Mac Miller Is at His Lyrical Best on 'Swimming'

The Pittsburgh rapper's new record is about recovery, but he's sharp enough to resist the simple narratives.

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Aug 7 2018, 5:29pm

Despite being buried alive in a cheap coffin with only a flashlight in his hand, a switchblade in his pocket, and a cigarette in his right sneaker, Mac Miller seemed mostly unbothered by terror in the video for "Self-Care," the first single from his new album, Swimming. He smoked, carved the words Memento Mori—"remember that you have to die"—into the wood a few inches above his eyes, then punched his way up into the soil like The Bride in Kill Bill. And had things ended with Miller standing on top of a mound of dirt, half-heartedly brushing the dust off his waterproof, it would have been a perfectly good (if slightly on-the-nose) stand-in for his struggle with, and difficult recovery from, alcohol dependency. Instead, the ground beneath him exploded and Miller was sent flying, feet-first through the fire. He sang, "Well, didn't know what I was missing, now I see a lil' different," but, judging by the video, he wasn't seeing anything very pleasant.

Swimming, released last Friday, is still Miller's recovery record. It's mellower than anything he's released in the past, rarely rising above a murmur, and he producers who provide the beats—everyone from J. Cole to Steve Lacy—don't try to harsh anything up. Even Miller's lush last album, 2016's The Divine Feminine, a partial tribute to then-girlfriend Ariana Grande, had bright beats, horn bursts, and sweeping strings. But Grande and Miller broke up in May this year, shortly before Miller totalled his car driving drunk in Los Angeles. Drinking was to blame for the lot.

That could have set up a disappointingly straightforward redemption narrative, the type of thing that lesser pop musicians fall back on after crises. And, at first, that seems to be what he's selling: "I was drowning, but now I'm swimming / Through stressful waters to relief," he croaks on opener "Come Back to Earth." It's a metaphor that he doesn't tire of. The next song, "Hurt Feelings," is one of the murkier songs on the record, a casual fuck-you to anyone who still won't take his side: "I keep my head above the water."

What sets this apart as Miller's best album yet, though, is the way he prods at that trope, particularly in the middle of the record. Swimming, like recovery, is messy. Miller's floating one moment, down beneath the surface the next; he rises and sinks so often that he risks getting the bends. As the record progresses, there's always the sense that he's catching air between lungfulls of water. On the narcoleptic "Perfecto," he loses some energy: "I'm treading water I swear." Four songs into his post-dependency record, he's gone from front crawl to partial submersion to barely staying afloat. It's the first time that Miller puts his head beneath the surface, and he's fine with it: "If I drown, I don't care."

He's not alone there. In The Trip to Echo Spring, writer Olivia Laing picks apart the work of six 20th Century authors, all of whom were alcoholics. There were open expanses of water all over their writing. Midway through, on a visit to Key West, she writes that dreams of submersion—"these little fantasies of cleanliness, purification, dissolution, and death"—snake through the the works of almost all the alcoholic writers she's chosen. The piece that sticks out is John Berryman's poem 'Henry's Understanding,' where the author fantasizes about letting go: "I'd take off all my clothes / & cross the damp cold lawn & down the bluff / into the terrible water & walk forever / under it out toward the island." Miller drifted into that territory himself three years ago on "Days," singing about new love, a theoretically positive thing: "I've been floating for so long / think I'm ready to drown" For Laing, Berryman wasn't writing about a "fantasy of death," but "a dream of entering some other realm, both protective and destructive: an underwater world, where you are naked, unreachable, and entirely alone."

Kendrick Lamar got at the same thing on "Swimming Pools (Drank)," an unsparing look at drinking culture that inevitably turned into a drinking anthem. He remembered how "Granddaddy had the golden flask / Backstroke every day in Chicago." Kendrick, wading into the same waters as Laing's drinkers, realized that he might end up sinking—"If I take another one down / I'ma drown in some poison, abusing my limit"—but he saw that a real addict could trick himself into oblivion-as-relaxation. Which is where Miller lands himself. At the end of "Self-Care," when the beat changes up (and the ground is on fire in his video), he sings, "I was thinking too much, got stuck in oblivion" and "I got all the time in the world, so for now I'm just chilling." Then he spends a little too much time thinking about it: "I know it's a beautiful feeling, in oblivion."

He keeps stretching the metaphor out as the record floats forward. On the muted disco-funk track "Ladders," realizing that the party's going to end, he knows he "might slip into the sea"; on "Jet Fuel," he's "underwater" again. Even when he breaks from the swimming/drowning trope, he's still bobbing up and down: his head in the clouds, body on the ground. (He ends up inside a spaceship at one point.) Like the "Self-Care" video, almost every verse on Swimming has something to do with the position and whereabouts of Miller's body . It doesn't feel too forced—drowning sorrows implies movement just as much as getting high and tripping, and sometimes he has to get through all three in a track. Stick with Swimming long enough, and Miller's lyrics seem disorienting.

In the end, the metaphor twists back on itself, and it's not totally satisfying. The penultimate song is "2009," and Miller introduces its first verse by wheezing that "You gotta jump in to swim / Well, the light was dim in this life of sin." The idea that all these confessions make up a body of water that he has to get across feels too tidy, too much like the simple narrative he managed to resist in the lead-up. And the idea that this can all be boiled down to "sin" feels facile. Getting your shit together—addiction or otherwise—is lonely, scary, never-ending. On most of Swimming, Miller knows that. Sharper than he's ever been lyrically, a little more comfortable in himself, hopefully he knows that you never fully reach the shore.

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