|***UPDATE: I had written this a few months before Mac Miller’s tragic death. While many of the aspects of his life I observe in this article may not apply any longer, I will keep it up as I believe there are still many lessons to be learned through his song and video observed. Rest in peace, Mac Miller.***|
I didn’t expect to be writing a praise piece about Mac Miller when I woke up this morning, though it’s not anything special to be hit with something unexpected every day. This happens to be the paradox contained within Mac Miller’s new song and video, “Self Care” (shown above), that garners such praise from me, as Miller expresses yet another stage in his artistic and mental journey. It’s the paradox that we know life will change but don’t expect it when it does, one that feeds into a cycle of fluctuations, from extreme inspiration, happiness, or mania to extreme shock, depression, or confusion.
Upon seeing and listening to the video and song this morning, initial thoughts flooded my mind: Miller’s failed two-year relationship with Ariana Grande, his recent DUI, his well-known tribulations with addiction and sobriety, and multiple gaps in the quality of his projects. At first glance it seemed like just another representation of what he’s going through in this stage of his life, just like how Blue Slide Park represented his party-goer, money-maker mentality, or how Watching Movies With the Sound Off represented the growth stages of his art, fame and mental health, or how GO:OD AM represented his road to sobriety. But observing it further, much more surfaces out of “Self Care” than a temporary, stable position in the artist’s timeline. It seems that through all the symbols of the coffin, the cigarette, the “Memento Mori” carved into the ceiling, and the ragdoll motions of his body during the explosions, Miller finally begins to acknowledge the constant change his life is subjecting to despite the “walls” he’s climbed. Through the paradoxical way that the song and video operate, the cynical image of a man rising out of the ashes only to get blown to the ground again and again represents an optimistic and mature outlook on the result of this bad breakup and relapse into drinking, the outlook that one can be reborn but still encounter the worst hardships in his/her life afterwards. The one who suffers, though, is the one who becomes complacent with such outcomes. Miller covers a span of topics within the mere 5 minutes. The common Latin/Christian inscription in the ceiling, “Memento Mori,” meaning “Remember that you will die,” visualizes the limit that life places on us. The nonchalant smoking in the coffin visualizes how he dug his own grave by succumbing to his addictions. The standing figure after a series of explosions visualizes the necessity to stand up despite what you’ve been hit with in life. But more than all that, the song and video represent a transformation of Miller’s art and objective. He no longer seeks to solidify a position in his timeline through his music but to liquefy it to fit any period or any interpretation. He seeks to create something he can look back to every time adversity hits, like an alcoholic looking back at childhood photos wondering where the time went before he fixes his addiction. He tells himself to expect the results of his creation to come crumbling down but know there’s a way to come out of it with some form of inspiration; he points out the possibility of simultaneously experiencing the present while looking forward to avoid complacency; he narrows the gap between mania and depression that his unpreparedness creates in the face of adversity; he relays that one can enjoy their periods of euphoria while acknowledging that they will one day end. For the 5-minute moment, the looming uncertainty that his music has always foreshadowed is no longer negative. The permanence of death is no longer a threat but an opportunity.
And for some reason, Mac Miller’s repeated critique of complacency and contentment (especially this one) hits me more powerfully than that of most other artists like Kendrick Lamar, Julian Casablancas, Tyler The Creator, or MF Doom (a statement I’ll likely be chastised for). The only explanation I can give is that it’s because every album or mixtape or single has a distinct personality yet shows that the artist behind it all is still there and still evolving. Every album cover focuses on Miller himself or a drawing of his imagination. One sees his transformation from Watching Movies to GO:OD AM to Swimming but also the integrity that he’s maintained in the process.
Where this liquidity and integrity hit powerfully as well are in the connectivity of his songs and albums. Listening to Good kid, m.A.A.d. city and To Pimp A Butterfly separately brings you two distinct macrocosms in Kendrick’s life, one being his upbringing in the gritty streets of Compton and the other being a reflection of oneself in relation to Compton after seeing the rest of the world. But listening to Mac Miller’s albums separately, you get exposure to roles that they play in the single, integrated macrocosm that is his life. “Nikes On My Feet” from his “Easy Mac” days is tied to the confusing and nostalgic “Red Dot Music,” which is tied to Miller’s road to recovery in “Perfect Circle/Godspeed.”
This is not to say that one form is better than the other, nor that Mac Miller is more influential or better than Kendrick Lamar (because he isn’t), nor that Mac Miller’s career has only had high points. But when he creates something that speaks to his adaptation and flexibility with the adversity he’s dealt with, he repeatedly shows potential for a better outcome in life, whether it be with sobriety, happiness, love, or music. There’s something about it that assures listeners that everything will be okay.