In 2018, the music world lost a monumentally talented individual. Pittsburgh rapper, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist. Mac Miller had just released his magnum-opus and Grammy-nominated album, “Swimming,” when he died of a drug overdose at the age of 26.
Like other late artists, the Miller estate was left with heaps of unreleased music from Mac and fans desperate to hear it.
Posthumous albums are a delicate and tricky concept. The family was tasked with honoring Miller’s artistic vision, which can be immensely difficult to navigate in a classy and sonically gratifying way. With that being said, “Circles” is one of the most complete and honoring posthumous projects to date.
Prior to his death, Miller worked closely with composer and producer Jon Brion on various songs — tracks that became the foundation of “Circles.” Following Miller's death, Brion was committed to finishing the project that Miller had started.
Conceptually, “Circles” is the completion of a paradox created by “Swimming.”
“My God, it go on and on / Just like a circle I go back where I’m from,” Mac rapped on the closing track of “Swimming” titled, “So It Goes.”
“Swimming” preaches growth, perseverance and being an actively positive force in your own mental health. Narratively, “Circles” is more of a cry for help, as Mac seems to fall into the same habits he swam away from in his previous project.
“I cannot be changed, no / trust me I’ve tried / I just end up right at the start of the line / drawing circles,” harmonizes Miller during the title intro track on “Circles.”
Musically, the album is breath-takingly gorgeous, each track evident of an elegant blend of Miller’s lofi, jazzy production and Brion’s grandiose mastery as a producer. “Circles” greatly benefits from Brion’s presence, as it breaks up the sonic monotony of Mac’s favoring for sleepy funk beats that oversaturated “Swimming.”
Since the release of “GO:OD AM” and his musical renaissance as an artist, Mac has been attempting to bridge the sizable gap between through-and-through hip-hop and the visceral, spacey world of jazz.
“Circles” sees Miller blend the two genres the most successfully. He seems to be comfortable in his own skin as a producer, as he finally did on “Swimming.”
Tracks “Blue World” and “Complicated” bring the jazz-inspired beats that graced and brightened the “Swimming” tracklist, like “Ladders,” “Small Worlds,” “What’s the Use?"
The project also infuses a hint of indie-folk, with “Hand Me Downs” and “Hands,” experimenting with Miller’s vocal range and singing voice. The lead single from the project, “Good News,” is an undisputed highlight of “Circles.” From the plucky guitar and slow drums, to Mac’s heartbreaking lyrics regarding how others perceived his tiring mental state, the track is a clear standout. Although meant to be a sonic and conceptual foil to “Swimming,” certain tracks bring the same lofi, sleepy mood that defined the latter, such as “Woods" and “Surf."
Although “Circles” sounds dazzling, the project takes few risks sonically, generally following the same song structure and overall production established by “Swimming,” with only a few moments that truly break the mold in “Everybody,” “Hand me Downs” and “Complicated.”
The album concludes with the morbid “Once a Day”:
“It never really mattered what I had to say / I just keep waiting for another open door to come up soon / Don’t keep it all in your head / the only place you know nobody ever can see.”
It’s a truly painful end to a career that blessed the lives of millions, and an album that will surely do the same. Unfortunately, Miller won’t be able to build on the success of this album. The artistic vision and mind that provided one of the best discographies in contemporary hip-hop is gone. Fans of Mac should be beyond pleased with this, presumably, final entry to his catalog.
Yes, the album completes a cycle of depression, but Mac was still trying to find a way forward, a way out of the circle.
For that reason, “Circles” is a genuinely beautiful work of art. Expect it mentioned among the top albums of 2020 at the end of the year.