This article originally appeared on VICE UK
At a fan event in London on Thursday the 16th of January – the day before Mac Miller's posthumous album Circles drops – the mood is sombre and reflective. A touching mural of fan made art from points in Mac’s career takes up one wall of the event space, the cover for Best Day Ever sitting among sketches and paintings. Mac’s face looks out from four or five framed portraits while a widescreen TV plays the psychedelic video for Circles single “Good News”.
Mac reportedly recorded Circles in the same stretch as 2018 album Swimming (the last before his passing that year, aged 26). And so finding out Circles exists, after replaying Swimming over the past 16 months, is like brushing away at a painting to discover a period piece lying underneath. Often posthumous releases can sound understandably unfinished; rarely are they brilliant. But what if sharing a body of work with the public feels right? How do you respectfully honour a legacy when the architect of the project is no longer around to approve? It can be hard for fans, and critics alike, to know where a posthumous release fits into a musician's canon.
Mac Miller’s long-term manager Chris Clancy, A&R Jeff Sosnow and Swimming and Circles producer Jon Brion all grappled with these ideas during a playback of the album at Abbey Road Studios in November last year. They chatted in a roundtable where emotions were understandably still raw, discussing Circles as a counterpart to Swimming. These songs, they said, were the ones Mac got the most visibly excited yet nervous about – he'd seem shy and unsure about how 'musical' they were, then beam when the songs inspired a positive reaction.
His team maintained that dropping Circles shortly off the back of Swimming had been Mac’s long-term plan. You can see why. Both albums are like two shades of a painting from the same era. “Two different styles complimenting each other, completing a circle – Swimming in Circles was the concept” reads a post shared on the 8th of January 2020 by Mac Miller’s family, on his official Instagram account. “We simply know that it was important to Malcolm for the world to hear it.”
Bar Faces, a 2014 mixtape that dispensed with questions of mortality right from the off (“Inside Outside”), Circles is the most lyrically candid of all his releases. As the contemplative counterpart to Swimming's hopefulness, it leaves fans plenty to mull over. But this is all conjecture. You can reach beyond the lyrics to hear the pinnacle Mac had reached on this album. He's spent the latter part of his career wanting to play on par with his peers, like Thundercat; each album felt like an evolutionary step towards Mac the songwriter, rather than Mac the rapper. Circles is the moment he nails it. It’s a loving, sonically rich project, cupped delicately with care.
Walking into the playback, fans are handed a flyer with some context on the album and its influences: the T-Rexesque guitar on “Surf”; production that nudges close to Plastic Ono Band-era John Lennon; the album’s cover of Arthur Lee’s 1972 single “Everybody’s Gotta Live.” Once we all hear the album in full a first time, everyone mills around on the pavement and benches outside, discussing what they’ve heard. “Coming in here and hearing the songs… they’re a really good representation of how far he’s come as an artist and how much further he could have gone,” says Jen, age 20.
For many, the playback is the first time they’ll have experienced hearing a new album in this particular way, surrounded by strangers. Circles is a lot to take in on first listen, but the communal music experience created here is a nice touch – especially since there no albums or merch items on sale. This is simply an opportunity for attentive listeners to hear the music playing on loop, in full. One fan, Danny, is on vacation from Mac’s hometown of Pittsburgh. “What I liked about being inside was seeing the different people and their faces and how they reacted to the music – it’s definitely heavy, but it was a very nice moment.”
Paris, 23, had similar thoughts on the playback being both a challenging and good experience. “It was definitely sad. But in a really positive, happy way.” You can't deny feeling a glumness, hearing all of this beautifully crafted music in Mac’s absence, but it’s also bright, in the way he famously had always been. It’s upbeat too. Third track “Blue World”, produced by Guy Lawrence of Disclosure, is a glitchy, sun-soaked vibe that leans into a world adjacent to the blissed out sound you might usually find on SOULECTION mix.
That doesn't mean Circles finishes without several potentially tear-jerking moments, though. Closing track “Once A Day”, previously previewed in solo piano form at the Mac Miller ‘A Celebration of Life’ concert, is an emotional yet fitting farewell. It feels as if he’s had some sort of chance to say goodbye. Listening to the album wind down as he sings about going away to rest is like watching a candle peacefully burn to the end. Except, of course, a song like this lasts forever.
The posthumous release is an interminably difficult one. You can view Circles in that way too, but it also differs from similar recent releases of this type – it's no cash-in or throwaway. Nor does leave as many questions unresolved, as some felt the difficult remembrance of Lil Peep could. A pure essence runs through the album and around its promotion – everyone gathers together to experience something beautiful, and something intended to always have been released. It’s a neat sign-off, focused on the fans who have been touched by his music and found a piece of themselves somewhere in there.
“This event is the coolest thing you could ever do,” says Danny. “Coming in here and seeing people vibing really gave you a feeling – I had to be here.”