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Just Keep Swimming: A Review of Mac Miller’s Final Album

WRSU Mac Miller Swimming Review

I was watching a live-stream of the Mac Miller Celebration of Life concert being thrown by his closest friends in the industry, and I found myself disconnected. I can safely say it wasn’t the performances. From Travis Scott to Earl Sweatshirt to Schoolboy Q, the billing was a hip-hop heads wet-dream, and you can get a sense of the scale at which the music industry is mourning. Some will look to this concert for closure. A final farewell to a music juggernaut. But there was something about seeing Mac Miller’s face blown up on a screen as his lyrics rang back, referencing how he was “trying not to join the 27 club” from someone mixing his drugs with “the bullshit”.

The twisted irony is, he never did join the 27 club. He died a year too soon, caught up in exactly what he always said would get him. On September 7th, 2018, Mac Miller passed from an overdose of Fentanyl and Cocaine. So, as you might expect, I have mixed feelings about Mac Miller’s Celebration of life concert. Mostly because it was a blaring signifier that I won’t be able to listen to Mac’s music in the same way I did before he died. To test this, I’ve dove back into his last studio album, “Swimming”. And what I found was that where I once saw hopeful optimism for the future, I now see a drug-addicts reassurance that everything would be alright. That he could keep his head above the water. But ultimately, he couldn’t keep swimming.  

Where I once saw Mac Miller standing tall as a lone wolf, I now see the reality that he was shrinking away from society when he needed help the most. The rapper was undergoing the task of trying to “improve himself”, a theme he reiterates through the album. But another theme in “Swimming” is that Miller was living in self-imposed isolation, having decided he didn’t want any help and that he didn’t need any help in order to progress in life. People let him down too many times. “Trust is a problem, never knew how” Mac croons on “Wings”, with plenty of drugs to aid him in search of enlightenment. Drugs would keep him swimming. He says, “Like 25 years I’ve been high, no less” on “Jet Fuel”, and he’s barely exaggerating. Miller acknowledging his battle with addiction is nothing new, and for as long as he’s been referencing substance abuse, he’s been referencing his heavy dependency on it.

“Swimming” is no exception, but the concept of isolation is a new, central theme that Mac was aware of, but didn’t see a need to overcome. He relished  in being a lone wolf, and tackling his demons alone. From a completely visual perspective, the artwork to “Swimming” is very isolated. Miller sits against what looks like an elevator door with a small view of a blue, cloudy sky, surrounded on both sides by a void of white. This feeling of being stuck in a void is resonant throughout the album. “Self Care” is the biggest allusion to this void, where the rapper makes reference to Oblivion, an overall negative state of being and how he had “all the time in the world” so “for now [He’s] just chillin” in Oblivion.

During my initial listen to the album, the impact and severity of these lyrics missed me. But in retrospect of the rapper’s passing, they carry weight. Miller was at a place in his life where he was ready to get better mentally, and wanted to get better, but wasn’t looking for anyone’s help along the way. He was fine in his Oblivion. It’s safe to say he felt invincible. But the most vulnerable people of all are drug addicts, and understanding that is a critical aspect of drug rehabilitation. Withdrawal requires addicts to learn to live outside of a cycle that, in Miller’s case, was years in the making. Simple on paper, but literally vomit-inducing in reality. This is why so many people check themselves into rehab and seek medical aid when trying to get out of their Oblivion. Sometimes, we need help. As a fan, I hate to say I didn’t hear these warning signs upon early listens, but after the impact of Miller’s death, these signs became impossible to ignore.

Another motif had a radically different presence in the album after the death of Miller. The rapper talks about the future constantly, and almost always in hopeful and introspective respects, even when he gets real with us. Miller was ready to make friends with his neighbors, get out of the house more, and make music on a whole new level. “Swimming” was supposed to be the start of a “macadelic” renaissance. So when Miller says over the serene “Hurt Feelings” that he gives “a hundred and fifty percent…/…Used to be feelin’ depressed, now that I’m living I’m a little obsessed (yes)”, I believed him. I still believe both Mac’s obsession and openness about his feelings were precursors to what should have been the future of the Mac Miller’s sound. But no matter how clear and precise the production, the man seemed far from over his depression.

Probably the most obvious example of his battle with depression is examined on the track “2009” where he takes a look at how things have changed in how he deals with conflict. Where Miller would usually turn to substance abuse to fight his demons, on “2009”, he says “Well, the light was dim in this life of sin / Now every day I wake up and breathe/ I don’t have it all but that’s alright with me.” These lines are so simple, on a first catch; they almost don’t register. But just a few tracks earlier, Mac discusses how internalizing his pain and building up his demons brought him to substance abuse. Hearing him accept that he doesn’t have all the answers truly shows Miller taking his first steps towards becoming a “new person”. Sadly, it is a person we never got to meet.

“Swimming” was just a glimpse into the soundscape the rapper had planned for the future, and it shows when holding this album against his previous works. No other album in his discography sounds like this one. “Swimming” takes unique Larry Fisherman production that Miller has been sharpening for years, and drenches it in jazz, funk, and a dash of soul. To do this, Miller enlisted musical virtuosos Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Syd, J. Cole, Pharrell, Snoop Dogg…need I go on? The live instrumentation on this album is lush and grand, mixing beautifully with the studio audio elements of 808s and other synthetics. Miller’s singing has never sounded better and his lyrics have never been more honest. Truly, we were experiencing the beginning of what would have been the next step for Mac Miller, as he tackled his demons over wax and preserved the progression. This leaves the album all the more tragic. Miller had been in the game a long time, and on “Swimming” he was able to flex his influence and draw together many artists from all across hip-hop and R&B to create a refined and sharpened project. Only someone obsessed with the craft could create such a refined album and call out so many talented artists to help along the way. Only someone who was trying to get better would be so open with the world.

As Miller took the time to externalize his problems over slick jazz-rap beats, there is one problem Mac brought up constantly, that he feels he needs to overcome. It doesn’t require much investigative work to assume that the constant callbacks to a recent relationship that turned bad refers to super-star ex-girlfriend, Ariana Grande. The breakup had a considerable toll on Miller, if “Swimming” is to be taken into consideration.  But it was something Miller was aware of and ready to tackle. Miller wrestles with this train of thought on the song, “Perfecto”. The rapper opens up about how he internalized his problems with this relationship. To cope, he notes that he would just lock himself in the studio, creating music for days on end, where he would drink “D’usse with the homies like its Kool Aid”. This song crescendos with an outro where Miller really admits this was just a way to hide from his problems, as he croons “Seen it all unfold, sat back and watched / knowin time don’t give a f**k about clocks until they stop”.

My interpretation of these lines hasn’t really changed since my first listens before Miller’s death, but they certain carry a heavier weight now. This album wasn’t a coincidence, its refinement wasn’t a coincidence. It was where Miller retreated to when things got too heavy. Miller watched his relationship decline, and instead of trying to prevent the fall, he let it lean off the cliff, and it carried him down with it. By choosing to internalize his struggle, he started down on the path that led us to the present. Ultimately, “Swimming” is where he externalized these issues in a way he could handle. The fact that Miller opened up about his relationship shows he was genuinely trying to admit his fault in the events that drove him to hide in studios behind soundproof walls. Seeing the damaged artist try and claw his way up through the hole of depression he created  for himself gave a hopeful intonation. It was to be the beginning of a journey to redemption. But given Miller’s passing, the hope falls flat. Even when you’re ready to keep swimming, if you wait too long and let your baggage get too heavy, you may drown.

When I listened to “Swimming” for the first time, what I heard were claims that Mac was coming to terms with his demons. Claims he was ready to get outside of his depression, and was only going to get better with time. Now, I can’t listen to the album the same way. It’s not worse, it just casts a clearer image of what Miller was really going through.

He was swimming as best he could. But he was cramping the entire time, even if his face wouldn’t show it. He could see the point where the ocean bleeds into the sky and becomes a spectrum, as opposed to a divide. He thought he could just keep swimming all alone until he reached the sky, but that’s not how it works.

I want to take this time to ask anyone battling with substance abuse to seek help. There are people who can help you out of the ocean of your depression. If “Swimming” leaves us with anything after the death of Mac Miller, it’s that you don’t have to swim all alone.

Album Review By: Seyi Aladejobi