The fact that hip-hop artist Mac Miller was working on a new album came as a surprise to many when “Circles” was announced on Jan. 8, as Miller had died in 2018 at the age of 26. Miller had been on a roll, with his “Divine Feminine” and “Swimming” being lively, addictive works. “Circles” continues this trend, with Miller delivering what feels like a goodbye. It is one of the first great albums of the year. Feeling akin to what can only be dubbed “coffee shop rap,” many of the tracks have feelings of solemnity—beautiful, but with a hint of melancholy bathing the proceedings.
Miller came up in the early 2010’s, when the industry was full of artists like Asher Roth and shallow “bro anthems” like his “I Love College.” Indeed – early Mac Miller could often be like that. While the beat and many of the technical aspects off of his early hit “Cruisin’” are lovely, he still had a lot of growing left to do. This is coupled with the general dislike of white rappers that comes with the medium. Miller was never terrible—not even in his early days.
His clear influence from early hip hop groups such as “A Tribe Called Quest” was endearing, but the thought of another white rapper talking about struggles that were relatively easy or talking about the last party he went to was a turn of, and I wrote him off.
This changed with “Self-Care,” his hit from “Swimming.” There was something deeply honest – it was something someone writes after many nights of deep introspection. Miller had struggled with depression his entire life and the song made that clear—someone cannot achieve that level of honesty without struggle. There was something beautiful there.
Intended to be a companion piece to “Swimming,” “Circles” continues the style of that album, which had initially been planned as a trilogy. “Swimming” is probably the closest to “Circles” in sound of anything previously in Miller’s oeuvre.
Tracks like “Woods” and “Blue World” stand out. Both convey this sort of otherworldly feel, like Miller is transmuting new music through the afterlife. This is an album for slow-dancing and meditation, and rarely is there work that could be described as “party music” like in many of Miller’s other mixtapes and albums. “That’s On Me” is probably the best song on the album, crystalizing Miller’s strife, loneliness and perceived lack of direction into a ballad to cruise to early in the morning.
Miller was working on “Circles” when he died of an accidental overdose. His producer, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Punch-Drunk Love” composer Jon Brion, a longtime friend of Miller’s, was asked by the family to complete the album on his behalf. Brion’s influence can often be felt, especially with tracks like “Everybody” evoking Brion’s sound on films like “Sunshine” and “Punch-Drunk.” These are films about how life is strange, which is certainly exemplified by getting another album from an artist who was taken from us just as he was hitting his stride.