92 ‘till Infinity: How Circles cements Mac Miller’s legacy
Deceased musicians are often exploited from the grave in post-death releases. Mac Miller’s Circles, however, feels different.
The posthumous album - one released after the death of its creator - is a complex and at times, tiring display of musical capitalism. Occasionally, they can be life-encapsulating moments that give fans the opportunity to bid farewell to an unexpectedly passed hero - Joy Division’s Closer and J Dilla’s The Shining two examples of such - but more often, they’re chances for labels (and occasionally family members) to cash in on dead money; music left in the vault for obvious reasons unearthed and shared to the public, tainting careers without any incorporation of the career-makers themselves.
A recent example comes following the complicated death of Florida rapper XXXTentacion, whose work has been unearthed time and time again since his passing in June, 2018. Skins, the first of two albums the rapper’s family released following his death, was dragged through the mud in reviews that labelled it from feeling “unfinished”. Still, a second posthumous release came a year later, lacking the ‘spirit’ of the rapper that attracted his wide-ranging fanbase in the first place. Elsewhere, musicians such as Aaliyah have been revived for half-baked posthumous singles and collaborations in the time since their deaths; their careers feeling more lucrative and successful than when they were ever alive.
Amy Winehouse’s career post-death is another example, and one of the trend’s most complex. Six months following her tragic death, her close friends and collaborators put out a collection of demos and rebuilt vocals titled Lioness: Hidden Treasures, and despite many critics and fans calling the album’s release lazy and unnecessary, it was released in aid of the Amy Winehouse Foundation - a foundation created to prevent future stars from falling due to drug and alcohol problems. Following that, Universal Music UK chairman and CEO David Joseph destroyed all her remaining demos - “a moral thing,” he says - in order to prevent future exploitation from those trying to cash in: “Taking a stem or a vocal is not something that would ever happen on my watch. It now can’t happen on anyone else’s.”
Although a drastic action from someone who helped build Amy’s career, the effect has been longlasting: the only Amy Winehouse release since was the soundtrack to her biographical documentary ‘Amy’, scattering old favourites with live versions and fleshed-out demos from her past without tarnishing her career. Compare this output to Tupac, for instance, whose discography has grown exponentially since his passing - seven albums, ten compilations, two remix albums, a soundtrack, numerous features and standalone singles, and a Coachella hologram performance all among them.
When news arrived of a posthumous Mac Miller album expected in the year following his tragic death in September 2018, reactions were mixed. Some fans were ecstatic to learn that they’ll hear Mac’s voice once again - he was revolutionary to modern-day hip-hop, and a crossover artist to many teenagers beginning to fall in love with the genre - while others felt like Swimming, his last album, felt like the perfect moment of closure: “Just like a circle, I go back to where I'm from,” a lyric from the album’s final track which feels more potent today than it ever did.
Circles, released last Friday, is Mac Miller’s legacy compiled into one final record, and unlike many posthumous releases in the past, this one feels needed. It was built to be released 90 days following the release of Swimming as a companion piece - “two different styles complementing each other, completing a circle” - almost completed by the time Mac passed, but finished off by a close friend and producer Jon Brion.
Circles is not just an opportunity to grieve a talent gone too soon, but a chance for people to feel a comfort that Mac is at peace. Despite its optimistic underlays, Swimming was an undeniably devastating record that became more powerful with his passing; a moment of reflection and self-discovery for the musician who was turning his life around in many ways. Musically, it was a drifting moment into swaying R&B and gentle indie-rap - a far cry from the ‘frat-rap’ label that’s pinned his career since its start - but thematically, it was rich with emotion and passion, something amplified on Circles as Mac reaches his epilogue.
At times, Circles is almost too overwhelmingly crushing to listen to. On Good News, released with the album’s announcement a few weeks prior to its release, Mac Miller seemingly toys with his eventual passing: “There’s a whole lot more for me waitin’ on the other side,” he sings. “I’m always wonderin’ if it feel like summer.” However, many moments of Circles come with optimism and upliftingness; dark clouds painted with silver linings and glimpses of sunshine that are leaving a certain comfort that everything’s okay. Surf, for example, comes with a line referenced in many write-ups of the album thus far: “I know that somebody knows me/I know somewhere, there’s home/I’m startin’ to see that all I have to do is get up and go.”
In many ways, Circles feels like Mac Miller hasn’t done everything he wanted to do. Some will pinpoint the album’s foreshadowing lines and epiphany realisations as examples of the album’s full-circle nature - an extension of the glimpses we saw on Swimming - but Circles also comes with experimentation and promise of new. Musically, for example, the record features near-none rapping; Mac’s vocal low-slinging and softly-sung, exploring the middle ground between R&B and crooning indie. Similarly, Swimming’s big-name collaborators - Schoolboy Q, Vince Staples, Earl Sweatshirt - are absent on Circles, only Melbourne’s Baro Sura listed in the credits (in a big moment for Australian hip-hop, no less) as fans scope out potential backing vocals from Ariana Grande.
However, Circles isn’t a record that needs collaborators to finish it off, and that's the best thing about it. Unlike many posthumous records in the past, it feels complete with just Mac Miller in the limelight - undeterred and focused, his messaging and potent lyricism on feature display as he controls his narrative and navigates change. This is his final send-off after all, nobody should be stealing that moment. That’s a lesson a lot of labels can learn.
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