Rapper’s album offers insight into tortured, beautiful mind

Mac Miller’s album “Swimming” boasts harrowing yet relatable lyrics that reveal the darkness embedded in the artist’s life before he passed away. Courtesy of Chrisinbuffalo via Wikipedia.

The first song off Mac Miller’s last album (“Swimming,” released on Aug. 3, 2018), titled “Come Back to Earth,” is a warning. Within the song’s first 15 seconds, Mac has crooned to his listeners about regrets, strangers and needing “a way out of [his] head.” The lonely lyrics are matched by a melancholy melody, driven by sustained chords. The rapper makes no attempt to hide from the listener what is to come should they venture further into the album: a raw, unapologetic journey through a man’s depression and substance abuse, and how he has found his way out. Almost exactly one month after its release, however, the same man was found dead of a suspected drug overdose at age 26.

I won’t claim to be a die-hard Mac Miller fan. I knew a few of his songs, and I could pick out his voice when people played him at parties, but beyond that he was never an artist to whom I felt deeply connected to. I remember embracing some pull between us, however, the day I discovered his Conor Oberst covers. Oberst, the founder of the indie rock group Bright Eyes, was a bit of a hero of mine throughout high school. I credit his song “Lua” with getting me through those years, and if I ever have a daughter, that will be her name.

That was the Mac Miller cover I stumbled upon while scrolling through YouTube one day. In it, he almost slurs as he makes his way through the grippingly visual lyrics, using his tired, hoarse voice to blend vowels until you can barely catch the words between them— unless the song happens to have saved you, and you know it like the back of your hand.

This was also the cover to which I returned to when I heard that Mac had died.

Listening to him mumble the song, I found it striking how well the words matched both my story and his, as different as ours may be—a true testament to the unifying power of music. I began to compare Oberst’s lyrics with the ones Mac introduces in “Come Back to Earth” and the videos of him talking about his depression that I had begun to obsessively watch online. I was searching for an inescapable answer to a question that Oberst poses in “Lua,” and which Mac repeats in his cover: “I’m not sure what the trouble was/ that started all of this/the reasons all have run away/but the feelings never did/it’s not something I would recommend/but it is one way to live/’cause what was simple in the evening, by the morning never is.”

According to Mac’s interview in Fader’s 2016 short documentary about him titled “Stopped Making Excuses,” what “started all of this” for the rapper was space. He described his move to Los Angeles from his native Pittsburgh: “To have all that space is a pro and a con, depending on how you look at it…That was the thing I liked [about LA] for a while. But [what’s] more dangerous than actual LA is that I was just sitting there by myself all the time. It becomes toxic…And then you get bored. And then you’re like well I could just be high and have a whole adventure in this room.” He goes on to explain how that’s exactly what he started doing: having whole adventures, all alone in the comfort of his room. It’s the same sentiment Oberst describes in “Lua”: “When everything is lonely I can be my own best friend.” It’s not hard to see how that feeling could be addicting.

But when your room is your world, what is the world to you? Mac answers that question in “Come Back to Earth”: “And don’t you know that sunshine don’t feel right/When you’re inside all day?/I wish it was nice out, but it looked like rain.” By one interpretation, Mac is describing how, from inside his adventure room, even sunny days looked like rain, no matter how much he wished it was sunny out. By another, he is telling the story of watching the sun shine outside while he is stuck in a rainy room, not feeling right.

If he is, in fact, in a room full of rain, that image gives dimension to a previous line in the song: “In my own way, this feels like living/Some alternate reality/I was drowning, but now I’m swimming/Through stressful waters to relief.” Two readings of this line come to mind—together lending ambiguity and depth to the album’s title.

In one interpretation, hope plays a critical role: Having spent years drowning in substances, Mac is now swimming through remission to his destination of sobriety. In the same documentary, Mac gave reason for this interpretation, describing himself not as sober, but “in control of [his] life” in terms of his drug use. (Fader, “Stopped Making Excuses,” 02.05.2016).

By another interpretation, Mac was drowning on Earth and is now swimming to relief in death. This reading is supported by the next line in the song: “Oh, the things I’d do/To spend a little time in Hell.” This sentiment rings out in “Lua,” as well, when Mac sings the verse that has always been my favorite: “I’ve got a flask inside my pocket, we can share it on the train/and if you promise to stay conscious I will try and do the same/ We might die from medication but we sure killed all the pain/What was normal in the evening by the morning seems insane.” As a New York teenager, I related to the imagery. As a person, I related to the feelings. As a Mac Miller fan, I am deeply saddened that the predictions and warnings interlaced in his original lyrics as well as the ones he covered became his reality.

This tragedy renders the first track’s title eerily fitting: “Come Back to Earth” is essentially what Mac does every time the piece filters through a pair of headphones or booms out from a speaker. He has left behind a discography that offers insight into both his personal story and the experiences and emotions of young people everywhere who feel lost, lonely and in search of adventure. May we find it in the world and not in our rooms.

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