[ALBUM REVIEW] Mac Miller’s posthumous album Circles blends new and old

Hip-hop artist Mac Miller’s posthumous album “Circles” is a stylistic departure of his previous work yet still incorporates the aspects that make Miller unique as an artist.


Sources from Mac Miller's Warner Bros press kit.

Hip-hop artist Mac Miller’s posthumous album “Circles” is a stylistic departure of his previous work yet still incorporates the aspects that make him unique as an artist.

By Henry Burkhardt, St. Paul Academy and Summit School

Mac Miller’s death in September of 2018 was a massive shock to the hip-hop community he helped cultivate.  Miller was working on a new project before he died, and recently, Miller’s producer Jon Brion and Miller’s family released the posthumous album Circles. Circles serves as a companion to Miller’s 2018 album entitled Swimming, completing Miller’s original idea for the two albums: “swimming in circles.” While Miller certainly departed from his earlier sound in Swimming, he has again explored new genres and musical feels in Circles.

Miller’s style in Circles is unique as he blends his older rhythmic, more traditional rap style with more acoustic and moody melodies and instrumentation. An aspect that especially stands out in Miller’s most recent body of work is the relatively sparse instrumentation. Many tracks on the album are made up of mainly synthesizer melodies, baselines, and a relatively basic drum track. Additionally, Miller sings (not raps) for the majority of the album. In fact, “Hands” is the only full rap song on the album. This was certainly a change in Miller’s style, as all of his past albums feature almost exclusively rap songs.

The lyrical content of Circles takes on a much somber mood considering Miller’s abrupt passing. Most songs on the album are, at surface level, optimistic and seemingly carefree. With lyrics like “Sometimes the going gets so good, but then again it gets pretty rough, but when I have you in my arms, baby, you know I just can’t, I just can’t get enough” and “Today I’m fine,” Miller paints a picture of the day to day life in which he is not bothered by much, seemingly going with the flow. However, he still addresses questions applicable to everyone, leaving room for vulnerability in a way that allows the listener to feel an emotional connection with Miller and his life. In ‘Good News’ Miller addresses the looming fear of the impermanence of everything in our lives, singing, “Well, I’m tired of being so tired, why I gotta build something beautiful just to go set it on fire?” In one of the most haunting lines of the whole album, Miller contemplates death. He, rather simply, states a somber truth of our existence, “Everybody’s gotta live / And everybody’s gonna die.” It is within the space between the two themes of “happy and carefree” and “troubled by life and existence” that the genius of Circles emerges.

Posthumous albums have long been a topic of ethical concern in the music world. Often, as is the case with Miller, musicians will leave behind many musical ideas or songs behind when they pass. At the time of an artist’s passing, it is up to the artist’s estate and their record label to figure out what to do with the material the artist has created but not released. Some past posthumous releases have faced criticism from fans on the basis that they are not true to the artist’s style. It is undoubtedly an extremely difficult task to balance a (dead) artist’s presumed wants with public demand for an album. Circles has been widely regarded as doing an exemplary job of addressing these challenges. After Miller’s death, his friend and producer Jon Brion worked to complete the production side of the album. The lyrics for all of the songs had already been recorded by Miller. While unlike any of his previous albums, it is clear that the music and ideas in Circles belong to Miller and are not an artistic superficial recreation.

Almost half a year after Miller’s passing, his contributions to the hip-hop and music world as a whole are still apparent to faithful fans and new listeners alike. The release of Circles reinstates Miller’s talent as an artist and the value his gift of music had to the world. In addition, it serves as a remembrance to his unique carefree, joyful and likable stage personality. In a telling line from Miller’s song ‘Blue World,’ he sings a simple, happy message fitting to his character. “F**k the bulls**t, I’m here to make it all better with a little music for you.” And that, is exactly what Circles did for Miller’s ever-growing fanbase. We can only hope for more artists like Miller in the music world to innovate and create as he did.

This story was originally published on The Rubicon on January 27, 2020.