Malcolm McCormick, otherwise known as “Mac Miller,” was an influential artist whose music has traversed multiple genres throughout his successful career. His death in an accidental overdose in September of 2018 left his fans and other celebrities dazed and devastated. Artists such as G-Eazy, SZA, Ariana Grande and many more shared their pain with their social media followers after this tragedy. Fans reminisced on the role Miller’s music played in their lives growing up. Streams on his latest album, “Swimming,” increased. However, some were left with the desolation of not being able to hear his bluesy and impassioned voice on any new projects to come. Of course, the saying goes we never appreciate someone until they are gone. Little did we know, under two years later we would get to hear the vulnerability and candor that is the album “Circles.” We get to empathize with Mac Miller in the closure we did not know we needed as he slowly unwinds his mind and perspectives on his own mental health, the concept of love and the comfort it offers in our confusing world, the sensibility of death and its daunting proximity in our lives and more.
“Circles” is the first track on the album. Consistent guitar strumming, timely cymbals and a vibraphone play a comforting tune as Mac Miller sings. The way the lyrics flow, “drawing circles” refers to Miller’s constant efforts to change. After he has attempted to change, he writes about feeling as though he’s right back where he started. This song was soothing and authentic. Its simplicity painted Miller’s calm nature for me.
Instantly, we experience a mood change, as our ears meet the bouncy beat created by the synthesizer and guitar on the track “Complicated.” This song was written by Mac Miller and Jon Brion. Miller frequently mentions in this song and throughout the album that he just wants to take life day by day, but it seems as though everyone else is overly concerned about the future. As a frequent listener of Mac Miller, when I first heard the beat of this song, anticipation grew within me. On past albums such as “The Divine Feminine,” I would come upon a track like “Stay” or “Dang!” with a similar beat. This sound unites with Miller’s unpredictable vocal dynamics, only to be controlled by his soft singing or rapping once again. It keeps me on my toes as a listener. The vocals in this track, “Complicated,” were rather monotone in my opinion, making it a little harder to engage with.
I liked the song “Blue World.” It is easy to point out a tasteful use of a sample when it is produced and mastered so brilliantly. The beat on this song was created using “It’s a Blue World” by The Four Freshmen, made in the year 1955. With a lively instrumental vibe, Miller’s lyrics had me contemplating life and smiling at the same time. The theme of the comfort love brings is evident with the following lyrics: “I don’t do enough for you, without you it’s the color blue.” On almost every song on the album, this theme is somehow present. Love offers peace; this is what I took away everytime. In the most confusing situations, the ability to create simplicity with another being is gratifying. My favorite part of this song is when he sings “Well, if you could see me now…” This bridge from the melody is so significant and relatable. It’s a small epiphany for Miller about his own growth and it is a good 10 seconds for us, as listeners, to remember our own. At least that’s what it offered me.
“Good News” is a track that was released previously to the rest of the “Circles” album. It’s a song that we can all relate to. The exhausting feeling of trying to meet everyday’s seemingly urgent needs, while also trying to maintain internal peace, is challenging. The first time I listened to the song, I found myself trying to envision Miller in this position. I was attempting to understand where he was mentally and transcribe his thoughts for this review. The most I comprehended through that lens was that he was really confused about himself. The song sounds like a long journal entry; every line didn’t rhyme and everything kind of comes out at its own pace. Then I realized I was missing the entire point of the song. One can instantly tell that this song, along with the rest of the album, was seemingly a therapy session for Miller. It is a vulnerable side of him that was only hinted at in previous albums. Not only that, it is meant for us to shamelessly connect with as well. As I listened to this song again, without reading along with the lyrics, but just listening, it resonated with me. Almost every line, I cracked a small smile as I acknowledged my own tendency to daydream and desire for simplicity.
“I Can See” has vibrant instrumentals mixed with the dulcet sound of Miller’s voice. The synthesizer and keyboard come together to create an electric sound. If one doesn’t listen closely, it’s easy to just get caught in the rapture of this beat. However, if one does take the time to listen intently and pry at the meaning of the lyrics, you hear the theme of death’s proximity emerge in the following lyrics: “You never expect to drop so hold on, but That’s just the way it goes, your God don’t wait for no one and when that’s all you know, it keep you on your toes…” Throughout the song, he sings about wanting to be shown something he can see. It’s rather hard to understand. Who is Mac talking to? What exactly does he want to be shown? Why does he feel like he cannot see what has already been shown to him? When I first listened, I took it as Mac wanting to escape the routine of life, which can make us feel like we aren’t allowed to explore ourselves. I think Miller left out detailed structure to the lyrics on this track for that very reason.We aren’t supposed to feel hesitant towards interpreting the lyrics through our own ears, filter free, and relating them to our lives directly.
“Everybody” is a song that I could visualize in a movie scene. It brings a simple yet rigid approach to love and life itself. It’s super catchy, so you’ll find yourself singing along in your head on accident, but then you’ll have those moments where you stop and think, “Wait what did he just say?” As I listened to this song, it felt like a magnifying glass into Miller’s mind. It captured the themes of his album and seemingly the things that conflict within him. Of course, death and its proximity is a theme highlighted, along with love and its comfort and reassurance. One thing I liked the most about this song was one line that I feel connects to the whole album: “Saw a blind man standing on the corner, baby… And he couldn’t hardly tie his shoes… Harmonica, guitar strapped around his neck… But he sure could, he sure could play the blues.” The man he describes has clearly had his fallbacks in life. We all have. However, it is with and sometimes because of the pain that we so grudgingly endure that we put such passion into the things we love. Also, I think we can agree that sometimes it is seeing others do what they love that motivates us on our most difficult days.
“Woods” has an easygoing and steady beat. Its lyrics carry Miller’s emotional weight as his chorus repeats, “Do I, do I, do I love? Can I, can I, can I get enough?” The song has an identifiable message; it is a message we can all somehow resonate with. This message is the questioning of love’s sufficiency in filling life’s gnawing voids. It’s deep, however, if I’m being honest, it’s one of those songs that I would listen to only once or twice. I think this served more as musical therapy for Miller than as an expectation to be added to one of our playlists as a weekly or even daily replay.
“Hand Me Downs” has a pretty interesting vibe. It serves as kind of a love song, as he mentions the person Miller sings about is able to keep him sane. The steady drums and guitar create a comfortable beat for the track. Baro Sarka’s voice is reassuring yet clear cut. Miller comes in with his own bluesy singing. His rap style arguably bites off of Outkast pronunciation wise on this track. Listening closely to the lyrics, you can notice Miller’s transparency and honesty about his own complications in life. “That’s only ‘cause I’ve made me make believe I'm full of darkness,” is definitely a line that caught my attention. I also enjoyed the melody of the song.
“That’s On Me” didn’t resonate with me like some of the other songs on the album did. I think this was because of the lack of substance to the lyrics. With songs that are repetitive, I find myself as a listener waiting for that one part of the song that explains the significance of the track. However, as I listened to “That’s On Me” replay with the country-style instrumentals in the background, I finally reached the bridge of the song and was left dissatisfied.
I felt at a crossroads when it came to figuring out how to describe the song “Hands.” I, personally, didn’t feel any sort of thrill or goosebumps with the instrumentals, or even the tone of Miller’s voice. The lyrics contain truths about how he felt while he was here, but from a musical standpoint, unless you’re already a fan of Miller or you understand his story well enough, it’s a song that I would deem as difficult to connect to. For me, it also goes back to the monotone in his voice for this track. When instrumentals and vocals are too consistent and unchanging, I once again find myself waiting for something to “wow” me and it didn’t come for me in this song. However, if you’re a fan, looking to understand where Miller’s head was at during this time in his life, working on this project, the lyrics on this song are analytically significant.
“Surf” was pretty soulful and mellow. I liked the instrumentals in the introduction of the song. When the dirty guitar was first brought in, I found it to be a little too abrupt but I understand the goal was to create a responding sound to what Miller was singing. It was almost as though it was talking back to him as he would sing a line and the dirty guitar would play back a melodic tone.
“Once A Day” was one of my favorites on this album. It was reflective and natural. The keyboard gave an easy-listening vibe. The lyrics were relatable. It was a beautiful way to end the album.
When a renowned artist passes away, some of us have preconceived notions or even just hopes that their last project or piece of work on this earth will be the best thing they ever created. Sometimes we expect that it’ll be a sign and it’ll tell us everything we needed to know about them before they passed. However, even Malcolm McCormick believed in and expressed the limitations of life and death’s unmerciful potential. In my honest opinion, this was not one of Mac Miller’s best albums. The bar has already been set high with his past albums and being that this project was unfinished anyway, I think it is a fair statement. We can still appreciate Miller’s vulnerability and the evolution of his sound in regards to singing on tracks instead of just rapping. There were songs I feel like I could talk about for hours and some I could barely form sentences to critique. However, the significance of this album lies in remembering what it meant to Mac Miller. Making music is not only about what important themes other people take away from it, but it is also about self affirmation. Miller is singing about what is important to him. He is singing about what is conflicting with him. He’s getting it all out through doing what he loves and does best. As music lovers, we have to applaud that and accept that music as therapy and music as entertainment will not always perfectly align but that they’re both important and special.
Album Rating 3.5/5