Sounding Board

Mac Miller Deserved Better

One of the biggest pop stars in the world ambles down the street, blinking in the sunlight, looking like he wishes this guy with the camera would get away from him. But he’s ready to talk anyway. It’s part of the game.

Post Malone’s hair is a frizzed-out rats’ nest, and his face seems to have a few more tattoos than the last time I noticed. There’s a cigarette behind his ear and another in his mouth. He describes Mac Miller: “Such a beautiful fuckin’ dude. Such a sweet dude.” He says, “I grew up listening to his music” — a stark reminder that, even if Mac Miller was only 26 when he died on Friday, Post Malone is only 23, a mini-generation apart.

Post wipes away a tear, talks about playing beer pong in the studio, the album that they were maybe going to make. The TMZ guy starts to ask whether it could’ve been avoided, starts to say the words “substance abuse.” Post Malone cuts him off.

“I don’t know. I don’t know.” Nobody knows.

On all of this, Post Malone is not unique. It seems like everyone who has come into contact with Mac Miller has loved Mac Miller. The rappers he knew, the writers who profiled him, the kids who had glancing and necessarily awkward famous-people encounters with him.

There’s a phenomenon in rap where white rappers are always eager to beef with one another, where they’re all lined up trying to prove themselves as the one white rapper who belongs. (Consider Machine Gun Kelly’s twin feuds with both Eminem and G-Eazy, both launched within the last couple of weeks.) But Mac Miller wasn’t like that, and people weren’t like that with him. Everyone was rooting for him. But sometimes, everyone rooting for you isn’t enough.

Do you know how hard it is to maintain a long and successful rap career without making all your peers hate you? It’s basically impossible.

The closest Mac came to a rap beef was a legal dispute, back in the very early days of his career. When he was an up-and-coming mixtape guy, Mac recorded a song, “Kool-Aid And Frozen Pizza,” that used the beat from Lord Finesse’s 1995 track “Hip 2 Da Game.” Mac never sold that song, but he made it into a video, and it was a huge part of his come-up. Finesse figured that Mac’s mixtape-rapper status did not entitle Mac to use his music for free, and he sued, making the claim that Miller was getting rich off of his work even if Mac’s song wasn’t commercially available. Mac settled it out of court, and that was the end of it, even if Finesse’s true-school-defender fans spent years posting angry comments on Mac’s YouTube videos. These days, I wonder if Lord Finesse doesn’t wish there were young rappers who knew enough about ’90s rap to rip his music off.

Mac Miller did know about ’90s rap. He knew about soul. He knew about jazz; I saw a great Twitter anecdote on Friday about Mac sitting in the front row at a Kamasi Washington club show, visibly thrilled at every new change. Mac knew about ’70s soft-rock and ’90s cheeseball bro’d-out alt-rock, too. He liked all of it, and he was curious about all of it.

He was the type of musician who takes songs apart to see how they work. As a teenager, he taught himself to play guitar and bass and drums. In a recent FADER documentary, there’s great footage of him screaming at himself while repeatedly fucking up a piano part. He wrote horn charts for Swimming, which would turn out to be his final album. He was engaged. Even when his drug problems were at their worst, it seemed like music came first.

If Mac Miller had not been the kind and curious mind that he was, he would’ve disappeared really quickly. Mac rose to viral fame in the early-’10s frat-rap era. His Blue Slide Park album was a massive and unlikely success, hitting #1 with indie distribution when people were still buying CDs at Best Buy, when that just wasn’t something that happened. The album was an inconsequential goof, and it became an instant target for hate. I remember being at SXSW that year and seeing Mac live multiple times by mistake. He was pushing it hard, and I wished he would just go away so I could see Freddie Gibbs or whoever. He was an irritant, one who seemed destined to disappear quickly.

He didn’t disappear. Instead, he made himself great. It was a slow, arduous process, and he took it seriously. There was nothing forced about Miller’s evolution. Instead, it was a clear case of a kid who got famous when he was a teenager, who read all his bad reviews, and who tried to learn from them. 2013’s Watching Movies With The Sound Off was the beginning of the turn — Mac suddenly hanging with Earl Sweatshirt and Action Bronson over dense, cluttered loops — but it was only part of the story. Around the same time Mac was making the MTV2 reality show that ran a couple of seasons, he transformed his home studio into a kind of clubhouse for the ridiculously fertile young LA rap scene, forging tight friendships with people like Earl and Schoolboy Q. He produced a whole Vince Staples mixtape before most of us knew who Vince Staples even was. He became part of a distinct and exciting moment in recent rap history.

That whole time, he was struggling, recovering from addiction and then relapsing again. Later on, he talked about how much of it was driven by boredom. He’d be sitting alone in a room, and he’d decide that the best thing he could do with that time would be to go on “a whole adventure” on whatever drug. This was, after all, someone who became famous as a teenager, and adventures outside of that room were presumably just not that much of an option. Plus, he had the money to fund all those drug adventures.

He talked about all this in his music, too. He knew the potential consequences. He knew he was flirting with his own end. And there was shame in there, too. A line from 2014’s great Faces mixtape: “Don’t tell my mom I got a drug problem.” Another, from a song about skipping his own birthday party: “I’ll just stay down here inside the studio / Doing blow and paraphrasing The Crucible.”

But Mac stayed busy, and he stayed famous. He kept working, and a lot of his work was really good. For a while, he dated Ariana Grande, and he seemed to enjoy the role of publicly doting boyfriend. They helped each other through things, but his things got to be too much. Around the same time, a few months ago, when Mac got arrested for a DUI, Grande described their relationship as “toxic.” (For me, at least, this was a shock, and a clearer sign than the arrest that the guy had real problems.) He never showed any venom toward her, and on Swimming, his month-old final album, he rapped about her helping him through things even after the breakup.

Swimming is a gorgeous record, one that’s gained more heft and force since Miller’s death. Listening to it when it first came out, I thought it sounded like someone making progress, both musical and personal. It’s an introspective record with an amber organ-glow and a whole lot of lines about trying to find some kind of peace. But this morning, I was listening to “2009” when my wife walked in. She doesn’t really pay attention to rap music, but she’s a social worker, and sometimes she hears things that I don’t. Here’s what she said:

“He sounds so sad. Is he OK?”

He wasn’t, and I wish more of us had realized it. But I don’t know. I don’t know.

Tags: Mac Miller