Mac Miller, Circles, and the art of the posthumous release

The late rapper’s estate successfully delivers a carefully crafted and complete posthumous effort.

The posthumous album is one of the most conflicting listening experiences any music fan can have. The motive behind the release isn’t always clear: the music might be unfinished, the quality may be lacking, and you can’t help but think about whether the artist would have wanted it released. Musicians put their life into their work, and in the unfortunate event that they pass, who their music is left to can majorly affect their legacy––either positively or poorly.

In September 2018, Mac Miller tragically passed away at the age of 26, leaving the music world in shock. His impact on hip hop was enormous, as he played a pivotal role in shaping the landscape of the genre through the 2010s. In using his platform to bring light to many up-and-coming artists, Miller played a major part in the budding careers of Vince Staples, Earl Sweatshirt, and many more.

While his platform helped to give these artists exposure, they also helped him find himself musically––throughout his career, Miller showed an astonishing level of growth. With each project released, he moved further and further from being the youthful stoner that was trying to fit into archetypal hip hop traditions laid out by his influences. Towards the end, Miller was working towards creating a sound and style that was entirely his own.

With 2016’s The Divine Feminine he took a chance, releasing a full-length project that relied on his singing as much as his rapping. Infusing neo-soul instrumentation with modern hip hop, the release’s sound was fresh for Miller and showed his desire to evolve as an artist. This was doubled down on with the release of 2018’s Swimming, leaving behind his neo-soul influences for a more varied and eclectic soundscape. These two projects showed Miller heading in a direction less concerned with fitting in, and more concerned with personal and artistic growth.

Circles builds off of the foundation laid out by these two albums and on Miller’s legacy while taking his music in a slightly different direction. Serving as a companion album to the aforementioned Swimming, producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion worked to complete what he and Miller had started. The result is a mesmerizing album, that is extremely melancholic, yet instrumentally lush and gorgeous, and features some of Miller’s most personal writing and best singing.

While Miller isn’t a classically trained vocalist, that had always been a part of his charm. His ability to capture the emotions present in his lyrics through his limited vocal range humanized him as a singer and makes him more relatable. It’s less a spectacle of ability and more about being able to feel what he conveys vocally.

Lyrically, this album sees Miller painting a picture of a man who is not only dealing with his personal struggles but optimistically accepting them as part of his life and trying to move on. The theme of Circles, however, appears to be his acknowledgement of the cyclical nature of his struggles, and how they keep coming back around. At times, despite Miller’s seemingly optimistic view, he speaks on his own personal downfall as an inevitability, which is heartbreaking to hear in the wake of his passing.

It’s apparent that this was an album that was well on its way to completion when Miller passed. There is a clear vision here, a cohesive soundscape throughout, and consistent lyrical themes that bring the project together. The album plays like one last goodbye from an old friend—a long, warm and bittersweet hug from somebody that you’re not quite ready to let go of yet.

This is where this album shines; and where many posthumous albums fall short. In recent years, with the unfortunate passing of several young artists, we’ve seen a lot of posthumous releases that seem like nothing but a cash grab. XXXTentacion’s last project, Bad Vibes Forever, was a colossal mess of a project. At 25 tracks long, it was bloated with features and filled with incomplete song ideas rather than fully fleshed-out tracks. The artist’s vision and fan enjoyment were secondary, with the primary concern being maximizing streaming revenue.

In the case of Circles, Miller’s estate has given an example of how to handle the music and legacy of an artist after they’ve passed. It is an album with very little promotion, it’s free of gimmicks or radio-ready singles, has no big features, and the sound isn’t all that familiar for fans. It’s a complete, concise and focused artistic expression of a man who is seemingly learning to accept his internal struggles and grow from them. The album pulls no punches creatively, and that’s what makes it so special.

Circles feels like the full realization of the sound that Miller had been trending towards for a few years now. It’s brilliant, beautifully arranged and emotionally gripping music that gives us a glimpse into where he was mentally, prior to his passing. It’s very apparent that Jon Brion and Miller’s estate understood his vision, and they’ve clearly worked very carefully to bring it to fruition and carry on his legacy. As hard as it is to say goodbye, this is a superb send-off for one of the most important and impactful rappers of this generation.

Rating: 9/10

Trial Track: “Blue World”

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