Malcolm McCormick started rapping at the age of 14, dropped his debut mixtape at 15, and signed his first major record deal before his 19th birthday. As a result, “Mac Miller” was a household name well before Malcolm McCormick could legally purchase alcohol — but with this early success came a hard-to-shake stigma.
Follow along with us as we use Mac’s own words, music, and lyrics to track his journey from once-juvenile rapper to the widely-respected recording artist who left his mark on hip hop forever.
Malcolm McCormick is a human. One who lived his life in the public eye and floundered under it at times and grew under its life-giving light at others. Remembering Malcolm McCormick means remembering his humanity and how he consistently traced his life and the lives of his fans through his music.
First impressions negatively impacted Malcolm McCormick’s perception in his early career. When Malcolm’s first album dropped under the pseudonym Mac Miller in 2011, he was quickly written off as a childish lyricist with some outlets even going so far as to label him “a crushingly bland and intolerable version of Wiz Khalifa.” And yet – like any real human – Malcolm McCormick grew and matured after the tone of his early career as Mac Miller grew stale.
Following his most recent release, Swimming, the public chorus of Mac Miller’s incredible ‘maturation’ has reappeared. While the label ‘mature’ is technically correct, its ubiquity has rendered the word nearly meaningless. From the “high school weed raps” of K.I.D.S. to the instrumentally and lyrically sophisticated Swimming, the new-found maturity of Mac Miller’s music is tangible. But it didn’t happen overnight.
Looking back, Malcolm McCormick’s career as Mac Miller developed through 4 distinct phases of growth:
Mac’s ‘High School Frat Rap’
- KIDS (2010)
- Best Day Ever (2011)
- I Love Life Thank You (2011)
- Blue Slide Park (2011)
Malcolm’s Sunken Lo-Fi
- Macadelic (2012)
- Watching Movies With the Sound Off (2013)
- Faces (2014)
Success & Mac’s Re-Emergence
- GO:OD AM (2015)
- The Divine Feminine (2016)
Mac’s Maturity through Malcolm’s Tragedy
- Swimming (2018)
Fans have watched as youthful expressions of joy decomposed under the weight of mental strife. We then learned, alongside Mac, to carry our weight and still look to the impending dawn with celebration. But Mac’s most recent release, Swimming, launches a new perspective; a perspective replacing the short-lived exuberance of Mac’s emergence from depression and addiction with a steady resignation to the commonality of tragedy. Now, we have to learn to move forward without Mac’s voice to guide us.
Maturation isn’t just something we cite when we reference artists, it’s something we live in, grow in, and experience alongside them. Music’s consumption in the media frequently detaches humanity from the artists whose lives are analyzed with carnivorous earnest. Mac Miller has consistently invited us into the uncomfortable crucible of maturation; forcing us to approach music – and artists – with a requisite level of appreciation for the human capacity to change. Here we acknowledge this invitation, and the humanity of its late sender: Malcolm McCormick.
Mac Miller’s Early Career
Mac Miller’s mixtape K.I.D.S (August, 2010) was the teenager’s first release following signing to Rostrum Records, a Pittsburgh label boasting other upstart local talent Wiz Khalifa. At this point in his career Mac Miller was what many of his most ardent fans were in 2010: youthful. Mac’s music was everything a burgeoning 2010 high school hip-hop fan could look for; he was the lighthearted foil to the obscenities of Odd Future. K.I.D.S is best summed up as fun, plain and simple. It is a mixtape which never took itself seriously and was littered with celebrations of good weed and gratuitous sexual references, all with the hint of embellishment present when any high school student retells their exploits.
Mac presented all of this on a sonic landscape floating between the laidback stoner-chill of the above “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza” to maddeningly vibrant, at one point even sampling Owl City’s “Fireflies” on “Don’t Mind If I Do.” The tracks delivered lyrical head scratchers such as “I do all different types of crazy shit/ I’m the youngin hoes tryna make a baby with/ Cause it’ll make ’em rich/Know I’m headed to the money, so these funny little girls wanna take a trip.” And much of Mac’s early lyrics pointed to the hint of creative and spell bounding flows, but were hampered by content clearly conjured by a high schooler.
This youthful vitality carried Mac Miller through the beginning of his career, through mixtapes Best Day Ever (March, 2011), I Love Life Thank You (October, 2011), and his critically flat 2011 debut album Blue Slide Park (November, 2011). Over this two-year period Mac was stagnant, he rapped consistently about girls and weed in a slew of uninspired ways. Released during this period, the (now unfortunately named and eerily predictive) track “Donald Trump” was featured on his mixtape Best Day Ever and was of the first tracks to break Mac firmly into the mainstream. Unfortunately, in this youthful stage, the music presented Mac as a juvenile artist with limited musical depth.
Malcolm’s Sunken Lo-Fi
But for me, I’m still trapped inside my head/ It kinda feel like it’s a purgatory” – ‘The Star Room’ (June, 2013)
From the very first verse of Watching Movies with the Sound Off (above), Mac presents himself as a different artist than the joyous version of himself on Blue Slide Park. The transition began to take shape with the release of his 2012 mixtape Macadelic (March, 2012), an album seeped in drugs, and the associated catatonic mindfulness. On his 2014 mixtape Faces, this brooding crescendos atop the lo-fi production reminiscent of the music his contemporary Earl Sweatshirt was producing at the time. The products hint at the lo-fi sound reverberating throughout hip-hop and reflects Mac’s slow descent into his own existence.
Where drugs--weed specifically--were previously a gateway to joy in his youth, they became an escape from the pressing weight of reality. “Red Dot Music” paints a crushing awareness of his own addictions over sparse production, never taking the focus away from the strength which has evaporated from his voice. A promethazine addiction holds Mac upright while simultaneously further pulling him into a debilitating dependence.
Delivering on calls for growth, Macadelic, Watching Movies With the Sound Off, and Faces (May, 2014) were Mac’s uncomfortable first steps into the world of lyrically introspective and sonically grounded--and mature--music. His first impression is something he admitted to having to take responsibility for, telling Grantland, “In a way, based on what I was rapping about in my early days, I kind of brought it [scrutiny] on myself.” As Mac experienced more, his music reflected a newfound propensity for depth and focus. His expressions were no longer those of the inexperienced high schooler, they were the reflections of a jaded young adult.
Starting a career as a teenager, Mac’s albums (and performances, as seen in the video above) reflected his fan base. In the 3 years following KIDS, Mac and his fans together transitioned from high school spaces of artificially exaggerated joy. We experienced more, languished and perceived more about our world, and developed a capacity for pain and mental anguish. Mac’s growth encompassed this shift, it picked us up right when the world began to make less sense and voiced our response: anguish, confusion, and a crushing sense of powerlessness.
Success & Mac’s Re-Emergence
I work harder than anybody you know/I’m done with tricks, don’t need no money to blow/Deadly aim, self contained/Superstar, they yell the name” – ‘Brand Name’ (September, 2015)
A telltale sign of growth in the midst of struggle is the ability to adapt to and healthily respond to your own anguish. Mature response doesn’t mean casting off the lessons learned or the depths of feelings felt, it simply means transitioning into living life without performing any tricks, passionate about your work, self-contained, and willing to feel in spite of the low evaluations of self-worth which previously prompted fear.
GO:OD AM was the first (and most representative) movement into this phase of development, while his following album, The Divine Feminine (September, 2016), stands as an indulgent expression of Mac’s freedom to experience joy in this phase of life. Mac grew into freedom and openness, indulging in a level of honesty that had previously been missing in his work.
I’m not here to hide anything. It’s not frustrating. You’ve got to get to a place where you’re strong enough to openly discuss decisions you’ve made in your life.” – Mac Miller with GQ, 2015
The Divine Feminine is a celebratory ode to Woman, reimagining her as a figure garnering due respect, consideration, and celebration. This mature approach is a far cry from the way Mac dealt with women in earlier phases of his career and is clearly influenced by an appreciation for all the women in his life, including then girlfriend Ariana Grande. But most notably, the album is an exercise in overcoming fear. Fear to release an album with no true “bangers.” Fear to deliver an unproven singing voice in lieu of the rapping cadence fans expected. Fear to be different and authentic.
Mac’s Maturity through Malcolm’s Tragedy
We now enter Mac Miller’s present moment. Swimming (August, 2018), Mac’s 5th studio album presents a landscape sonically cohesive and focused on instrumentation in ways no other of his projects have been.
Mac Miller’s Tiny Desk performance encapsulates the spirit of total musical control, reaching the zenith of instrumental hip-hop in the mold of Tyler, the Creator. One moment he is curating a string intro on “2009” and in another he croons over the Thundercat assisted funk of “What’s the Use?” But through each song, Mac’s growth seems to have pushed him away from the exuberance commonly associated with funk. Mac’s funk is indebted to the reflective and ominous offerings of his collaborator Thundercat‘s recent work such as his Kendrick Lamar-assisted “Walk On By” as opposed to the joyous refrains of earlier Thundercat tracks such as “Walkin”.
The Mac Miller of today doesn’t attempt to reconcile the seismic shifts in his personal life with a naive positivity in the following morning. The music video to “Self Care” has Mac awaken in a casket only to find himself in the hellish war zone that is oblivion. Stuck in oblivion, Mac attempts to find beauty and life in his surroundings. He begins a quest for self-improvement, but there is no expressed hope for a coming sun. Rather, Mac chooses to find joy through perpetual change and uncertainty.
I got all the time in the world, so for now I’m just chilling/Plus I know it’s a, it’s a beautiful feeling, in oblivion.” – ‘Self Care’ (August, 2018)
Lost and forgotten, Mac approaches strife with the pragmatic sobriety of Billy Pilgrim (the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five) and his common refrain “So it goes”. With Swimming, we get a glimpse of a man who once suffered and emerged joyful to embrace the beauty of living, now realizing that suffering is a necessity of life. Pain is, to be blunt, unavoidable – but Mac finds ways to live and occasionally smile nonetheless.
Where Mac previously looked forward to the coming morning with joy, Swimming finds him relegated to accepting night must come and he needs sleep. Mac again stands as a litmus stick for the social climate, in a 2018 where anything that can happen seems to have happened, Mac stares down tragedy armed only with the knowledge that it is inevitable and unpredictable.
Malcolm McCormick on Display
Mac Miller’s discography points to an artist who, at his core, is a flawed human. A human who--in spite of the tabloid fodder from his relationship with Ariana Grande dominating his name--has consistently delivered authenticity. Never shying from his own depression, addiction, joy, love, and pain, Mac has quite literally grown with us. Navigating a nuanced world with the complexity we each are allowed in our private lives, Mac has put his growth on display for the world through his music.
Often times our response is to urgently devour the music artists deliver in real-time, but Mac Miller’s work reminds us to slow down while we chew our food – to savor the full flavor of our meal, from beginning to end. “Easy Mac with the cheesy raps” left behind a meal we’ll be savoring for the rest of our lives, and its chef will be missed for lifetimes. Thank you, and RIP Malcolm McCormick.
Check out the playlist below, best listened to in order, that marks the chronological growth of Malcolm McCormick. Listen to this playlist to relive the growth Mac let us all be witness to. This is a celebration of a life lived well in memory of a bright light just extinguished too soon.