This posthumous offering provides a retrospective lament into Miller’s life, capturing calm tones and elegant hooks that elevate him above other artists of his genre.
On January 17, a year and a half after the artist’s death, the family of Malcolm McCormick (AKA Mac Miller) released Circles, his sixth studio album. Producer Jon Brion had been collaborating with Malcolm for some time and, following Miller’s passing, dedicated himself to releasing the album. A post from Malcolm’s family on his Instagram (@macmiller) stated that however complicated and difficult the release process was, “it was important to Malcolm for the world to hear it”.
Conceptually, Circles is supposed to play off Swimming (Miller’s 5th studio album), as “Swimming in Circles”. In a New York Times article, Jon Brion stated that “there were supposed to be three albums: the first, Swimming, was sort of the hybridization going between hip-hop and song form. The second, which he’d already decided would be called Circles, would be song-based. And I believe the third one would have been just a pure hip-hop record”.
The two albums we do have hold a connection whilst still being distinct. Where Swimming is upbeat and denser instrumentally, Circles is refined and calm. Even on the lively tracks like Complicated and Blue World, where Mac’s energetic performance’s ride the bouncing beats, the music feels open and clean. Where Swimming focuses on Mac’s technique and flow, Circles lets his voice rest within the melodies and unload. This is best seen when comparing the two opening tracks. Come Back to Earth delves straight in with layers of Mac’s voice and a guitar melody, slowly encompassing his vocals with bassline, strings and a Wurlitzer building throughout the song. The title track, Circles, eases you. An opening guitar melody, light cymbals and vibraphone open the door, take your coat and offer you a cup of tea. Mac’s groggy and dejected voice rolls in, “Well, this is what it looks like, right before you fall”.
The verses are also much longer in the more hip-hop centred Swimming, illustrating Brion’s point that Circles was more “song-based”. This shift in styles can be seen in Mac’s tiny desk concert, in which plays three songs from the 2018 record, but with more emphasis on Mac as a singer-songwriter than a rapper.
Thematically, the two projects are similar. Miller has openly struggled with drug addiction and depression and both projects explore this. However, Circles feels like a step forward. Tracks like I Can See, That’s on Me and Hands take a wider and more retrospective look at what’s been in his head and what’s still there. The calmer tone portrays Miller coming to terms with himself, allowing himself time to breathe. The single, Good News, exemplifies this. Surrounded by plucky strings and a low drone, Mac opens, “Spent the whole day in my head, do a little spring cleanin’”. In fact, this song is a perfect ambassador for the album. Its minimal beat and composed delivery carry through the album. It’s catchy yet not irritating, and the poppy hook keeps it memorable but doesn’t steal focus. Where Swimming is flashy, Circles is elegant.
The two releases are easily comparable. It’s difficult not to. However, one conversation that has come out of it is whether, because of the circumstances surrounding the release of Circles, it has been reviewed more positively. It would be lovely to claim that an objective view of the album was possible. In this case, even more than usual, that is not true. The context of this album is intimately woven into its make-up. Not indistinguishably, but undeniably. Although Mac won’t have known what was to come, lines like “There's a whole lot more for me waitin' on the other side”, hold added weight and will always create different connections. But it is this context that allows it to exist.
Circles feels like a far more complete and well-conceived project, more comfortable in its own skin. The production on Circles is clean and consistent. Tracks on Swimming can feel claustrophobic when compared to the expansive spaces created in Circles. Huge credit must go to Jon Brion for this. It is impossible to know quite how much creative influence he ended up having on the project, but the two working so intimately gave Jon the clearest picture of Miller’s vision, and it seems he was able to transfer this onto the record. “I was just trying to figure out what I could get out of the way of, instead of trying to ‘invent’ a track or a song”.
However Mac’s passing has influenced the work and the lens we see it through, what has been produced is a candid and self-assured wander through a young man’s life, seen from a world without him.