Mac Miller contended with a lot in his life for someone who once said, “It just seems exhausting to always be battling something.” While his music grappled with a rapid onset of fame, heartbreak, and the substance abuse issues that ultimately claimed his life, the underlying conflict for Miller always seemed to come between what was going on in his mind and the world at-large. As he matured, his music became more intimate and candid; later albums like Watching Movies With the Sound Off, The Divine Feminine, and Swimming, the latter of which was released just a month before his tragic September 2018 overdose, were concerted efforts to open himself up and let his id spill out.
Circles, Miller’s first (and likely only) posthumous record arrives as a “companion album” to Swimming, completing the concept of Swimming in Circles, an idea that seems to be tied to the way personal development and maturation is rarely linear and can often feel stagnant. Together, the records are his most successful attempt at bringing us into his mind; each is filled with earnest insights on life, growth, and death.
Miller was obsessed with mortality, an eerie throughline of his entire catalog, which makes songs like “Complicated” extremely tough listens. In a 2016 interview with Pigeons & Planes, he revealed that every one of his albums leading up to The Divine Feminine “[ends] in death.” Mac isn’t around to speak on “Once a Day,” the closer to Circles, but there is a finality here that puts the song in conversation with tracks like “The Festival,” “Grand Finale,” and “Youforia.” There’s also a level of acceptance, as Mac acknowledges that the quest to convey his innermost feelings is a necessary one without a storybook ending. “Once a day I try, but I can’t find a single word,” he sings. “Don’t ask me what I think/It never really mattered what I had to say,” he adds later, pointing out, “Don’t keep it all in your head/The only place nobody can ever see.”
Circles and Swimming are linked, not just thematically, but sonically, too. As Miller’s musicianship evolved, live bass lines and shimmering keyboard chords came to replace the mammoth synth beats of “Loud” and “Donald Trump.” His polished verses evolved to be more associative and ambling. Over time, rapping became one of several tools that Miller had to express himself, and one he deployed to great effect on late-career songs like “Jet Fuel” and Circles’ “Woods” and “Blue World.” Though a devoted collaborator, neither Swimming nor Circles have any credited features, and the sound became more organic and stripped-down. But Miller wasn’t working alone, as legendary producer Jon Brion was a close collaborator on Swimming and helped finish Circles following Miller’s death.
"I told Jon Brion to play the ascension into heaven and he nailed it," Mac Miller tweeted about the outro of the final song he would live to see released, Swimming’s “So It Goes.” Like so much about Miller in the wake of his passing, that message has taken on multiple meanings, many of them exceptionally difficult to stomach. The “ascension to heaven” Brion helped Miller create back in 2018 is expanded to album-length with Circles. The LP, Miller’s loosest and most lived-in, sees him posing questions about life from a higher plane. On Circles, Miller isn’t sweating the small stuff, but he is exploring the way our daily setbacks and progress can embody lifelong spiritual struggles.
Miller’s gift was always for zooming all the way out and looking at the cosmic picture.
In an interview with Vulture shortly before his death, Miller talked about watching other celebrities constantly vie for control of their image, something he personally couldn’t get behind. But while he wasn’t bogged down in TMZ headline whack-a-mole, there is a feeling of exhaustion that animates both Swimming and Circles. On “Complicated” he sings wearily, “Some people say they want to live forever/That’s way too long, I’ll just get through today.”
Some of the best songwriters convey emotions through minute details, but Miller’s gift was always for zooming all the way out and looking at the cosmic picture. His album about the power and allure of women was tied to the celestial concept of the “Divine Feminine”; GO:OD AM was “split like a clock” and concerned the nature of time; and Swimming compared the nonlinear process of personal growth to battling against the tide. Circles continues this trend, exploring the cycles that bind us on a daily basis, and how in many cases we either break them or they break us.
On Circles, these large-scale observations are so clearly rooted in Miller’s perspective that the bird’s eye view is still unmistakably his vision. “Oh, I hate the feeling/When you're high but you're underneath the ceiling,” he intones on the airy single, “Good News.” There’s a dark and direct way to tie a line like that to his addiction, but on a deeper level it connects to the constraints that keep us from letting our minds truly run wild. There’s a meta quality to so much of Miller’s music being about the need to express himself, particularly in the face of his inevitable death.
Miller’s work feels like an attempt to convey exactly what he’s thinking and experiencing to his listeners, in all its sprawling, complex, kaleidoscopic glory. That goal is one of the reasons he started singing more in his music. He told Billboard in 2016, “Singing, to me, just feels really vulnerable. I haven’t been as confident in my singing voice in the past, but then I just kind of realized it’s not about whether my voice is the most incredible singing voice. That’s my voice.” We’ve never heard him sing as well or as bravely as he does on Circles, as he reaches into a reedy upper register on “I Can See,” and sings with minimal instrumental backing on “Once a Day.”
Circles includes Miller’s first-ever cover on a studio LP: his take on Arthur Lee’s 1972 track “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” here simply titled, “Everybody.” That the nearly-50-year-old song sounds like it could be a 2018 Mac original speaks volumes about the direction he was heading in as a songwriter, and also the universality of his subject matter. Lines like “Everybody’s gotta live and everybody’s gonna die/Everybody’s gonna try to have a good, good time/I think you know the reason why” weren’t written by Miller, but they were made for him to say.
In the mid-2010s, Miller was still finding his voice, using characters like Delusional Thomas and Larry Lovestein to make more experimental music, be it grim, warped underground rap, or simmering jazz. Eventually, when Miller reached his purest artistic form, he was able to fold those personas in with his more traditional rapping skills and songwriting acumen, taking his many fractured personalities and making them whole. The pitch shifting of Delusional Thomas is heard on “Complicated,” and the bittersweet chord progressions of Larry Lovestein are evident on “Hand Me Downs.” Nearly every iteration of Mac feels present on Circles, and the thoughts and observations he shares feel culled not just from the last few years but a lifetime of reckoning with who he wanted to be (and how to get there).
It’s impossible to know what tweaks Miller would have made to Circles prior to its release, but the album we have feels like it would have been the natural end of a chapter, and a fitting summation of the first decade in a wildly inventive career. After making hundreds of songs battling his own thoughts and demons, it felt like Miller (with a little help from Jon Brion) had finally ascended. It’s tragic we won’t see how much higher he could go.