With the shock and sadness that greeted the news of artist Mac Miller’s death yesterday, Vent Founder Freddie Cocker articulates his emotion at the news, the impact Mac had on his music education and his personal life and why this should be a turning point in the conversation around mental health. This article will delve into some of Mac’s best work, the honesty and bravery he showed in talking openly about his mental health struggles and the addictions which consumed him. We hope to capture the essence of what made Mac Miller great and why his death is such a massive loss to music and the world.
We must preface this article by stating that although speculation has been made around the cause of Mac’s death, we cannot assume anything or make claims as facts until the autopsy has been completed in respect to Mac’s family and friends.
Every person’s death which is linked to mental health affects me much more since I started Vent. Every suicide or accidental death through overdose or any other reason cuts through me in a multi-faceted way it hadn’t done so previously. I was out with my friends last night when someone in our group broke the news of Mac’s passing. I had to immediately take myself somewhere quiet where I could shed a few tears and process what I’d just been told.
I used to read news stories of people taking their own life with a combination of grief, sadness and regret. I recognised parts of my own life in how they did what I had previously attempted on multiple occasions. I knew I too could have been enveloped into a statistic. My entire life could have been reduced to a number read out on a news bulletin and my memories transmitted into the minds of those closest to me rather than the continued memories I would have created by being alive.
Since I started Vent, my objective was to help as many people as possible. If I could stop someone out there reaching the same point of self-destruction I was in, that was an achievement. In light of that, every suicide or accidental death now feels like a failure on my part – a catastrophe that could have been averted, a conversation that didn’t take place or a helping hand not given. I know I had no influence over Mac’s death or the actions which led up to it. However, it doesn’t make it any easier to stomach or process, especially when it is someone who has been a significant part of your journey as a music fan.
I remember the first time I listened to Mac Miller’s music. People in my social circles were talking about him as the next big white American rapper to emerge out of the behemoth of Eminem’s shadow. What I found was a guy whose lyricism didn’t contain the venom and aggressive hyperdrive speed flows that accompanied Slim’s early work. I had to see what the fuss was about.
The first mixtape I listened to was ‘Kickin’ Incredibly Dope Shit’ or K.I.D.S., released in 2010. K.I.D.S was a College-Rap body of work, a genre which artists like Mac, Asher Roth, Chiddy Bang and Sam Adams popularised. Lyrics centred around a care-free lifestyle which encompassed themes such as smoking weed, drinking, having fun, enjoying being young and being broke. This sub-genre of hip-hop contrasts starkly with some of the garishly opulent braggadocio stereotype you see many rappers fall into in today’s hip-hop scene.
As a 16-17-year-old in sixth form trying to have fun whilst balancing studying and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, I immediately resonated with the personality Mac projected as well as the pure enjoyment of the tracks contained within the mixtape. His flow was accessible, jovial and accompanied by breezy samples that switched between putting your mind at ease into a state of musical relaxation and wanting you to invite your friends over for a BBQ.
Even at this early stage of his career, Mac wasn’t afraid to sample music considered out of the usual norm for his peers. This was exemplified by his use of Dream-Pop pioneers Empire of the Sun’s ‘Half Mast’ in the track ‘The Spins’. He manipulated the sample, turning it into a spaced-out dance record, punctuated by Mac orating about his love life and capturing girls from other guys despite his ‘nerdy Jewish teenager’ persona he openly owned and embraced.
‘Don’t Mind if I Do’ followed a similar trend, sampling Owl City’s pop smash ‘Fireflies’ and allowing Mac to spit non-stop for the entire record, jumping from topics seamlessly and riding the track’s crescendos and climaxes with such ease you didn’t realise the skill he was exhibiting.
Other stand-outs from K.I.D.S include ‘Traffic in the Sky’ and ‘Senior Skip Day’, tracks which, with hindsight gave clues to Mac’s eventual artistic evolution. The brass section injected into the chorus on the latter record evokes funk influences which foreshadowed the jazz-funk direction he would take on his final album ‘Swimming’.
The former track showcased Mac’s ability to produce soulful records whilst retaining the hip-hop elements that made him stand out as an artist, a combination that would be harnessed to full capacity in 2018.
Mac followed up K.I.D.S with the now iconic mixtape ‘Best Day Ever’ (BDE). Moving slightly away from the College-Rap sound that defined him up to this point, BDE was a more traditional hip-hop body of work. However, that didn’t stop Mac from diluting any of the qualities that made K.I.D.S so impressive or substitute any part of his confident personality in the pursuit of musical improvement. ’Get Up’ is a brilliant track that arrives early in the album, with a pounding bass-line to accompany Mac’s lyrical correctness and that same confidence flowing through his veins, with lines such as “Cause life a comedy like my last name Griffin/Livin’ for the moment, blowin’ potent overloaded/And my swagger call me old spice, yeah the kid is so nice…”.
‘Donald Trump’ is a barnstormer of a track that triggered a lawsuit attempt by the now racist-in-chief President of the United States. The feud cooled before Mac Miller famously reignited it after Trump won the Republican nomination. He declared at a 2015 concert before playing the track “DON’T VOTE FOR THIS MUTHAFUCKER”.
Mac amped up his political interventions and continued his opposition to Trump through appearances on the ‘Nightly Show’ as well as other media interviews in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election. He was also highly vocal on Twitter, lambasting white American hip-hop fans for not standing up to racism and voicing his support for the Black Lives Matter movement amongst other tweets, saying:
Dear White People who listen to rap music… What have you done for the #BlackLivesMatter movement
Just for this alone, history will look kindly on Mac Miller. People will see he took a stand against the dark path his country embarked upon and the bigot dividing his fellow countrymen along racial, social and gender lines.
However, the stand-out track from BDE is undoubtedly the beautiful ‘I’ll Be There’. Written as a tribute to his mother, Mac wonderfully samples 60s soul icons The Impressions and their track ‘People Get Ready’, weaving his poetic musings over a poignant piano loop, declaring towards the end of the track:
“If you have your moms, you better treat her right/Call her up, say “wassup” before you sleep tonight/Tell her you love her and thank her for what she did/You may be grown now but remember being a kid when she fed you in your bed”.
After two highly successful mixtapes amongst a host of other unsigned work, Mac delivered his debut album ‘Blue Slide Park’ in 2011.
Whilst critically, it received mixed reviews, there are still some great songs on this album including ‘Up All Night’, ‘PA Nights’ and the anthemic ‘Man in the Hat’. Some would argue as a body of work, it didn’t hit all the right notes both in its assembly and content. However, it certainly didn’t deserve the panning it received in some quarters of the hip-hop and wider music community.
Following Blue Slide Park, Mac began to experiment and evolve his sound as an artist, abandoning the College-Rap influences which had defined his early career and begun maturing into an individual not confined to a single genre.
As he evolved, so did his lyrics. He became aware of his own vulnerability as a human, conscious of the flaws, foibles and cracks in his being and reflective of the mistakes he had made in the past.
I have to admit, his work from 2013-2015 contained albums I didn’t feel compelled to buy. However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the content he was rapping about or think the albums were ‘bad’ in any way. I just didn’t enjoy them musically as much as previous albums.
I got a sense Mac was struggling to identify and crystallise a sound that he could use as a platform for future success.
One particular record from this period sticks out to me like a sore thumb as the start of his reflectory direction. It’s also one of the most honest assessments about his own mental health issues. On the 2015 album ‘GO:OD AM’, the track Perfect Circle goes into great depth about:
• His alcohol addiction – “I wash these pills down with liquor and fall/Leave it to me, I do enough for us all”
• Self-doubt, suicidal thoughts and low self-esteem – “Would you remember me if I never woke up?/Bye bye (Fuck you), I’ve been a sinner, I’m just tryna stay warm through the winter, and I’ll be on my way”
• Reaching out for help – “I just need some shelter, give me shelter from the wind”
The most heart-breaking aspect of this song is Mac’s own foreshadowing about his death. Towards the end of the track, he ponders about the implications and consequences of what might happen to him in the future if his mental health issues and addiction became too much for him to handle:
“Cause I’m speedin’ with a blindfold on and won’t be long ‘til they watching me crash/And they don’t wanna see that/They don’t want me to OD and have to talk to my mother/Telling her they could have done more to help me/And she’ll be crying saying that she’ll do anything to have me back”
Even more heart-breaking is this verse where Mac literally states what will become of him if he doesn’t get the help he needs:
“Them pills that I’m popping, I need to man up/Admit it’s a problem, I need a wake up/Before one morning I don’t wake up”
Perfect Circle was clearly a cry for help from a young man in desperate need of support and protection. It’s a genuine tragedy that this plea was in vain, even more so when you look back at his final two albums.
2016’s ‘The Divine Feminine’ as a concept album seemed like Mac had finally cracked the sound he wanted to produce and typify. Defined by the POMO produced single track ‘Dang feat. Anderson .Paak’, the album is laced with funk, disco and jazz elements which, although not quite hitting the consistency level Miller might have wanted, provided the blueprint to which ‘Swimming’ was created.
In my humble opinion, Swimming was Mac’s best album and one which encapsulated exactly the sound that Miller had hinted at creating in those early KIDS and BDE days. His evolution as an artist was complete and he developed a maturity in his lyrics and singing that belied the mental struggles he had experienced and the toxic relationship he had been in.
Mac Miller’s story is a now all too-familiar tale – a young, talented man who was burdened by the weight of expectation he placed upon himself and the demons which consumed him.
He carved himself out as a hip-hop artist not bound by traditional ideas of what he should say or rap about. His honesty and bravery to speak so candidly about his own mental health through his music came at a time when stigma around male mental health was high. In some dark corners of the internet, maybe some people thought it was his excuse to cover up for the perceived mistakes he had made in his high-profile relationship.
If anything positive can come from Mac’s passing, it’s that people must now wake up to the crisis in male mental health. We must stop deriding men from displaying emotion and show more empathy to them when they need it. Judgemental eyes and heaping scorn on someone when they are at their lowest point can only lead to more pain and suffering.
We have lost another man we could have saved, another soul ripped from us when it didn’t need to be and now a lifetime of music we will never get to hear.
Rest In Power Mac Miller