At the end of every artist’s life, fans are delighted with previously unfinished or unreleased works to continue the magic the fans have grown accustomed to. “Circles” the sixth studio album and first posthumous release of the late rap and hip-hop artist, Mac Miller, was released on Jan. 17. “Circles” was originally conceived to be a companion to 2018’s Swimming, with two different, yet complimenting styles completing a circle—ergo Swimming in Circles. Circles was completed by Producer Jon Brion, who was already in the process of producing the record when Miller unfortunately died on September 7, 2018. Brion was able to complete the LP because, according to New York Times, the majority of the recording process had already been completed, using his time and conversations with Miller to bring an authentic piece to life.
The album opens with the title track, “Circles,” a laid-back lo-fi jazz-based song that compliments Mac Miller’s hazy, smoke-stained voice. The entire track comes together to create the image of a smoky jazz bar, with Mac Miller on the stage crooning his sorrows to the world. The rest of the album follows suit, with the title track being a perfect way to set up what comes to follow. The second track on the record, my personal favorite, is a synthesizer-driven bedroom pop song with laid back, simple drums, which to memory an earlier Kevin Parker during his work on Tame Impala’s “Lonerism,” specifically the track “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Can Control.” The song itself is driven on bass riffs that are almost Floydian in nature, with Mac Miller rapping in a sing-song, spoken-word style that adds to the overall aesthetic of the song.
The rest of the album follows in a similar structure and instrumentation. From a first listen, it sounds like real acoustic recordings from an instrument, and not a sample, were used on this album quite frequently, which is a wonderful breath of fresh air in the current climate of canned, sample based music. Brion takes the hazy vocals that Miller left behind and uses them to paint a pseudo-psychedelic experience that throws the listener straight into an unfamiliar environment. With subtle hints of R&B mixed into the equation, the result is a phenomenal mix of bedroom pop and classic rap.
However, track six, “Everybody,” steps away from the synthesizers in exchange for a grand piano. An inspired cover of Arthur Lee’s “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” the entire track is built upon an acoustic drum set that sounds like it was taken from a 70s Motown track with a simple bass groove and the haunting jazz chords of the piano. “Everybody’s gotta live, and everybody’s gonna die,” the refrain from this track, is one of the most haunting pieces of poetry I have ever read considering that this is coming from a man who has not seen this earth in over a year. I couldn’t help but feel that the instrumental could have been taken from a post-Beatles John Lennon b-side, but it is a healthy kind of warm nostalgia, as if it was a song I’ve known forever despite only just hearing it today. I feel as though this song could have concluded the entire album, as it seems to be a fitting goodbye for the late Miller. Instead, the synth-driven 90s R&B inspired “Once a Day” serves as the coda to the record. Contrasting the rest of the album, there is very little in the way of instrumentation past the synth chords and some light percussion in the background. The track concludes with a slow fade into nothing, the synth resolving itself into the empty second at the end of the song.
All in all, Mac Miller’s “Circles” is a stark contrast to the more rap-friendly works that he is known for. His lyrics and tone are more laid back and subtle, and less in-your-face than his standard rap songs. I would hesitate to call Circles anything close to a rap or hip-hop album, instead it belongs with the likes of Kevin Parker’s Tame Impala, or even later Pink Floyd records (in the direction that ”Momentary Lapse of Reason” steps). The entire record is solid through and through. Brion did a fantastic job of honoring Miller’s life and career with his tasteful mixes. No features, no producer tags, just the memory of an artist who was taken from this planet far too soon. Circles may be, in fact, the best posthumous release to come from a recent artist, considering that the majority of posthumous releases in the past two years have been riddled with featured artists and obvious grabs for cash by people capitalizing on the untimely death of a superstar. Miller has left us with a Swan Song, a final goodbye to fans new and old, one that leaves us satisfied with the conclusion and not expecting the work to be continued. The album feels like a very respectful goodbye from Mac Miller to the world, and I would go so far as to say that it is indeed his Magnum Opus, his greatest work.
Mac, you are missed dearly.