• Lou James

Mac Miller’s legacy and artistic growth is something that only a small group of artists can match, inside and outside of the hip-hop world. He burst onto the scene with fun frat rap, moved to abstract hip-hop, jazz hip-hop and eventually onto neo-soul with his final project. His discography is the embodiment of artistic progression, as Mac dropped 6 albums and multiple mixtapes, all by the age of 26.

Mac was branded as a frat rapper on his first two projects ‘K.I.D.S’ and ‘Blue Slide Park’, rapping over fun beats, whilst penning playful bars. Soon after this, Mac became more confident and sonically developed in ‘Macadelic’, in ‘Watching Movies With The Sound Off’ he was much more experimental, leaning toward the synth/R&B style he is now widely known for, also proving wrong any doubters of his ability he had at the time.

In 2014, he released his mixtape ‘Faces’, a drug fuelled odyssey, tackling the subject of Mac’s addictions, a theme present in most of his music since. In 2015, ‘GO:OD AM’ released, as he tries to get sober and battle depression and the pitfalls of fame, an infectious LP, and my favorite Mac song ‘Perfect Circle/Godspeed’ is on this project; a track which leaves Mac obviously desperate to fight off his addictions. 2016 took a lighter turn for his music as ‘The Devine Feminine’ was released, a project with an upbeat tone throughout, thematically telling stories about love, lust and sex.

By this point, Mac had done enough to prove himself as one of hip-hops most versatile and intricate artists, but his most impressive pieces were yet to come, as ‘Swimming’ and ‘Circles’ released in 2018 and 2020. These two records were tied together in one of the most incredible ways I’ve heard, embodying the line ‘Swimming In Circles’, which his family announced on January 8th, 2020, a year and 4 months after Mac’s death.

On August 3rd 2018, Mac released ‘Swimming’, an album detailing the ever-present highs and lows throughout his life, often being calm, until a wave comes crashing down. This is shown in the album. Multiple songs have Mac feeling hopeful of his life, whilst others maintain a pessimism that maybe things won’t get better, as the opening track ‘Come Back To Earth’ has Mac singing “I was drowning but now I’m swimming, through stressful waters to relief” obviously stating that he’d been through it all, but he’s made it out the other end and is ok; he’s choosing to swim instead of drown. Although the song has a somber tone to it, this line details hope to me, making us think that maybe he has it figured out.

This was a false narrative created by Mac, as we realise throughout the album that he is actually still struggling, although he remains hopeful, until we reach the final track ‘So It Goes’, a haunting song detailing Mac’s pain and dissatisfaction with life. The song is clearly directly related to ‘Circles’, evidenced by the line “My God, it go on and on, just like a circle, I go back where I’m from”. There is another reference to ‘Circles’, albeit subtle, as when he sings the chorus of the song, the line So It Goes is pronounced in a way that sounds like he’s saying Circles.

The song alludes to death, as the phrase ‘So It Goes’ is used in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’; used every time a death occurs (Genius). Another way the song alludes to death is the final piece of the track, composed by Jon Brion, where Mac told him to play ‘the ascension into heaven’. Mac actually tweeted this statement on the same day he passed away.

On January 17th 2020, ‘Circles’ was released posthumously by Mac’s family after Jon Brion completed the remainder of the project after Mac passed. The title of the album and opening track alludes to this line at the end of ‘So It Goes’. Mac states ‘this is what it look like right before you fall’ in the tracks opening line, following up a couple of bars later singing ‘I cannot be changed, no, trust me I’ve tried, I just end up right at the start of the line, drawin’ circles’. Both lines allude to the idea that Mac is swimming in circles. On ‘Swimming’, the detailed ups and downs showed us that Mac was trying to get past his troubles, but often got sucked back into them, something that he couldn’t accept.

The first few lines on this song instantly show us that Mac has learned to realise that he can’t change the flaws he has, and when he does try to, he’ll just end up back where he started, just like a circle, completing the link to ‘Swimming’ and ‘So It Goes’. The concept of circles is raised on multiple occasions again throughout the album, with the final reference in the final line of the final song ‘Once A Day’ - “Once a day I rise, once a day I fall asleep with you, once a day I try but I can’t find a single word”. This alludes to life being a circle, and the idea that what goes around comes around. Mac keeps swimming to stay alive, doing so in circles as he wished to continue the cycle of life; he was Swimming in Circles.

Unfortunately, Mac’s circle of life has been cut way too short. But a lot of ‘Circles’ shows us that he was living in a better headspace, always hopeful for the future. In ‘Good News’ Mac says “There’s a whole lot more for me waitin’ on the other side, I’m always wonderin’ if it feel like summer” This could be his way of saying that he believes there’s a greater meaning now and he’s excited to see what’s out there, in an optimistic approach as he hopes it feels like summer. It could be a reference to God or something more spiritual. Mac Miller was one of the greatest artists I’ve heard in my lifetime, and his final composition of his story was one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

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Breaking down some of my favorite album covers, and noting how they could be art pieces even without the music.

9. AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP - A$AP Rocky, 2015

The first thing you'll notice about the cover is the purple birthmark on Rocky's face, the only thing that isn't black and white. This obviously resembles A$AP Yams, who the album is dedicated to after he passed away, but could also show the imprint that Yams left on Rocky, as he was one of the main driving factors behind Rocky's success. The cross tattoo beneath his eye is also a reference to Yams. Some people miss that in his hands, Rocky is holding another face, perhaps saying that behind Rocky's normal face is all of Yams' influence, or that he is taking off this mask of himself.

8. ASTROWORLD - Travis Scott, 2018

Shot by the iconic photographer David LaChapelle, the two covers of Astroworld reflect the duality of man, through symbolisms of day and night, at least that's the way I see it. The day cover resembles the theme park as a playful, youthful experience, whereas the night cover could perhaps resemble the darkness and more taboo thoughts of Travis, or man in general.

7. Aquemini - OutKast, 1998

Combining the star signs of Big Boi (Aquarius) and Andre 3000 (Gemini) we have the title for the album. There doesn't really need to be a meaning to resemble the cover as an art piece as it is so impressive on it's own, but it resembles the grandiosity of the music the album holds, and what OutKast wanted the album to be, such as albums like Thriller or Purple Rain.

6. Madvillainy - Madvillain, 2004

The menacing stare of MF Doom on the album cover is impossible to miss if you walked by it in a record store. Doom's actual face and shoulders have a low-key lighting to them, as they are not of importance to Doom or the album. He wants you to see him as MF Doom, and not think about the man beneath the mask, with the mask having high-key lighting. The original photograph shows Doom in a red shirt, and even with the mask he looks like a normal guy, but on this cover he is MF Doom, part of Madvillain.

5. We Can't Be Stopped - Geto Boys, 1991

The album cover was photographed the day after Bushwick Bill's failed suicide attempt, in which he shot himself in the eye during an argument with his girlfriend, as Bill put it he "Died and came back to life". The image shows Scarface and Willie D escorting him out of hospital, whilst Bill holds a giant phone of the early 90s, as the cover reads 'We Can't Be Stopped'. Aside from the incredible back story behind the album cover, it resembles that even in the light of what had happened, they need to keep on hustling, and nothing short of death will stop them.

4. Atrocity Exhibition - Danny Brown, 2016

The cover and dark title of Atrocity Exhibition doesn't need the music on the album to create the point Danny Brown wants to make. The psychedelic odyssey grasps the entire cover, easily resembling the themes of excessive drugs and alcohol use, and the effect it has on Danny Brown. His face is also distorted as we see part of his skull poke through, showing that he is losing his mind as he becomes more and more enticed and is consumed by the drugs. Atrocity means an extremely wicked or cruel act, and the cover complements that perfectly.

3. Kids See Ghosts - Kids See Ghosts, 2018

Created by Takashi Murakami, this album cover was actually an art piece from Murakami in 2001, titled Manji Fuji. The original artwork could have been used for the cover, as it resembles darker undertones, which could have been reflected into Kanye and Cudi's psyche. However, the updated version is even more perfect as the red, blue and orange colors immensely blending together complement the psychedelic and grunge production of the album. The addition of the demon riding the ghost is perfect for the themes of the album, including the darkness, and Kanye and Cudi breaking through their mental health issues of the past.

2. Illmatic - Nas, 1994

Showing a young photograph of Nas superimposed of a New York housing estate, the cover of Illmatic already shows that this innocent young kid would have to deal with a lot of the trials and tribulations of growing up poor in New York, and how easily innocence can be lost in the neglected areas of the city. Thematically that is what the album is all about too, as we join Nas on his journey of growing up in these areas.

1. To Pimp A Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar, 2015

This is my favorite album cover of all time, and I don't think it would have been possible for Kendrick to have picked a better album cover. The cover shows a rendering of Black America on the front door of the White House, reflected in the albums commentary on race and black power. We see multiple people holding stacks of cash, some are on the phone, whilst the young boy in the corner holds up his middle finger, as the only white man in the cover, a judge, presumably lays dead due to the X's marked over his eyes. A judge would have been picked due to the historically corrupt legal system which favours the white man over the black man, often not treating them equally. Being in front of the White House is an incredibly powerful image, perhaps also showing President Barack Obama's welcoming of hip-hop and Black America.

Each of these covers resemble something powerful in their own way, and I'd love to dive into some more.

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  • Lou James

During these trying times the majority of us are bored, desperately waiting to be able to get back to normal life. The one great thing about all this though, is that we all have time to listen to some more music.

So we've been in Lockdown for 2 months where I live, and the way I'm treating that varies so much through each day. At the same time as having a bunch of time to work on all my projects (Music, The Culture Feed, Films) the motivation to do them comes and goes like a swing. Some days I'll work on music for like 10 hours and then other days I'll sit in bed all day and watch TV. (I've only recently started music production, so everything I make is trash). But in all this, my various moods on various days can be reflected in all of the music I listen to, and at the moment it is a lot. On days where I've been motivated and spent a couple of hours working out, songs like Kanye's Black Skinhead help me out and get me amped up to continue, whereas on days I feel like I don't want to do anything, I'll throw on Mac Miller's Circles and try to relate what he is singing about. Being able to match the music through how I've been feeling has helped me realise even more-so that music is the main thing that helps my mood, and I can always find whatever that mood is in hip-hop music, because the genre is so varied.

Last night I read Steven Pressfield's The War of Art and decided to act upon some things I've wanted to do but just couldn't be bothered to, which is to create more playlists for The Culture Feed. So all day today, I've created 4 new playlists which help me right now; one is based off lyricism, one is based off not feeling great, one is based off wanting to feel confident/motivated and the other is a general overview of the music I've been listening to the most recently, on top of the Chill/Vibes playlist I previously created. I hope that they help out anyone who listens to them, and I will always be adding more songs to them, based off of your recommendations on my Instagram Story.

Spotify Profile Link: https://open.spotify.com/user/oaiw0htgh4rqt085bg5opyxq2?si=S1p9-dI7T8eMF1bpxBGvmw

Apple Music Profile Link: https://music.apple.com/profile/theculturefeed

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