Mac Miller insists he's just trying to fuck. With Lex Luger's flatly industrial beat spilling out into the Meadows's parking lot, he enters to "Loud" with a bemused smile on his face, stoked to be here, a little surprised. With the same spaced out drawl that he inhabits on record, he ambles through his chorus: "I like my music real loud, real loud / Can you turn that shit up for me right now, right now."
This is an awkward time of day for Miller; for anyone, really. It's 4:45 PM, an hour before Chance the Rapper is due to take the main stage. After that, it's Kanye West's headline set. Miller's set is the obvious choice right now; there's little competition. He's the clear opener for the Chicago double-header.
The trouble is that Miller is neither Chance nor Kanye. The Divine Feminine, his new album, is a radical departure from his earlier tapes. It's a sweet, soulful, extroverted collection of tracks, heavy on strings and brass, a big embrace of the world. Miller spends 10 tracks wrapping his head around love, not just romantic and erotic—though there's plenty of both of those to go around—but universal. It's pretty, sweet and smart, one of 2016's most surprising albums.
But today he's opening with "Loud," so here's his first line: "I got codeine in my cup, you can bet your ass I'm sipping / Groupies fall in love, I'm like bitch you must be tripping." He moves about the stage as though unsure of his next move. "Yeah, people lie, numbers won't / Keep me high, drugs is close / Roll one up, pour a cup / Watch the world go up in smoke."
A newly-clean artist singing through past addictions, inhabiting a past self onstage, can be fascinating and important. Peel it back and there's a layer of sadness to Miller asking for somebody to "Keep me high" now that he's sober. But, really, he's going through the motions here. He's straightjacketed by the festival setup, the time of day, and the crowd of drunk-as-hell teenagers who throw their hands up when they're told to. (They're told to.)
From there it's the more reflective "100 Grandkids" and the us-against-the-world trap of "Insomniak," both hits, both going down a storm. Miller enjoys it all, wandering around the stage, bouncing along, charming his way through it. The smoothed-out arrogance of "Diablo" eases him in nicely enough, too. But it's not until his fifth track that he dips into The Feminine Divine: "I'm gonna slow it down a little bit and get into that," he says.
And that's when Mac Miller turns into something else entirely. He breaks into album opener "Congratulations," slots the mic into its stand, and croons over the jazz piano. Eyes shut, he angles his head around the mic like he's making out with it. "Girl I'm so in love with you," he sings, giving way to the strings. He grinds into "Stay"'s high trumpets, a cocky grin on his face. His flow is truer, freer, bopping ahead of the beat. The brilliant Anderson .Paak collaboration "Dang!" turns this soulless concrete lot into a dimly-lit nightclub for four minutes, Miller's matter-of-fact confidence slinking out past his cheeky smile.
GO:OD AM's "Weekend" follows from that aesthetic. It's a suggestion that Miller was, deep down, always working towards an album as well-constructed and concise as The Divine Feminine, all that hedonistic soul waiting to come forward.
But then, aside from the catatonic "We," that's pretty much it for Mac Miller, unlikely messenger of millennial sexuality. The Divine Feminine cuts get an polite but largely muted response from the pre-Chance crowd. It's closer "When In Rome," returning to the heavy trap beats, that gets the response that Miller needs more than anything else. Arms up, again, Miller mirroring his crowd, throwing himself around and declaring that "I'm at the top of my game!" screaming that "I'm fucking your bitch!"
Which is fine. Just fine. But it's not the Mac Miller of The Divine Feminine and, all things permitting, it's not the Mac Miller that will stick around for the next few years. Because on the strength of his few Divine Feminine cuts here, Miller really will stick around for a while, an odd, sexually-charged Dean Martin for a generation that never thought it needed one.
So, when it's all over, the crowd decamps and moves over to Chance the Rapper, gets in position for Kanye. And it's in that context that Miller's set finds itself. He's still figuring it out, not quite big enough yet to turn up and run through his new LP or pepper his set with old cuts that better compliment his new vibe. He's on one end of a continuum with Chance and Kanye out in front. Chance's Coloring Book set, full of puppets and props, may be a little much for some, but it's undeniably bold in its positivity; and Kanye, truncated set or no, is Kanye. His headline set is consistent, aesthetically stable without ever falling into uniformity.
And that's what's next for Miller. Away from the festival circuit, he'll probably attack that in the coming months on tour, segueing into his new self more fully. His crowds there will respond better, he'll feed off their confidence. At least, that's the hope. Because on the strength of his new work here, Miller deserves better than hammered teens screaming at him about codeine.
All photos by Liz Barclay.
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