When I first heard Circles was on the horizon, I had mixed feelings. Greed defines many decisions of estates when releasing posthumous material, and I was afraid of Mac Miller’s cherished music becoming victim to yet another cash grab. I was satisfied with Swimming and the woozy synths concluding “So It Goes” to be the last I ever heard of new Mac.
But then I read the family announcement regarding the new project.
“This is a complicated process that has no right answer. No clear path,” the statement read. “We simply know that it was important to Malcolm for the world to hear it.”
Circles was always meant to be a companion album to Swimming, began by Miller and finished by good friend and collaborator Jon Brion. My perception changed. The album became less of an act of selfishness and more of a key cog in relaying his final thoughts to the world. Mac had a vision for the conclusion of his musical and narrative arc, and I went into this project hoping it was the kind of closure his family, his fans and the music industry as a whole, needed to paint the full picture of Mac Miller.
These are my rapid-fire reactions from Circles:
3 Quick Takeaways
Mac Fully Matured Into A New Kind Of Musician
While previous Mac Miller albums like Divine Feminine and Swimming waded in the waters of melody, Circles is a full-on cannonball into Mac’s true singing capabilities. Nearly 75 percent of Miller’s vocals are sung, while half of the tracks are singing only, something we have never witnessed on any of his projects before.
There’s a subtlety to his style change — a delicate nature to his voice that doesn’t try to overwhelm you with immaculate vocal talent, instead, letting the weight of his words wash over you. Mac realizes the limitations of his voice, but still remains in his comfort zone across every song. The more I listen to the tender nature of “Woods” and the emotional soul-searching of “Everybody,” I recognize that this is the type of musician Miller always aspired to be. You can’t put Mac in a box, and this genre-less transition was his next step on the path to a musical opus.
Circles Is Miller At The Peak Of His Songwriting Abilities
Mac Miller has always flashed moments of brilliance when it came to stellar songwriting, but I always desired the day where he’d put it all together for an entire project. It wasn’t that I didn’t think he had unparalleled talent and potential, I just thought his ideas were so ambitious that the resonance of his words sometimes became lost in the beautiful chaos that was his production. I’d always admired the “color outside the lines” approach Mac embodied, but there was a part of me that always wondered what an album would sound like with songs that were more structured without sacrificing his creative vision.
Well, Circles appears to be that album. It’s clear that towards the end of his life, Mac put an obsessive emphasis on perfecting his pen game during his more melodic tracks and the results speak for themselves. From the revealing “I heard they don’t talk about me too much no more / And that’s a problem with a closed door,” on “Good News” to the infectious “That’s on me, that’s on me, all my fault” hook and everything in-between, Mac found the sweet spot dropping lyrical gems without needing to fall back to his rapping prowess. It’s artistic growth that we will sadly never see the finished product of.
While Faces Felt Forlorn, Circles Always Keeps A Glimmer Of Hope
Circles has already been described as a companion album to 2018’s Swimming, but you could also make the case that his acclaimed mixtape Faces houses many connections to Mac Miller’s story as well. Mac encounters similar questions and haunting issues throughout Faces, dealing with thoughts of depression, loneliness and his own mortality. The outcome in 2014 was a very dark, claustrophobic project that saw Miller coping with every demon with a line of cocaine. “The smile’s gone, so bring the coke on” wasn’t just a bar off the track “It Just Doesn’t Matter” — it became a way of life for Mac.
2020 Mac feels refreshingly different. Confronted with these nagging concerns once again, instead of grabbing for the angel dust, a mature Miller prefers to meditate and dwell on the positives of life and his own existence. The same mentality is noticed in the sounds of Circles as well. The synths are glistening. His tone is hopeful. The live instrumentation provides a feeling of warmth. The journey of life is defined by the way you respond to obstacles, and it felt wonderful knowing that Mac appeared to figure out how to keep his demons at bay.
3 Best Songs
A dusty snippet from a melancholic blues track greets your ears in the first few seconds of “Blue World” — perfectly summarizing the last 16 months without Mac Miller. It really is a blue world without the Pittsburgh prodigy, but all potential tears dry up as soon as the trippy sample drops into a chopped-up, head-bobbing affair. This isn’t meant to be a somber track, but a celebration of Mac’s personal growth from his drug-ridden lowest to a mentally-tough giant.
“If you could see me now / Lovin’ and holdin’ it down” he gleefully croons on the bridge — a pleasant reminder that towards the end of his life, Mac finally figured out how to leave the devil on his doorstep for good.
“I Can See”
With synths that lift you into heaven and a level of emotional honesty only Mac Miller could achieve, “I Can See” has quickly become one of my favorite Mac tracks ever released. The dreamy soundscape triggers a feeling of hurtling through the clouds before the second half of the hook explodes into a blend of twinkling keys and soothing Ariana Grande vocals as you burst through the atmosphere into space.
Miller has never been known as a top-tier singer, but the weightlessness of his words works hand-in-hand with the gorgeous production to achieve pure audio bliss. Whenever I listen to this song, I can’t help but think of a more polished version of “Colors and Shapes,” but instead of Mac losing his grip and letting himself fall — he manages to find the strength to hang on.
“That’s On Me”
In all of Mac Miller’s musical transformations, from the psychedelic spitting of Faces to the romantic crooning of The Divine Feminine, I never would’ve expected a track of his to sound quite like “That’s On Me.”
It’s a Mac song stripped of most of its normal lush elements — with only an acoustic guitar, some light drums and Miller’s gentle voice to keep us company — and the result is glorious. There’s an emotional link between Mac and his fandom that not many artists possess, and that type of connection is fully felt after each heartbreaking bar and admission of fault during the chorus.
From naive newcomer to tortured soul to a man reborn, Mac Miller has never compromised who he truly is in his music. Through every bar, bridge and hook, Mac has given his audience a lifetime of honesty and glimpses into the personal struggles many of us know all too well. It feels wrong to put a bow on a career that was cut tragically short, but Circles is as close to a perfect farewell album as we could’ve possibly wished for. It’s an offering that ties all loose ends from his previous projects, and most importantly, completes the career redemption arc of a musician that, even after death, has finally found what he had been searching for his whole life: hope.
Circles will be remembered, not only as a collection of high-quality tracks, but as a moment in music culture where fans across the globe came together to ensure Mac’s final thoughts and legacy were memorialized and preserved forever. With the help of Circles, the impact of Mac Miller’s story will be felt through countless musical generations moving forward. R.I.P Malcolm James McCormick.