“Sound of silence as they all just watch you
I kinda find it strange, how the times have changed
I wish we could go and be free once, baby, you and me
We could change the world forever
And never come back again…”
Rapper/producer Mac Miller was found dead Friday at the age of 26. The news comes as a shock to the music community and to Miller’s fans, who’d watched the Pennsylvania product go from rap underdog to indie hipster star to an ever-evolving artist whose journey was as intriguingly against-the-grain as it was tragically short.
According to CNN, police officers responded to a call for a death investigation at the 11600 block of Valleycrest Road in Los Angeles just before noon on Friday. Early reports indicate the star, born Malcolm McCormick, died from a drug overdose.
“EZ Mac with the cheesy raps”—Mac broke big with his fourth mixtape K.I.D.S., and singles like “Nikes On My Feet” and “Donald Trump” (from his follow-up mixtape Best Day Ever) put him squarely in the center of next-big-thing web hype. But his debut album Blue Slide Park, showcasing witty wordplay, youthful earnestness and party raps, established him amongst the vanguard of “everyman” rappers emerging at the dawn of the 2010s. The fact that he was signed to Rostrum Records, a small label out of Pittsburgh, bolstered his status as a DIY rhymer with a dark horse appeal and an eclectic sonic palette. But at the time, he was still seen by many as the latest frat rapper of the moment.
The success of Blue Slide Park in 2011 was a lot for the young rapper. Two years later, his sophomore album Watching Movies With the Sound Off proved a much more somber affair than his debut, and highlighted Mac’s maturation. It also revealed how Mac had been affected by the travails of fame: he’d run afoul of legendary producer Lord Finesse because of an uncleared sample and developed an addiction to lean, a mix of codeine and promethazine, in part to cope with depression and stress during his 2012 Macadelic tour. He soon left Pittsburgh for L.A. and seemed committed to pushing and bettering himself. And he would become a prolific collaborator and producer, working with the likes of Ab-Soul, Vince Staples and Lil B, crafting tracks under his alias “Larry Fisherman.”
Miller released his tenth mixtape Faces in 2014 before signing a deal with REMember and Warner Bros. Records. “In a career, you want this album to sell more than the one before, and you want to play bigger and bigger stages and all this stuff, but I just let go of that and was like, ‘What do I wanna do?’” he explained to W magazine three years later. “It’s like sky diving—just fucking do it. And it feels good. It’s a nice release. And also learning that people are gonna either love or hate it regardless of what you do. It doesn’t matter. I just wanted to do it, and I’m glad I did.”
“The world don’t give a fuck about your loneliness…”
His third studio album GO:OD AM dropped in 2015 and once again indicated that Miller was evolving. It proved to be no detour. With his fourth, The Divine Feminine (2016), he tapped into an expanding musical repertoire, now having fully reinvented himself as a jazz rap auteur and singer-songwriter. In a 2013 interview with The Fader, he elaborated on his affinity for jazzier sounds: “There’s a sense of relaxation and this cool-out vibe about a bunch of people kicking it and playing in a band,” he said. “That’s always been a dream of mine. I was really inspired by E. Dan, the engineer at Pittsburgh’s ID Labs, looking at his soul vinyl covers from the ’60s and ’70s. I love that dusty aesthetic. My favorite part of the You cover is that it has the vinyl outline on it. It looks like it’s been on the shelf for a while.”
But Miller’s addictions were always present in his music and he talked openly about his struggles, even as he regretted how his battles with drugs came to define him in the minds of some. The twenty-something who revealed he’d been using drugs since the age of 15 and rapped, “What's a God without a little OD? Just a G…” resented having to constantly wonder how he was being perceived, even as he found himself under an ever-bigger spotlight.
During his two-season stint from 2013 to 2014 on his own MTV reality series Mac Miller and the Most Dope Family, he was candid about his depression and battle to get clean: “I’m trying to clear my mind and stop tripping so much,” he told The Fader ahead of the show’s second season, revealing that it took several attempts until November 2012. “I stopped drinking lean and started running. I changed my whole shit to get back to a healthy place. But you gotta go through the bullshit to know anything.”
There was the continued hostility between the rapper and Donald Trump, which stretched as far back as 2013. “I think he’s a dick,” Miller told Complex that year. “When he started running for president I was like, ‘Oh, fuck—this is horrible, I have a fucking song with this dude’s name and now he’s being such a douchebag.”
“The thing that bothers me the most is that he always says things like, ‘75 million views on the song ‘Donald Trump,’ Mac Miller you’re welcome,’” Miller continued. “I could’ve said, ‘Take over the world when I’m on my Bill Gates shit.’ It doesn’t matter. That shit just pisses me off.”
Trump would issue his predictable retorts via Twitter. And Miller made headlines again three years later after a well-received appearance on The Nightly Show in which he skewered Trump’s racism and declared, “I only have one thing to say: I f**king hate you, Donald Trump.”
As his fame grew, public fascination with Miller’s personal life soon threatened to overshadow virtually everything else. He went public with his relationship with pop superstar Ariana Grande in 2016. “I think a lot of times people just want to be cool, and to be in love is not cool,” he said in Vogue that year. “But I think it’s the coolest. I think love is the coolest thing that there is.” The young stars would spend the next two years together, through the release of Miller’s jazz-leaning The Divine Feminine and the tragic bombing in spring of 2017 at Grande’s concert in Manchester that left 23 dead.
In the W magazine interview in late 2017, Miller talked about learning to open up more: “I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from women is talking about my vulnerabilities and insecurities as being a strength rather than—I think when you’re young in relationships, you’re like, ‘I’m not gonna say anything cause I gotta be cool. I gotta act like a man,’ you know what I mean? Learning to express that kind of stuff.”
Miller and Grande ended their relationship in spring 2018. Miller was arrested for a DUI in Los Angeles in May, just days after the breakup with Grande was made public. He’d crashed his Mercedes-Benz G-Class SUV into a pole and fled the scene with two passengers.
In interview with Zane Lowe on Beats 1 last month, Miller indicated that he was moving on. “I was in love with somebody. We were together for two years. We worked through good times, bad times, stress and everything else. And then it came to an end and we both moved on. And it’s that simple,” he said. “It’s all positive energy. I am happy for her and [the fact that she’s] moving forward with her life, just as I’m sure she is with me.”
But media fascination with celebrity love is persistent and, in the minds of many, Miller’s personal drama seemed the backdrop for his latest album, Swimming, which was released in August. Miller alluded to his frustration with living at odds with public perception in a Vulture profile published just a day before his death: “It just seems exhausting to always be battling something… to always be battling for what you think your image is supposed to be,” he said. “You’re never going to be able to get anything across. It’s never gonna be the real… No one’s gonna ever really know me.” It was how it had always been. Fame had just made things stranger.
On the heels of Swimming’s release, fans and peers are now grappling with losing the artist. Predictably and regrettably, Grande was harassed by Miller fans who blamed the surely devastated singer for her ex’s sudden passing. And Miller’s fellow stars have offered stunned commentary on what’s happened.
“I dont know what to say,” tweeted Chance the Rapper. “Mac Miller took me on my second tour ever. But beyond helping me launch my career he was one of the sweetest guys I ever knew. Great man. I loved him for real. Im completely broken. God bless him.”
Swimming saw Miller continue to hone his artistic voice, with the somber realities of life and his ever-growing musicality fully flourishing on an inspired, mature release. He bared his pain and struggles, evidence that growth and time never guarantee the lifting of such burdens. But his art was stronger and, one hoped, so was his state of mind. His singing had grown more confident, his perspective more clear-eyed. It’s a shock and a shame that this album was his swan song.
Miller’s life and music were a journey that seemed to still be unfolding, and losing a young artist who revealed such a capacity for growth is a bitter tragedy. A video from a documentary appearance by Miller in 2012 has gone viral in the wake of his death. In it, the then-21-year-old dismisses the idea of romanticizing drug overdoses.
“Overdosing is just not cool, there’s no legendary romance,” he says eerily. “You don’t go down in history because you overdosed. You just die.”