In the time between 2009 and 2011, Mac Miller flew too close to the sun. He got a taste of money and fame with singles like Donald Trump and Loud and tried to capitalize on the high with his debut album Blue Slide Park. The album was filled with bland, boring bangers and met critical disdain upon its release. The taste of fame quickly became sour as Miller’s following projects (Watching Movies With The Sound Off, Faces, GOOD A:M) showed contempt for his early success and displayed how much more talented and diverse he could be as a musician and writer. Miller’s following project in 2016, The Divine Feminine, was a poetic love story written for and with his girlfriend Ariana Grande, showcasing even more versatility and creating a new sound for himself. Miller was happy for the first time in years, and it showed in the music. However, their relationship came to an end in early 2018, and Miller sank back into the ground. He had not only lost his girlfriend; he had lost his muse.
Following the breakup, Mac Miller had to rediscover how to face the world on his own. His latest project, Swimming, shows us how he did it. Swimming is the culmination of Miller’s career to this point – his most refined and composed project thus far. Every moment seems to be crafted in a way that makes the listener feel everything he was feeling. There are no feature verses, a deliberate attempt to show that this is Mac Miller vs. The World. The whole album feels like a high – a trance-like state picking apart Miller’s brain, trying to discover how he is supposed to move on. It opens up with Come Back To Earth, a dreamy, melodic track, setting the tone for the album as he sings “I got neighbors, they’re more like strangers, we could be friends/I just need a way out of my head”. He is trapped, both inside his thoughts and his home, unable & unwilling to escape, at least for the time being. This inner-conflict of lack of self-motivation is a looming theme throughout the album.
Much of the meat of Swimming finds Miller trying to make the best of a bad situation, the only way he can think to cope. However, the tone throughout illustrated through production and delivery depicts the reality seeming much bleaker than he shows through just words. Perfecto, a mantra to imperfect relationships, depicts Miller’s inner-conflict better than anything else on the album. “As hard as it gets: cool calm and collected/Holding my breath, this ain’t what I expected”, he raps somberly. Later, he sings “I’m treading water I swear, that if I drown I don’t care”. He is struggling to come to terms with reality, so all he can do is try to stay above water. Similarly, on Small Worlds, a lullaby-like track dissecting Miller’s flaws, he raps “You never told me being rich was so lonely/Nobody know me, oh well/Hard to complain from this five-star hotel”.
Sonically, Swimming showcases all the versatility Miller has been developing over the past five years – a sort of stylistic blend of the lonely introspection of Faces with the lovestruck ballads of The Divine Feminine. He sings more than ever, showing off a tremendously improved voice. He flows over smooth, somber, and groovy beats from J. Cole, Thundercat, Dev Hynes, and many more, letting the beats breath and tell his story more than words can. It is his cleanest and most carefully crafted work to date.
Swimming comes to its sonic and thematic climax at the penultimate track 2009. It begins with a cinematic string section and opens into a beautiful piano piece. Miller enters with the chorus, rap/singing “I ain't askin' ‘Why?’ no more/Oh, no, I take it if it's mine, I don't stay inside the lines/It ain’t 2009 no more/Yeah I know what’s behind that door”. The song is reflection of Miller’s career thus far: early fame, addiction, relationships, and what he’s learned through it all. It’s refreshing to hear him say: “I struck the fuck out and then I came back swingin'/Take my time to finish, mind my business/A life ain't a life 'til you live it”. He seems like he’s finally discovered the answers to the demons he was fighting throughout the album – at peace and (almost) happy again.