Album Review: Mac Miller – Circles

Malcolm James McCormick, known by his stage name Mac Miller, released a whole collection of tracks, mixtapes and albums to the world in the only 26 years he was on this earth. Starting his rap career with mixtape releases, the first being ‘But My Mackin’ Ain’t Easy’ in 2007 as a teenager and known as Easy Mac back then, to eventually finding international recognition in 2010 when he signed a record deal with independent label Rostrum Records. His debut studio album at Rostrum, 2011’s ‘Blue Side Park’, made it on the top of the Billboard Charts. An incredible milestone for an independent release, being the first indie album at number 1 in 16 years, since 1995’s ‘Dogg Food’ by Tha Dogg Pound. Always having an own vision, Mac was not only a rapper but also a singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer. Under his pseudonym Larry Fisherman, he notably took serious production steps since his second album ‘Watching Movies With The Sound Off’ (2013), with the help of famous collaborators like Pharrell Williams, Diplo, Flying Lotus, The Alchemist, among others.

His success eventually led him to attract attention from majors, signing a deal with Warner Records as they are an ‘independent thinking company’ according to Mac, and helped to continue his own vision with follow-up albums ‘GO:OD AM’ (2015) and ‘The Divine Feminine’ (2016). His 2018 release ‘Swimming’ – his last album he released before his death – is maybe also one of the most highlighted one, preceded by his notable hit ‘Self Care’ where, in the music video, he reenacts the famous scene from ‘Kill Bill: Volume 2‘ where the Bride tries to escape out of a coffin she was put in alive. All his 5 studio albums made it into the top 5, with his first, ‘Blue Side Park’, reaching the top. Besides his commercial studio albums, Mac also released about 13 mixtapes, two Extended Plays and two Live albums, and in his short life passing at 26 years old, blessed the world with an entire playlist of hip-hop mixed with Jazz and alternative influences, a style that’s defines his artistry. Many songs of him, like ‘Donald Trump’, ‘Best Day Ever’, ‘Dang!’ or ‘Weekend’, therefore, are noticeable for Mac’s classic imprint with timeless elements in his music.

As ‘Swimming’ was released less than a month before his passing, it was assumed that this was it, his last project for the world. However, a message on his official Instagram from his family on January 8, 2020, dismissed that belief, starting with the words “Here we are. The act of having to write this at all feels surreal.” The message then revealed that Miller was well in the process of recording his companion album to ‘Swimming’ entitled ‘Circles’ – as his original concept was Swimming in Circles: “Two different styles complementing each other, completing a circle.” For ‘Circles’, Mac Miller worked with record producer and composer Jon Brion who finished the album after his passing and fine-tuned the early versions based on the time and conversations he had with him (and later stated that ‘Swimming’ and ‘Circles’ were also planned to be the first instalments in a trilogy of albums, the third piece originally planned as a “pure hip-hop record”). As the family stated it was important for Miller that people hear the recordings he made, they decided to let it finalize properly to share it with the rest of the world, with their Instagram message being the only post to let fans know about the release.

As the theme of former album ‘Swimming’ dealt with healing and finding oneself, Genius pointed out that ‘Circles’ appeared to be in that same vein, right after the release of lead single ‘Good News’ on January 9, 2020 (eight days before the album release), that lyrically shares parallels of depression and self-help like in ‘Swimming’s’ ‘Self Care’. Furthermore, the first released track of the album attracts attention with sweet and dreamy vibes – a way to turn off negativity as he literally only wants to hear good news, but on the other side underlines in the lyrics his drug use and not being able to get out of an ongoing circle: “Wish I could just get out my god damn way / What is there to say, there ain’t a better time than today.” Genius also pointed out that ‘Good News’ may open with a call back to ‘Swimming’s’ first track ‘Come Back To Earth’ where the lyrics say “I just need a way out of my head / I’ll do anything for a way out of my head”, similar to the opener lyrics in ‘Good News’: “I spend the whole day in my head / Do a little spring cleanin’ / I’m always too busy dreamin’.”

In addition, the music video that was released on January 9 as well, creates a retrospective theme, directed by Anthony Gaddis and Eric Tilford, that starts off with Mac in the studio inviting the viewer to follow him, entering an animated spaced out world full of dozens of photos, shots of him dancing and moving around – from playing instruments to many hidden easter eggs and references. Most notably, his white Mercedes Benz G-Wagon flying around in space, with his dog on the passenger seat who, judging by the looks of the dog, is portraited as his former poodle terrier mix Ralph (or Ralphie) that sadly got lost or was dog-nipped, with Mac even putting a missing message on Instagram on July 14, 2014, the day he went missing.

‘Good News’ Official Music Video

The spaced-out concept is then continued on January 17 when the entire album was released: Every individual track was put out with a visual in a similar style as ‘Good News’, only not as full videos but rather short loops that repeat themselves. Like in ‘Complicated’, an 80s synth inspired track noticeable for Mac’s playful voice tones, where he’s eating at a Conveyor belt sushi restaurant, using stop motion animation to illustrate Mac with chopsticks enjoying his sushi. Then in different fashion, introspective ‘I Can See’ is portrayed as a dreamy fantasy – a sea with palm trees in the dark, light waves shimmer from a star-filled sky with a huge planet Mars present instead of the moon; Mac appears out of the water and drifts deeper into the sea, a water lily then comes out of the water as well, following his direction (Fun fact: Ariana Grande is humming in the background of the song).

Visual for ‘I Can See’

Except for visual directions and style, the album is also noticeable for its chill and relaxed vibe like a lazy Sunday afternoon, especially in title-track ‘Circles’ that acts as the opener for the record (“Don’t you put any more stress on yourself, it’s one day at a time”), and continues a slow-paced rhythm in ‘Woods’ as well as ‘Hand Me Downs’ that feels like entering a chill dusky bar (featuring Baro Sura in vocals and drums). The latter is also notable for its video that, different than the others, show recordings of Mac in the studio – nodding his head to the rhythm, being in his own zone, seeing him playing with different instruments like bass guitar, keyboard, and xylophone.

Footage of Mac Miller in the studio shown in ‘Hand Me Downs’

Moreover, a big standout-track is ‘Blue World’, created with the help of UK house production duo Disclosure: Starting off with an acapella performance of a barbershop quartett – a sample of ‘It’s a Blue World’ by The Four Freshmen – then later filled with danceable effects of pieces from the barbershop’s voices. The song’s lyrics speak about Mac’s ‘everything is going to be good’ attitude without losing his true self (“I ain’t politicking, I ain’t kissing no babies / The Devil on my doorstep being so shady”). Another notable track is ‘Everybody’ – a cover version from a 60s record named ‘Everybody’s Gotta Live’ by rock band Love. Mac’s own take of the song also offers vibes of retro pop-rock from before the 1970s, with piano, drums and bass guitar (the latter played by Mac himself), reminding of a Beatles track as well. This retro-vibe then carries on in melodic ‘That’s On Me’ with romantic guitar strings in the hook, and stays retro in a slow rhythmic ‘Surf’ with acoustic guitar. Later on, trippy manipulated electronic guitar effects spice up the track, sounding like a bee that’s humming, while lyric-wise Mac plays around by referencing the children’s song ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’. ‘Hands’, on the other hand, sticks out with bell sounds and a continuous sound effect sounding like a child saying “yeah-ehhh” as if the kid’s on a swing set. ‘Once A Day’ was then chosen as the last track on the album, with 2:40 minutes ending in a short and sweet way, especially with the accompanying video where YouTube comments are shown commenting on the release of lead single ‘Good News’, highlighting the positive vibe from fans around the world, with one fan commenting “Mac has definitely transcended into another dimension. I know I better meet him there when I awake.”

With posthumous releases of artists that passed on, the question always remains if the album would sound the same if the artist would still be alive. Maybe Mac would’ve added some extra guitars on one song, would’ve changed a bridge on another. Or maybe he would’ve created an extra song for the album and would put another one on the side. You may never know. Nonetheless, what really sticks out on ‘Circles’ is the feel of a living person’s intent. In Michael Jackson’s case, for instance, his posthumous releases are created by selecting different demo tracks who didn’t make it in any of his many albums, rework them with the help of famous producers, and like handicraft work create a finished puzzle from pieces that actually belonged to different puzzles. Just like Amy Winehouse’s ‘Lioness: Hidden Treasures’, where Amy’s voice is as great as ever, but the album itself is a collection of the last bits and pieces of recordings they could find. This does not have to be a bad thing, but the ‘organic’ concept is missing as neither Michael nor Amy were working on that specific album that was created for them. This is were ‘Circles’ sticks out. There was a concept and there was an idea. All the tracks create a soothing theme of unwinding, laying back and forgetting the problems while he also goes deep into his own demons. It’s like as if Mac was still alive, but then again, he was. And even though you don’t know if he would have released it that same way, ‘Circles’ was, in fact, his idea, and the vision was fulfilled eventually. It’s a proper album with a focus on his artistry and fits perfectly into his collection of music.

Highlight Tracks:
Blue World
Good News

Full Track List:
Blue World
Good News
I Can See
Hand Me Downs
That’s On Me
Once A Day

‘Circles’ album reaction by Jon Denton

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