that artists willing to work outside of the box are often met with greater fanfare and recognition than those who don’t. Miller’s long-term fight with addiction resonated with audiences and his death from an accidental overdose in 2018 was a hard hit for fans.
Lyrically, Miller has some of the strongest of his whole career on “Circles.” Contrasting with his other works, this album, at its core, is not a rap album, with Miller primarily singing and even reaching spoken word at points. Miller brings a blunt honesty to all the tracks, at times pessimistic about the world around us. At other points he allows for slight optimism, such as on “Good News” where he talks about the need for silver linings as a way to avoid some of the darkness around us.
Miller’s family acknowledged the difficulty of releasing a project following an artist’s death in a statement given prior to the release of “Circles,” Miller’s first project released after his death.
“This is a complicated process that has no right answer,” said Miller’s family. “We simply know that it was important to Malcolm for the world to hear it.” “Circles” was created as a companion album to his final release, “Swimming,” and Miller’s bittersweet energy pulses through the entire project, giving listeners an honest and introspective view of his last few months.
In the rap community in recent years, artists’ deaths have become tragically common. Besides Miller, rappers Lil Peep, XXXTentacion, and Juice WRLD all died unexpectedly in recent years. Like all genres in which noted artists pass away, the release of posthumous musical projects following their death always comes with great difficulty and is often met with a mix of praise and criticism. A prime example of music being poorly released after the death of an artist is the chaotic releases of controversial rapper XXXTentacion’s two posthumous albums “Skins” and “Bad Vibes Forever.” Both of these albums have been criticized for being sloppy and unfinished products that were pushed into being released by XXXTentacion’s mother.
Much of the credit for the success of this project should be given to co-producer Jon Brion, who has previously worked with artists ranging from Fiona Apple and Elliott Smith. He collaborated with Kanye West on his albums “Late Registration” and “Graduation” and with Janelle Monae on her latest album, “Dirty Computer.” Brion and Miller crafted simple, yet effective backgrounds which pick up and develop into beautiful melodies. This helps set the mood for the entire album properly.
“Circles” is different from many other posthumous projects in that it gives off a feeling of being fleshed out stylistically, as if it were what the final product would have sounded like. While we can’t know what it would have sounded like if Miller were alive to finish the product, Brion did an incredible job of preserving Miller’s artistic intent, thus creating a very satisfying experience for listeners and fans. For those looking for a final stage of Mac Miller’s evolution, “Circles” is bound to be a satisfying conclusion.