Mac Miller Shows Grace Under Pressure on ‘Swimming’

Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller had a quick rise to fame, with his 2011 breakthrough “Blue Slide Park” debuting at number one — the first independently promoted debut to do so since 1995. He rode the wave, releasing several successful records, attaining some stardom, and descending inevitably into drinking and drugs. A nearly two-year relationship with Ariana Grande ended in a very public breakup, prompted by a dramatic DUI incident. It’s the same backstory yet again, and you should be plenty familiar with all the usual courses such stories take. There’s beard-growing and wrist-slitting, new age self-realization and bleating from mountaintops, crying, whining, and howling à la The Weeknd, and slightly stalkerish lovesick tune after lovesick tune as exemplified by pre-recovery Dirty Projectors. At any rate, it’s a cue for listeners worldwide to take a collective sigh, hold their breath, give the record a perfunctory listen, begrudgingly wish Miller the best, and get on with life. As a pleasant surprise, however, Miller actually takes none of the aforementioned routes. While undeniably a rebound album, Miller’s new release, “Swimming,” it’s hardly a pity party. As much overlap as there is between hip-hop and R&B, it’s safe to say one of the two styles welcomes wallowing in self-pity more than the other. In Miller’s case, the hip-hop format engenders a refreshingly poised treatment, and makes “Swimming” something different altogether.    

“Come Back to Earth” sets a reflective mood and a very slow-jams vibe, with Miller soulfully singing “I’d do anything for a way out of my head” over twinkling keys, strings, and a ‘70s bassline. With “Hurt Feelings,” a beat drops, channeling the jazzy backdrop into territory reminiscent of late ‘90s hip-hop. The most striking feature is how chill Miller sounds — cool and composed, as if alternating between leaning back, shrugging, and nodding to the beat. The stacked layered of hushed vocals in the chorus, and occasional ad libs do much to create the song’s effect. Miller maintains, “I keep my head above the water,” and argues, “I’ve been going through it, you just go around it,” putting the album’s title in context. “What’s the Use?” takes a space disco turn, house band in full funky sway, with handclaps, funky bass, Dam Funk synths, and Miller sometimes, at moments, oddly a bit like Justin Timberlake. It can be hard to follow his drift at times, with seemingly non sequitur allusions to the likes of Elon Musk and Celine Dion, but one can only expect this from a song with such a title. Moreover, Miller explains he can “get a little sentimental when I’m off the juice.” “Perfecto” is so laid back, with faint utterances of half-pronounced words, that it makes one wonder if purple drank is really completely out of the picture. The swimming references keep coming, with the lines, “I’m treading water… If I start movin’ I flow.” The end portion, when the percussion evaporates and leaves Miller alone over swelling strings strikes like a dramatic, cinematic closeup. “Self-Care” is an infectious track with hypnotic vocal sample snippets and a catchy chorus that sounds like it couldn’t be the work of anyone but Miller. After the line, “I just slide in and then I roll out,” the beat changes, as if signaling some transcendence, and Miller sings, “Oblivion, yeah yeah.”

“Wings” is arguably the most exciting sonic moment of the record, with a fractured, off-kilter beat that recalls some of Thom Yorke’s solo productions. It’s full of strained, sputtering sounds, wedged and scattered, and the way that Miller skirts and glides over the controlled cacophony is the sound of finding comfort in chaos. “Ladders,” another seriously funky, throwback, good-times number, offers a cheery moment of levity, followed by the especially memorable “Small Worlds.” This was the track with which Miller broke his long silence following the DUI and breakup, and the song captures him taking a breath, and letting off some reflective musings with an underlying “where do we from here” feeling, and a playful, undertone that tries to make light of it all. His long drawls of “smawl, mawl, cawl” ring over the slight discordance of the jazzy backdrop, and it all works exceptionally well.

“Conversation Pt.1” follows, with hard-hitting, trap percussive stylings and another signature Miller chorus. He calls out, “You ain’t from my planet we don’t speak the same language,” and continues, “Made it way above the top now, I’m in the spaceship.” Perhaps that explains the “Pt. 1” of the title — screw you guys, I’m going… to space — no part two necessary. However, “Dunno” dives headlong back into relationship ruminations. It’s one of the most intimate moments, with the speaker reduced to helpless optimism, reaching, “Wouldn’t you rather get along?” and hoping, “I think we just might be alright.” “Jet Fuel” follows, playing on the titular phrase as both drugs and stamina, and ending in a James Blake-esque ethereal Auto-tune odyssey, over which Miller calls, “Head back to the ground, dear.” At this stage, it’s unclear exactly who’s in space and who isn’t, but it seems to work, for the most part. On “2009,” Miller goes on to recall his progress since the year before his breakthrough in the industry, and sounding one hundred percent sincere when he asserts, “Nowadays all I do is shine, take a breath and ease my mind.” Finally, the aptly titled “So It Goes,” is the perfect closer, tying together many of the themes that run through the record. It’s another meandering number, with some of the sonic daring seen on “Wings,” but more concretely grounded. Miller is reflective as ever, and as optimistic too, singing “Da da da da / So it goes.”

The subject matter of “Swimming” is much what you would expect from a glance at the tracklist (“Self Care,” “Wings,” “Ladders,” “Jet Fuel.”) The overall feel of the record, however, is something less easily anticipated, and quite remarkable. Miller devotes the bulk of the album to somber subjects, but manages to keep the mood relatively lighthearted, without ever coming across as frothy or escapist. There’s a certain winsome earnestness about it, and plenty of catchy tunes, all bearing the stamps of a signature sound that is edging its way closer to full realization.

Swimming” is available Aug. 3 on Apple Music.