Some know Malcolm James McCormick, or Mac Miller, as “the guy who beefed with Trump” or, more recently, “Ariana Grande’s ex,” but he was much more than that. Miller was a completely transparent artist: He wore his heart on his sleeve, an aspect of his character that enabled so many fans to connect with him. This has been the case from the beginning, when he first came into the spotlight as a classic frat rapper. He was carefree at the time, a young man having fun and just enjoying the new lifestyle brought about by the success of his mixtapes, K.I.D.S (Kickin’ Incredibly Dope Shit) and Best Day Ever. But the carefree feeling didn’t last—with the fame came scrutiny. The reviews for Miller’s first album, Blue Slide Park, were almost all negative, with most critics lambasting him for a lack of originality and substance, putting him in a tier below other frat rappers like Asher Roth.
So Miller decided to change things up, going for an entirely new aesthetic. He moved to L.A., rolled with talented rappers like Schoolboy Q, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick, and more. His new scenery and friend group inspired him to delve into deeper substances in his music. It was around this time he started what would become a serious life-altering addiction to promethazine, which he admitted was a result of the negative reviews of his first album—he felt they were more directed at him as a person than the music itself. He would later kick the habit, but the lasting effects were there. People critiqued him still, questioning the validity of his drug use and his more thoughtful music, because people love to critique. Regardless, the music was substantially better. His second album, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, came out on June 18, 2013, the same day as highly publicized releases from Kanye West and J. Cole. Not many people paid much attention to Miller before, but he quietly released one of the better projects of that year, which received much better reviews than his first album. Miller was back in the good graces of both the fans and the media.
Sadly, he delved deeper into addiction, and the highs and lows of fame sent him into a depression. His next mixtape, Faces, is considered by many to be his best work, but it is without a doubt the most alarming of his projects. Over the course of its 85-minute runtime, Miller is very open about his addiction and depression, and he discusses topics like the fragility of life. (Listen to the trilogy of songs, “Happy Birthday,” “Wedding,” and “Funeral”—they’re some of his best work). While many found this project to be amazing, Miller was in a very dark place. His friends were concerned about him, and while his fans took in the music, it wasn’t without fear for his mental and physical health. Recently, Miller talked about how, at the time, the stress was so constant and seemingly unavoidable that he almost couldn’t help himself from trying drug after drug to ease his mind, and it took him a while to dig himself out of the hole he’d created.
Miller soon realized that he was spiraling and took some time to reach a better place. He returned with his 2015 album GO:OD AM and showed that he was clearly in a much better space mentally. He was toning down the drug use and focusing more on self-improvement, while also still making good music focused on not only his upward trajectory but also setting an example for his fans. It seemed like he found the ability to balance the pros and cons of fame while enjoying life and staying creative. Soon afterward, he started dating Ariana Grande, and it seemed like things were finally perfect for Miller: He was happy, at peace, and in love. The relationship in some part helped inspire him to write without a doubt his happiest album, The Divine Feminine, a concept album in which he reflects on the beauty of love and life.
Things seemed great for a while, until earlier in 2018 when word got out that he and longtime girlfriend Grande split up, although they remained close until his death. Soon afterward, he was charged with a DUI after wrapping his car around a utility pole. He blew twice the legal limit. Regardless, he was still working to be better. His last, and arguably his best album, Swimming, released on Aug. 3, tackles issues of self-improvement. He used swimming as a metaphor for life: While things can get hard and it may feel like everything’s falling apart, it’s important to keep swimming. Miller’s transparency was once again present—he was showing a clear desire to try and become the best person he could be, for himself, his family, and his fans.
Miller’s death is a truly tragic one, not just because of how young he was but because it seemed like he was going to be all right. Those who knew him talked about how happy he seemed to be before, and how none of them saw the overdose coming. His friends, family, and fans knew that he didn’t want to go out the way he did—he deserved a better death. While it is a tragic end, it’s important to understand what Miller represented. He inspired all his fans and his friends, showing how important it is to keep moving forward, even when the cards are stacked against you and the walls are closing in. Life isn’t easy, there are twists and turns and it’s easy to get lost. Miller was lost for a bit, but he never stopped swimming, and his constant work toward self-improvement is an inspiration in a time where it’s easy to want to give up. He represented the importance of continuing to grow as an individual, to fight your demons, and to never stop trying to find happiness. The saddest thing is that the world will never see where the next step in Miller’s quest for self-improvement would lead him, but it’s important to learn from him and never stop trying to better yourself, because it’s safe to believe that’s what he would have wanted.
Featured Image by Warner Bros. Records