How the Pittsburgh MC went from joke to the man about to drop one of the most keenly awaited albums of the year
Mac Miller’s third studio album is due on the 18th of this month. It’s been a long old wait. Miller’s second effort, Watching Movies With The Sound Off, came out in mid-2013. Since then the Pittsburgh native withdrew from the public eye, developed and then overcame some serious drug issues and split from his label, Rostrum Records. In that time though Miller has also come to be regarded as one of hip hop’s more compelling voices. Once regarded with suspicion, if not outright derision, by hip hop’s taste-makers, Miller seems to have won over his critics and his next album, Go:od AM is one of the mostly keenly awaited of the year.
It has to be pointed out though that this new found respect was hard earned. Miller has been struggling since he first came to prominence to shake off the “frat rap” tag that has stubbornly stuck to his output. Commercial success wasn’t really the problem. His early independent mixtapes were stunningly successful, putting up numbers that most fledgling rappers can only dream of. His debut album, Blue Slide Park, meanwhile, invariably cannot be mentioned without including the fact it was the first independently distributed album to break into the Billboard Top 100 since 1995.
But in a way this success only served to reinforce the reservations that labelled him an outsider. Many suspected that Miller’s sales could be attributed to the fact that he made hip hop for the sort of people who didn’t really like hip hop. His music was regarded as a sort of watered down, more palatable form of rap that could be easier marketed to middle class, suburban white teens. He might be successful, but for a lot of hip hop fans he wasn’t to be taken seriously. Around 2010, admitting you liked Mac Miller in certain circles was only a few steps above expressing a soft spot for Flo Rida.
The easy going, slightly goofy, stoner vibe that Miller gave off on those first mixtapes only fuelled that image. Senior Skip Day was one of his early hits and listening to it now it’s pretty easy to see why he was often dismissed as a bubble gum rapper. Once an audiences’ perspective of who an artist is and what they’re about has been formed, it can be pretty hard to reshape it.
Miller clearly wasn’t content to accept his assigned role however. As lucrative as that route may have proved, since his second album he’s strived consistently to win credibility. Selling a lot of records doesn’t seem like his primary goal any more, instead he’s committed himself to proving he can mix rap’s best. Watching Movies With The Sound Off didn’t feature any tracks geared towards radio play. Additionally the choice of guest features on that album nodded towards the category Miller wants to be included in. Instead of r’n’b stars or mainstream names, Miller chose to work with some of the most critically acclaimed rappers of the time. TDE members Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul featured, as did underground giants like Action Bronson, Earl Sweatshirt and Jay Electronica. Those names won’t necessarily guarantee you sales, but they will guarantee that people take note that respected artists are willing to work with you.
If WMWTSO started to make people think there might be more to Mac Miller than they first assumed, the 2014 mixtape Faces won Miller a whole new section of fans. Faces is a brooding and sometimes dark journey that touches on everything from drug use (a lot of that actually) to the prospect of death. It deals in depth with Miller’s struggles with various substances and his mixed feelings towards his own success. He’s clearly developed his lyrical abilities and here he shows the flexibility to pull off the heavy subject matter while still showing enough wit and self awareness to stop it all venturing into maudlin self-pity.
On top of showing a steep improvement in his rhymes, Miller also produced more than half the songs on the album. Through his alter ego Larry Fisherman, Miller has shown skill behind the mixer as well as on the mic. As well as the tracks on faces, Miller also produced all of Vince Staples 2013 mixtape Stolen Youth. The eclectic collection of features from Schoolboy Q to Houston rapper Mike Jones also created the impression of an artist who wasn’t afraid to be creative or take risks.
Faces won Miller much critical praise. Rolling Stone included it in the top 20 rap records of the year. It marked the moment that the popular perception of him as a rapper began to shift. Miller was no longer the guy making soundtracks for suburban high school parties but a talented rapper working with some of the most interesting names around. The fact that Miller has been co-signed by people like Schoolboy Q and Vince Staples has no doubt helped his cause.
But while Miller may have finally been able to get people to pay attention, he hasn’t finished the job yet. He may no longer be so easy to dismiss but to really ascend to the spot he aspires to he needs to prove something with Go:od AM. This next album will show whether Faces was a fluke or whether he really does belong in the top tier of contemporary hip hop. He’s succeeded in building the anticipation but now he needs to deliver on it.
From the snippets we’ve heard from the album and from what Miller has said in interviews, it sounds as if Go:od AM will have a more positive vibe than Faces. Miller has suggested that he sees the new album as the beginning of a new, and judging from it’s title, more upbeat, stage of his career. While this may mean it won’t be as dark as Faces hopefully the quality and content won’t suffer. Miller has shown a willingness to scorn the easy road for more interesting paths and hopefully he sticks with that for his latest effort.
Mac Miller may not have won the respect he craves yet, but he’s at least earned a shot at it.