Posthumous Album ‘Circles’ Shows Another Dimension of Mac Miller 

The late Mac Miller constantly evolved his sound, venturing fearlessly into new sonic territory. In the rap game, producers line up to pitch their beats for major releases, and most emcees are typically happy to stay behind the mic and spit bars. Miller, however, was a self-taught multi-instrumentalist, playing piano, guitar, and drums, and he incorporated these skills into his music more thoroughly with each successive release. He took on the role of producer, making his songs a fuller realization of his creative vision, and also produced tracks for an impressive roster of artists under his alias Larry Fisherman. Never one to become complacent, Miller explored ambitiously divergent styles on subsequent albums, choosing to take artistic risks. His last album, “Swimming,” was his most personal record to date, exploring his struggle to stay afloat, and bounce back from a low point in life. In spite of the grave subject matter, the album came across as cool and confident, showcasing a resilient and courageous spirit. It also marks the furthest from traditional hip-hop confines that Miller ever strayed. Unreleased material from the sessions found Miller often uses hip-hop as a mere reference point for stripped-down, lo-fi indie excursions. Plans were long in the works to release these recordings as a companion album to “Swimming.” Illustrious producer Jon Brion, who worked actively with Miller in those sessions, has now brought the project to fruition with the posthumous album, “Circles,”  a record that effectively captures the particular enlightenment that Miller attained near the end.

Among the reflections and realizations that fill the verses of “Swimming” is a line from “So It Goes” in which Miller notes, “Just like a circle, I go back to where I’m from.” It’s from this simple thought that Miller’s entire new album derives its title and takes root. The eponymous opener finds him ruminating on cyclical tendencies over a gentle, sparse arrangement, his gruff voice expressing a sense of freedom in the mere acknowledgment. From the onset, the mood is decidedly relaxed, and Miller muses over the matter with detached curiosity and acceptance. A wonky beat takes over on “Complicated,” and like many of the new songs, it plays at an almost unnaturally sluggish tempo, as if adjusted to allow space. Miller bemoans complications over an appropriately simple backdrop. At one point, he remarks, “Some people say they want to live forever / That’s way too long, I’ll just get through today,” hinting simultaneously at a general frustration with life, and a zen-like attitude towards it. 

“Blue World” begins with a snippet from The Four Freshmen’s 1950 track “It’s a Blue World,” and offers an afterthought on the titular statement. Miller admits being driven to near insanity by the world, but cooly maintains, “Hey, one of these days we’ll all get by.” He seconds these thoughts on “Good News,” yearning for a way out of his head, but ultimately asserting, “Well, it ain’t that bad / It could always be worse.” A clear choice for the lead single, the song is an absolute music standout. Miller’s laidback, laconic singing and Brion’s subdued, lo fi instrumental stylings especially mesh, and the winsome melody showcases Miller’s magnetic, unaffected sincerity.

Ambient synthesizers comes to the forefront on “I Can See,” a particularly dreamy, tender song, in which Miller describes his alienation from the world as defying reality. Still, he stays characteristically optimistic, and arrives at the priceless conclusion that “I know if life is but a dream then so are we.” Further consolation comes in “Everybody,” a cover of Arthur Lee’s 1972 song, “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” the titular line offered with a shrug and a smile in the face of adversity. Miller’s rendition is slower and more spacious, with less flash and filigree, fitting with the overall musical approach on the album. “Woods” dwells on the same subject matter, with Miller reiterating his mantra amid woozy synths, confessing unease, but encouraging, “We can only go up.”

“Hand Me Downs” features Australian artist Baro, the album’s sole guest appearance, splitting singing duties with Miller, who also makes a welcome return to rapping for a few bars. The track stands out for how it shows Miller’s musical instincts neatly coalescing. Miller notes, “The screws they go missing / It’s likely they might be but…” as detuned, wheezing synth lines second the sentiment. “That’s on Me” is a solid, simple song, with Miller reassuring us with the titular refrain in one of the album’s catchiest choruses. “Hands” is the most overtly hip-hop number. Miller takes the mic over a cheery, quirky instrumental, and demonstrates all his trademark rapping flair, expressive with his intonation in a way that nods to old school styles. It’s also the most assertive track, with him resolving to let go of regrets, and take charge. “Surf” settles into a groove perhaps mellower than anything yet, and the breezy vibes are an ideal conveyance for Miller’s cool and collect meditations. Finally, the stripped-down “Once a Day” clears space for a final impact, but Miller advances cautiously, ending abruptly upon the line, “Once a day, I try, but I can’t find a single word.”  

Mac Miller wrote songs with a striking openness, a transparent vulnerability, and the type of confidence that establishes itself instantly as beyond the juvenile reservations of the scene. With far less rapping and far fewer words, “Circles” somehow seems even more expressive than most of his work. It’s an amalgam of the genius that hinted itself in preceding records. Overall, these are indie songs characterized by hip-hop sensibilities and zen optimism. The album is best considered alongside “Swimming,” as its more outre complement. Together with that record, it stands out as the work of an artist beaming with creative zeal, zeroing in on an aesthetic and attitude all of his own.

Circles” is available Jan. 17 on Apple Music.