Photos by Jessica Lehrman
I first meet Mac Miller in person just days after his rap career comes screaming back into gear with the announcement of a new album when he lets slip to me that he's moved to New York City. We talk sporadically on social media, but when I pop by the new residence, I'm not entirely sure what to expect. The last time many heard tell of the Pittsburgh rapper, it was on Faces, a 24-song data dump of a mixtape timed for release on Mother’s Day that opened deadpanning “I should’ve died already” and marched through an hour and a half of unnerving vignettes of methodical self-destruction: “I’m fucking with drugs and now I’m a junkie.” “Don’t fuck with the angel dust.” “My right nostril hasn’t worked in a week / Plus the plug got work like he serving for a sheik.” The dour “Grand Finale” wrapped things on a note of near total exhaustion, but it felt like the closer for more than just a record.
I'm expecting the reckless, darkly funny studio rat of the mixtape, but the Mac Miller that greets me is an affable, coffee-loving morning person. “There’s a few times I went to sleep not sure I was gonna wake up,” Mac says of the dark times that birthed Faces, relaxed now in the morning calm of his new Brooklyn apartment, where he currently lives with his girlfriend when he’s not on the West Coast sharing a space with his brother. (“We’re very domestic. We cook. We have cats. We make coffee in the morning. We recycle.”)
He's still getting settled, geeked to finally have cable and WiFi set up and intrigued by his on-demand channel's deep selection of hip-hop movies. Miller's just thundered through a press run for his major label debut GO:OD AM, the first release in a lucrative new deal with Warner Bros. Records. His interviewers latch onto a heroic sobriety narrative, so I’m struck upon entering the residence by the sight of a wall of liquor bottles in back of the living room. The bottles are from a Fourth of July party doubtlessly rendered extravagant by the apartment’s breathtaking view of the waters adjoining Brooklyn and Manhattan, but they’re an early indication that Mac’s not living a monastic life post-Faces.
“I drink… duh!” Miller snickers when prodded. “I smoke weed. But I have a lot of shit to do, and that takes priority.” The change in him is evident not just in the breakfast-time scheduling of our meets or his poise at a late summer Brooklyn bar night where we randomly run into each other again, and he spends a good portion of the night slightly out of view of a sizable crowd that's come to send the bar off on its final weekend, enjoying quality time with his girlfriend. He’s given himself over fully to the process of promoting GO:OD AM and reconnecting with fans. He keeps a deliberately regimented day schedule. He sees both of New York City’s rival rap stations, Hot 97 and Power 105. He roasts his nemesis Donald Trump on Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show. He throws the first pitch at a Pittsburgh Pirates game, coolly avoiding a 50 Cent foul ball debacle. A tour of the states is underway now, his first, he notes incredulously, in two years. “I wanted to go talk and let people know I’m good,” he says of the TV and radio lightning round. “I think after Faces a lot of people were like, ‘This is great. If anyone knows him, please go check on him right now. If anybody knows Mac Miller, call him and tell him you love him.’”
In 2012 Mac Miller moved from his native Pennsylvania to a house in Studio City, California, a neighborhood in the Western reach of Los Angeles equidistant from both downtown and the parks and mountains outside city limits. It is by turns a swatch of old showbiz grandeur—it literally takes its name from a nearly century-old CBS studio lot—and a posh stretch of the homes of scores of Hollywood elite. Miller’s Studio City digs served the tripartite function of living space, recording studio, and set for Mac Miller and the Most Dope Family, an MTV2 reality show cataloguing what happens when you drop a newly rich 21-year-old and his best friends into a mansion in a land where it’s always summer. “Mac’s crib in Studio City was unreal,” says Quentin Cuff, longtime friend and sometime Most Dope costar. “It was the muse for a lot of amazing music and parties. Mac and [studio engineer] Josh Berg made the extra room by the pool into a studio. It was nicknamed ‘The Sanctuary.’ I would say music was being made 75 percent of each day for the two years we were there.”
At the Sanctuary, Mac fell in with California’s rap elite, communing with the Odd Future, Top Dawg Entertainment, and Brainfeeder sets over music that advanced in confidence, quality, and quantity at every step. Watching Movies with the Sound Off, his sophomore studio album, pulled off the admirable feat of shaking the frat rap complaints that dogged his early work, a stream of happy-go-lucky mixtapes by a kid excited about rap but not yet acclimated to the chemistry of the craft. Delusional Thomas teased out darker themes with a Quasimoto-like alter ego. Stolen Youth bolstered the voice of Vince Staples, a great rapper who, at the time, was hesitant about centering his focus on his art. (Two years before Vince's bleak, vital Summertime '06, Miller says it took ample coaxing to even get him in a studio; he handed the Long Beach MC a collection of beats under his production pseudonym Larry Fisherman "because that was the only way to fucking get him to rap," and the collaborative mixtape Stolen Youth was born.) Privately, the comfort of the home studio made it conducive to more than just good music.
“It was a place I could be at that I could be high all the time and making music without any responsibilities,” Mac says of his California home in its latter days. “You go wild, and you’re like ‘I don’t wanna do shit but make music.’” Nestled comfortably in LA’s winding, hilly expanse, he receded from view: “There’s so much space. You can disappear. But, like, if you’re not careful you actually disappear, which is not what anybody wants.” He holed up partying and recording with a revolving cast of characters, racking up whole albums and EPs few beyond the studio would get to hear. “There’s about nine projects,” he estimates. “Thundercat and I made a band, and we did a full instrumental album in three days. I didn’t sleep for three days and just cycled in musicians. I would keep calling people so I never had to sleep… There’s a really weird album that was almost the album. We actually shot a movie. I was moving out, and I was like ‘We have to capture what this house meant.’ So I threw down like 40k out of pocket, and we shot a movie in 2 days.” He swears he'll eventually release the latter.
Miller became wary of the party life and his role as a mascot for it in the spring of 2014. He wasn’t in much of a state to promote the mixtape and regrets missing the opportunity to push the Rick Ross collaboration “Insomniak,” the tape’s most accessible track, as a single. He also felt like a terrible role model. “I remember putting out Faces and seeing all these kids tweeting about drugs,” he says. “Made me really uncomfortable, the fact that I was somebody a kid could take as a reference of why they should do drugs.” Before long, Mac, fed up with his lifestyle and the toll it had taken on his body and career, picked up and sought counsel at the home of friend and hip-hop legend Rick Rubin, where he methodically got clear of drugs and back to playing music for pleasure over weeks of unfussed downtime. “I’m a better person when I’m sober,” Miller notes. “I’m just a shithead when I’m not.” By fall 2014, Mac Miller had a new deal with Warner Bros. Records rumored to have netted him eight figures and a new management team in Christian and Kelly Clancy, who famously kept Odd Future from combusting during the LA collective’s rocky rise. (On Christian: “Clancy can call me, and from the first word I say he can tell what’s up with me.”) The move to a major baffled many, since Miller’s 2011 debut Blue Slide Park was the first independent release to top Billboard’s albums chart since 1995, and Watching Movies has sold over a quarter million copies to date.
There are distinct organizational advantages for an artist of Miller’s stature to move to a major—the moment in The Fader’s 2013 profile where the rapper can’t find a copy of Watching Movies in stores the week of its release won’t happen with Warner—but he is also concerned with the framing of GO:OD AM in his discography as a fresh start. “I want it to be a staple project,” he says. “I would like it to be somewhat of a square one. I’m coming onto a major label having a lot of successful projects already so it’s not like one of those ‘major label debuts.’ When you look at Kendrick, he has all these projects, but you kinda look at good kid, m.A.A.d city now as the first.”
The album judiciously finds space for Miller's Cali friends ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Domo Genesis to keep from breaking tradition, but he's made a point to reach outside his comfort zone to track down collaborators he wouldn’t be expected to work with. Chief Keef adds a shockingly sharp guest verse to "Cut the Check" after Mac appeared on Bang 3's madcap "I Just Wanna." Lil B phones based wisdom in from an airport waiting room on "Time Flies." Miguel delivers a warm, soulful vocal on "Weekend" after a Twitter hack of the singer's account got the two speaking. (“You think you’re the shit until Miguel walks into the room.”) Little Dragon assists on the sultry, bubbly closer "The Festival." Miller’s not stressed over sales: days after the new album’s September release date is revealed, Lana del Rey schedules Honeymoon there too, and Drake and Future’s short notice tandem mixtape What a Time to Be Alive crash lands the same weekend.
Miller pecked away at the body of songs that would become GO:OD AM over two years, obsessed with making his proper comeback album his best. He met the challenge with his most incisive raps and emotive singing to date, making good on the second chance he got when the “Grand Finale” of Faces never came. “I’m not hiding behind the beat anymore,” he says of the newfound vigor in his raps. You can hear it in the boisterous braggadocio of “Break the Law,” the haughty swing of “In the Bag,” and the menacing frenzy of “When in Rome.” (“I’m at the top of my game!”) Miller’s most excited about late album highlight “Jump,” which maneuvers nimbly from wistful trap into a four-on-the-floor house stomp and back, as indicated by the Justin Timberlake inspired dance moves he slips into when he plays it for me for the first time.
Mac’s music still feels haunted, though. “I’m just trying to grow up old and rich,” he languishes on “Rush Hour.” “The world don’t give a fuck about your loneliness.” "I done been through it all, every brick in the wall," he reflects on the laconic "Clubhouse." The notion that GO:OD AM is Miller’s “sober” album or his “happy” album is a hoot. “The album is the process,” he says. “There’s moments of clarity, but there’s moments where I’m super fucked up.” He means this two ways. The album’s back nine is a pendulous trip between hard partying and morning after serenity prayers: the trash talk of “When in Rome” bleeds into “ROS”’s heartfelt cabaret, and the cocky, moneyed “Cut the Check” becomes the reflective religiosity of “Ascension.” But Miller also means there’s bits of the album that he has no recollection of recording, like the moody front half of two-part deep cut “Perfect Circle/God Speed.”
The passage from the dark night of “Perfect Circle” to the new day of “God Speed” is the story of Mac’s wild years in miniature. “God Speed” swoops in after the drug addled ennui of “Perfect Circle” as a naked outpouring of regret for falling prey to his vices and a promise to do right by everyone, with Miller unfurling a vivid image of good and evil as blurrier, more nebulous concepts than we’ve been told. (“Every devil don’t got horns, and every hero don’t got capes.”) The sections are separated by an old Christmastime answering machine message from Mac’s brother (and GO:OD AM concept artist) Miller McCormick, who hasn’t heard from the rapper in days and is chillingly unsure he’ll ever get a reply. It’s a panoramic snapshot of Mac’s self-destructive abandon and the hurt that reverberated out into his family, friends, and fan base as a result. The magnetic pull of righteousness and wrongdoing is GO:OD AM’s recurring theme: the first line of “Brand Name” is “We’re in between heaven and hell,” and the notion is revisited later in “Ascension” via a slyly chopped sample of Curtis Mayfield’s “Never Say You Can’t Survive.” Miller let good times pull him off track too long, but that’s changed: “It makes me feel better to handle shit than to just let shit handle me.”
I ask why Mac has elected to open this new chapter of his career in New York City, suspecting that the dense, hectic Big Apple is an urban antithesis to the seclusion of the LA hills. “When I was growing up,” he says, “this is where I wanted to live my whole life. Coming to New York was me trying to get a new scene to look at out the window every day. The only way to disappear here is amongst people.” By our last meeting, he’s fallen in love with a slew of jazz clubs and restaurants around the city. It’s the first day of acceptable hoodie weather, as the summer inches toward a close, and he’s excited to have escaped LA’s endless heat to ease back into a grounding cycle of seasons. The new album’s out in a matter of days, but he’s already thinking beyond it, fielding texts from Future, and itching to get settled into a new studio. “Once I build my spot,” he promises, “I’ll do the same shit I did in LA and just see who comes in the door. I wanna find a dope group of people to work with here.” I suggest Ratking. He’s already been talking to them.
Our conversations periodically touch on other artists in the current hip-hop landscape, and after I’ve had time to live with GO:OD AM, I’m struck by a sneaky line in “Brand Name,” where Miller snarks “I’m a white rapper, they always call me shady.” It a clever double entendre, a reference Eminem as harbinger of a wave of young, successful white rappers but also to how little they’re trusted in the hip-hop community. In a summer where Macklemore snaps back into action mistakenly crediting poet Langston Hughes for playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and Post Malone responds to complaints about his use of the n-word with a bruque half-apology and a diss track for people trying to tear him down, I’m deeply curious how Mac Miller evades these gaffes, as a young white rapper who’s been in the public eye since the age of fifteen. “There’s white rappers,” he explains, “and there’s people that rap that are white. I think ‘white rapper’ is a genre… and hell no. That’s not for me. I didn’t want the guiding thing in my music to be, ‘Oh this guy is white,’ so when I was younger I would always dodge the white question. It was like ‘You’re white,’ and I’d be like ‘Am… I… white?’ Trying not to have it a focal point, but it is obviously a big part of me.” He’s not running from the question anymore: “I’m sure that a lot of my success is due to being white, and I can’t be mad at that. I just have to do whatever I can to be as good as I can. It’s important for the music to be a strong staple of what I’m doing. I wouldn’t feel right being up here without going through some type of getting there and gaining the respect of my peers.”
Mac Miller had to take a timeout and get his life in order last year, but it’s apparent from the music of GO:OD AM, inarguably his best body of work to date, from the fervor of his summer media campaign and intercontinental touring schedule, and even from the little details in the way he moves now that he wants the spotlight back. There are bound to be wild nights in a new city, but never again at the expense of his livelihood. “There’s a difference between having a night, coming back, waking up, and living… and how I was,” he says, reflecting on darker days. “If I touched anything, I’d be out of commission for like a week, cause that’s what I’d be doing the whole week.” After years of tumult, Mac Miller is finding balance in domesticity, fulfillment in art and work, and greater restraint with the extracurriculars. But not too much: “Drugs just aren’t the way. Turn down drugs… I mean… smoke some weed, drink some beer, some liquor. But you don’t wanna be married to it. I would rather sleep with my girl than with a bag of dope.”
Craig Jenkins came for a steak, and he left with the cow. Follow him on Twitter.
Jessica Lehrman is a photographer based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Instagram.