Bathed in a red glow, the studio contains a vocal booth, a bathroom, a control desk, scattered chairs, and a corner filled with assorted bean bags and cushions perfect for catching a quick nap. Two guitars stand in the far corner. A four pack of Red Bull and a four pack of Boddingtons Pub Ale sit on the coffee table next to an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts. Mac sits in the center of the room at an iMac that’s hooked up to four speakers, a mixer, and a keyboard.
A flat-screen TV flickers silently on the wall. There’s a football game on, but Mac also likes nature documentaries like Birds of the Gods. He enjoys making music while watching movie images with no sound—kind of like a Hollywood film composer scoring a film. Mac may not be the next Ennio Morricone, but the self-taught musician’s been working hard.
It’s like I’m rebuilding a whole other type of music. That music [on Blue Slide Park] is great, but I can’t stand by it as much as what I make now.
Over the past year, Mac guesstimates that he’s recorded nearly 400 songs while working on his highly anticipated sophomore album. The most unconventional was his jazz EP You, which he released for free last November under the alias Larry Lovestein & The Velvet Revival. There is no rapping on this EP, just Mac crooning over jazz instrumentals that he wrote and arranged himself. Despite the jokey title, it ranks as one of Mac’s strongest projects.
“This album was driving me fucking insane,” says Mac. “I needed to take a break. So I sat down and made a jazz album." Mac says he stayed in his home studio for two weeks straight without showering (which might explain why the credits read, “Recorded live at Stinky’s Wafflebox”). But the personal hygiene sacrifices were well worth it. "I was like, ‘This is tight as fuck,’” he says proudly. At this point Mac's more interested in pushing himself artistically than cashing in on his past successes. “I was winning by 40 points in the fourth quarter with two minutes to go,” he says. “All I gotta do is do what I been doing and I’m good. But for some reason I was just like, No.”
“I don’t care about having that song that’s going to put me to the next level,” says Mac. “Fuck that song. I wanna make music that’s the shit." Mac describes his new album as “me taking a journey inside my own head.” So far that journey involves collaborating with Flying Lotus, Earl Sweatshirt, and Tyler, the Creator. It also means stepping up his pen game and taking a more honest approach in his rhymes. As tough as critics were on his past work, he’s even tougher on it himself.
“I can’t make ‘Up All Night’ right now,” says Mac. “That’s the only record I regret. ‘Party on Fifth Ave’—great song, I guess. It’s fun. But when I listen to that song and those verses, I hear nothing. I don’t say anything.” Though Mac has consistently denied being a “frat rapper,” it’s hard to fight that accusation when the bridge on your song goes, “Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink!”
Jimmy thinks the album was a case of "fulfilling the idea of what his fans wanted.” Mac’s own feelings toward his debut were shaped by its chilly critical reception. At one point, the bad reviews had convinced Mac that his album sucked. Then one day, he drove around L.A. bumping Blue Slide Park for the first time since its release and came to a final conclusion.
“It’s a good album,” says Mac now. “It's not groundbreaking, but at the same time what is groundbreaking? Kids come up like, ‘I had cancer and went through chemo listening to Blue Slide Park every day.’ That makes me feel good. There’s great records on that album. I don't regret Blue Slide Park at all.”
Mac may not regret his debut album, but his follow-up abandoned the aesthetic that defined it. The dark, spacy mixtape Macadelic was a creative departure that Mac considers his best work to date. “I’m rebuilding a whole other type of music,” he says. “That music [on Blue Slide Park] is great, but I can’t stand by it as much as what I make now.” But the question remains, will his audience grow with him as his music matures?
Right now Mac is in the studio with Q, Jimmy, Peanut, and Rostrum Records president Benjy Grinberg planning the rollout for his sophomore album. As Mac explains his vision, Benjy handles logistics, imposing a timetable on accomplishing what Mac wants done. Everyone else provides constant feedback and tweaks, but the ideas are Mac’s alone. After all the ups and downs, the kid in the swivel chair is still in control of his destiny once again, and he's not afraid of taking risks.
One of the highlights on Mac’s new project is "Red Dot." Through most of the record Mac trades verses with Action Bronson, but at the end the beat cuts off and battle rapper Loaded Lux spits a vicious verse that disses the shit out of Mac, going so far as to call him a “wigga.” For Mac to release this song on his own album would be reminiscent of the final battle scene in 8 Mile where B-Rabbit disses himself, leaving his adversary speechless.
Instead of running away from the criticism he received after Blue Slide Park, Mac has found the courage to embrace it. “I realized, it's whatever,” he says of the critics. “The truth is irrelevant. So I'm cool. I don't care. I realize that they don’t know me. So say whatever you want. I've learned to find the humor in everything, even in the hatred.”
Upstairs in Mac’s office, along with all the memorabilia on the walls, hangs a piece of fan art, a painting of the late, great Lamont “Big L“ Coleman. A member of the Diggin’ In The Crates Crew along with Lord Finesse, L is one of Mac’s favorite rappers. He cites L’s debut album, Lifestylez O Da Poor & Dangerous, as a major influence on his own early rapping style, which he describes as, “angry white rapper, 10th grade angst.”
As Mac Miller looks ahead to a brighter future, the angst is falling away, replaced by the confidence that comes with knowing you're on top of your game. In the painting of Big L, instead of making a gun gesture with his fingers, as L did on the cover of his second album, The Big Picture, the rapper is giving the thumbs up. It's still lonely at the top, but Mac Miller's taking encouragement wherever he finds it.
WATCH MAC MILLER AND MARC ECKO'S EXCLUSIVE MAN OF NEXT YEAR VIDEO: