• Lou James

Mac Miller's Concept of 'Swimming In Circles'

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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