Seven years ago, a scrawny half-Jewish kid-rapper from Pittsburgh had the best-selling record in America. He earned it by gurning and grinning his way through verses that made sense to the underage drinkers who packed out his shows on college campuses, then laying those rhymes over palatable, poppy beats. Born Malcolm McCormick, he was exuberant, hedonistic, hard-working, confident, lyrically messy, and totally unprepared for the future.
But most of us won't remember Mac Miller, who died yesterday at the age of 26, for Blue Slide Park, his 2011 debut album—even if it was the first independently released LP to rise to the top of the charts since Tha Dogg Pound's Dogg Food in 1995. Most radio stations won't play his buoyant-but-sloppy early mixtapes, the ones that gained him a cult crowd in the first place—and the withering critical response to his early output will barely be a footnote to his legacy.
Instead, we’ll remember him as a dextrous rapper, a powerfully candid lyricist, a meticulous and original producer, an obsessive musician, and an unlikely master of the album format at a time when everyone thought the album was a thing of the past. Where so many artists responded to criticism by lashing out, turning in, or continuing to hack away at the same stale style, Mac Miller learned, grew, and evolved. He became one of hip-hop's most magnetic presences, an unlikely star who, alongside his friends in Odd Future and The Internet, would prod at the mainstream from the gooey edges. Even Jay-Z gave him a pass. When Miller said he wanted to move people with his music, he meant it. As he grew up (and he grew up fast), he succeeded.
And Swimming, Miller's fifth album, released just last month, was his best yet—soulful, introspective, and confessional but still lyrically taut. It was, gut-wrenchingly, his attempt to fully reckon with addiction and its aftermath. He established his thesis on "Come Back to Earth," the opener—"I was drowning, but now I'm swimming / Through stressful waters to relief"—but then played with the metaphor, rapping that it wasn't always that easy to stay afloat. This candour made it easier to believe that he was getting better after years of depression and public scrutiny. He was working on himself. He had a song called "Self-Care." "I want to be able to have good days and bad days," he told Craig Jenkins at Vulture in an interview published on Thursday.
Swimming felt like the culmination of years of difficult work. Following Blue Slide Park and 2012's more psychedelic and substantive Macadelic, Miller struggled with fame and drugs, disheartened by critics who dismissed him as another entry into the frat-rap canon. "Mac took the bad reviews to heart," Insanul Ahmed wrote in a cover story about Miller for Complex in 2013. "They didn’t just piss him off; they sent him into a personal tailspin." He pushed back on that in later interviews, but the backlash to a record he'd made as a 19-year-old clearly hurt.
When it came out in 2013, though, Watching Movies With the Sound Off caught fans and critics almost completely off-guard with its existential crises, apparent disinterest in day-drinking, and genre-agnostic production (Pharrell Williams, Clams Casino, and Tyler, The Creator were all credited.) Nobody who listened to his early stuff could have imagined hearing Miller alongside Earl Sweatshirt on a song called "I'm Not Real," pondering "hieroglyphics, pyrotechnics, metaphysics"; none of his detractors expected a young guy who'd hit the top of the charts to start again from scratch.
He seemed to be constantly reinventing himself—whether he was recovering from depression or addiction or heartbreak—but he brought his fans along with him, never shying away from the pain of it all.
But he was 21 years old, still figuring out who he was. Jordan Sargent, who famously panned Blue Slide Park at Pitchfork, went to profile him at SPIN around Watching Movies and found a guy who was more than willing to open up about the struggles from which he was only just emerging: an unhealthy embrace of narcotics, an undersold tour, a bruised ego. He defined himself by that openness. An artist looking for a shortcut to respect would've made their second album more superficially "serious" or "brooding." Miller, instead, made a record that was, at its root, honest.
He made that honesty his signature. On GO:OD AM in 2015, he took an unsparing look at fame and addiction and all the outside forces that were governing his life. "Drugs just aren’t the way," he told Noisey back then. "You don’t wanna be married to it. I would rather sleep with my girl than with a bag of dope.” The Divine Feminine, released the next year, was a wildly ambitious tribute to womanhood that could have fallen flat on its face, but oozed warmth instead. He seemed to be constantly reinventing himself—whether he was recovering from depression or addiction or heartbreak—but he brought his fans along with him, never shying away from the pain of it all.
I only got to see him live once, in New York, just after the The Divine Feminine. (I called him "an odd, sexually charged Dean Martin for a generation that never thought it needed one," and I'll stand by that now.) There was a sense then, four albums in, that Miller was still getting it together, one foot in his past and one in his future. That Swimming has to be the end of that journey feels impossibly cruel. There were so many more versions of Mac Miller to come: new experiments and refinements in his music, new setbacks followed by fresh perspectives. Maybe, eventually, when he said he was swimming just fine, he would have believed it.
In the absence of recovery, the wide-grinned kid who topped the charts ended up making a wealth of wonderful, ambitious, original music—music that millions of people will take solace in now that he’s gone. But great records only get you so far. Working towards brilliance, trying desperately to be honest, committing to your art above all else might be something greater still.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.