Mac Miller Is High on Life (and Maybe, Probably, a Girl)

His new album is composed entirely of love songs, a rare thing in rap. Could it be Ariana Grande who’s got him feeling this way?

mac miller hillside
Complex Original


mac miller hillside

Mac Miller is in love. He’s glowing, and it isn't just the August sun beating down on the back patio of a trendy Burbank coffee house. The 24-year-old rapper’s eyes are vaguely obscured under a blue Polo cap, but they still have a sparkle that rivals the diamond studs in his ears. His whole vibe is loose and easy, mimicked by his sagging jeans and Adidas slip-ons. The socks match the tee: plain, white, no fucks. And he's grinning, a lot. Like, a lot a lot. So what, exactly, is the source of all this radiant glee?

"Trees! Plants! Like, the outdoors, man," says Mac. "It's like the planet is a giant playground and I've been too small to ride all the rides until now. Lately, I've been running around like a chicken with his head cut off, just loving being outside in the sunshine. I'm overwhelmed with things to do. People are like, 'What do you have to do today?' I'm like, 'Get outta the house and into the car! It's gonna be a great day!'"

He yells this last part like Chevy Chase in character as Clark Griswold, so it could be the espresso talking. His order, for "Malcolm" (last name McCormick), called for eight shots over ice. Or it may be what the coffee replaced—Mac is 61 days clean and sober (he calls espresso his "new DOC," or drug of choice). Or that he's moving back from New York to Los Angeles, where the Pittsburgh native musically came of age four years ago. Or that his new album, The Divine Feminine, out September 16 via Warner Bros., finds him singing (singing!) songs about love (love!). Or, yes, it may have something to do with his budding relationship with Ariana Grande. It's probably a bit of everything.

"I'm trying to cuddle the world after sex, not keep the Uber running and dip out."

But “the outdoors, man” is at the center of it all. After years of being a notorious studio rat—a workaholic shut-in who walled himself off with drink, weed, coke, lean, and other intoxicants—followed by a spell of Rick Rubin-assisted self-improvement that dominated the press cycle for 2015's GO:OD AM album, Mac is looking outward. The title of his latest LP, he explains, references an energy coursing through the cosmos.

"The Divine Feminine, to me, is the universe. I'd hate to be cliché, like, 'I looove the universe, maaan,'" he says in a hippie drawl. "But it's so real. Treating the world how you're supposed to treat a female is awesome. The more you make love to it and the less you try to fuck it, the better it all becomes for you. It's a deeper experience with life. I'm trying to cuddle the world after sex, not keep the Uber running and dip out."

Plainspoken philosophical bon mots just roll off Mac’s tongue these days. On recent single "We," which plays more like a psychedelic neo-soul jam than anything resembling contemporary rap, he quips, "Change is more than pennies laying on the floor inside the well." It's sorta cheesy and kinda brilliant, like all folksy wisdom worth repeating.

Mac's proclivity for low-pretension high-mindedness isn't surprising considering the company he keeps. He made The Divine Feminine back east, but with a cross-continental cast: anything-goes vocalists like Anderson .Paak, Ty Dolla $ign, and CeeLo Green; jazz heads like pianist Robert Glasper and trumpeter Keyon Harrold ("They put so much sauce on it," Mac says); Stones Throw boogie king Dam-Funk (listen for the keytar on "Soulmate"); Brainfeeder bass god and bona fide "homie" Thundercat ("We've made 2,000 songs together"); and old friend Kendrick Lamar, who popped into the studio after his January appearance on Jimmy Fallon.

"Man, times changed," says Mac. "When Kendrick and I first collaborated [on 2012's Macadelic mixtape] he hit me and said, 'Thanks for the opportunity.' That's when he opened for me on tour. I knew from back then, he's the best...." A puckish smirk creeps across his face as he finishes the thought: "At what he does—he can't do what I do."

mac miller reflecting

As Mac moves to the parking lot for a smoke, the Shangri-Las trill over the café speakers: "They said he came from the wrong side of town/They told me he was bad but I knew he was sad/That's why I fell for the leader of the pack." He sets his coffee on a post and asks, "You know what's crazy?" He lifts his T-shirt to expose a newly shorn chest and, more to the point, a blocky image of an eagle: "The American Spirit logo!" He'll burn through about a pack's worth of the brand's menthol variety during our two hours. This is one of the ways Mac catalogs his life—cigarettes smoked.  

"First it was Parliaments. I stole them from my dad," he says. "Being an 8-year-old trying to get other 8-year-olds to smoke is not tight. Kids weren't allowed to stay at my house because I was obviously trouble. From 13 to 16, it was Newports. Then I had two weeks with Nat Shermans, like, 'Look at me, I'm classy!' Been Spirits since."

Mac grew up in a good neighborhood (Point Breeze in Pittsburgh) with good parents (mom a photographer, dad an architect) and good prospects—he was in a "gifted" program as a kid, taught himself many instruments, killed at basketball and lacrosse, and did his freshman and sophomore years in prep school. But Young Malcolm cared more about girls, pot, pick-up games, and rap battles than academics. So when he washed out of private, he moved to Taylor Allderdice High where, perhaps due to precedent set by alumnus Wiz Khalifa, he got away  with sleeping in class or skipping altogether. By graduation, Mac was voted "Most Likely to Become a Rapper" and "Most Likely to Be Famous," but those were hedged bets—he'd already dropped four mixtapes.

His first song to blow up was 2011's "Donald Trump." He doesn't regret the song even though he won't be supporting the Republican nominee, who once threatened to sue him. "If I hear someone say, 'I'm voting for Trump,' I can't fuck with them," says Mac. "You can't even act like you're playing with the idea. Everything around his campaign is trash. This is life or death."

"Prince gave so much to his music and died relatively alone."

Today, that track seems like it belongs to a different Mac Miller, one whose symbolism comes in two modes: super-broad (another sample title: "Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza") or hyper-local (his No. 1 debut LP, Blue Slide Park, was named after Pittsburgh’s Frick Park, which contains a blue slide). That was before he moved to L.A. the first time, in 2012, and discovered his musical range amid a panoply of drugs and accomplices. It was before Mac's second LP, Watching Movies With the Sound Off (2013), brought critical success to match the commercial wins. And before he took the trip too far, drunk-dialed Rick Rubin, and spent weeks at the guru's Malibu compound, waking up to reality. Hence, the title GO:OD AM.

Brooklyn was to be the beginning of that new day, both for Mac and his six-year on-and-off girlfriend, who moved there with him last August. It worked at first. Mac saw Hamilton ("fucking phenomenal"), bought groceries, and walked to coffee every morning. But while he sweetly details domestic bliss on The Divine Feminine opener "Congratulations"—over sweeping strings, no less—it didn't last.

To illustrate the issue, Mac scratches himself like a crack fiend and growls, "Where's the studio?" He disappeared into music again, sleeping in studios instead of next to the woman he was singing and rapping about, until he began singing and rapping about dating the whole universe in her place. It came to a head on April 21.

"I was working on 'Skin' and it'd been two weeks of writer's block, which has never happened to me," says Mac. "Out of nowhere, I write a verse and a hook, then I walk out and Prince dies. I cried more than I ever have in my whole life." Why'd it hit him so hard? "Prince gave so much to his music and died relatively alone. I'm two weeks into a session with no connection to anyone unless they're in the room. I'm thinking that could be me. I was like, 'Prince is here. He helped me write that first verse.'"

Mac thought about trees and sunshine and people he loves, showered for the first time in some untold number of days, and put on a fresh outfit. Then he went back to the studio and finished the song.

Mac Miller Tree

In case there's any doubt that Mac left behind more than just a choice DUMBO flat when he returned to L.A. in June, or that his latest LP isn't simply a headstone for an old flame, the first words of The Divine Feminine are uttered by Ariana Grande. Since Mac and the high-ponied pop princess were spotted making out at a sushi spot a couple nights before, I've been told he won't speak on their status. But she's on the album, so he can't avoid questions about her entirely. So: How did this, um, collab happen?

"We work really well together," he says with a dopey smile, like he's answering the real query instead of the softball one. "She... I... we had a lot of fun in the studio. And I love... how incredible of a singer she is. Our writing chemistry is amazing. Our song came together so nicely and our voices sound so nice together... it's..." Nice? "Yeah. You'd expect to hear us sing together and go, 'She makes him sound like an idiot.'"

To be fair, Mac only sounds like an idiot—endearingly so—when he's talking about Grande. They're excellent crooning and cooing over the drunken West Coast funk of "My Favorite Part." It's unclear when they began dating, but they've been friends for years, locking lips (innocently) in the video for her first hit, "The Way", in 2013, and banking a bunch of demos around that time "before," as Mac says, "she was, like, the biggest."

A new question: Since music came between you and your ex, do you think it would work better, hypothetically, to be with someone who also makes music for a living?

"I treat work and love separately," Mac says, resolutely, before bending. "But that being part of what you do is amazing. I really enjoy creating music. And I tried being this guy who goes around fucking a bunch of girls, but it's not me. I'm a lover. Sliding into DMs doesn't sound fun to me." I mention that I’m getting married in two months. "You are? Me too." He’s joking. But still.

Mac does tend to get really into things—he eventually reorders his absurd espresso, and explains total sobriety as "a new trip. I feel high all the time, so I'm gonna ride this one for a while." Plus, he likes change: "If I stay in one mindset or place for too long I get crazy." But his lust for challenge currently seems to be sated by singing ("That's my fun," he says), and there's plenty of natural wonder in California to keep him occupied (he saw his first meteor shower this month). He says his favorite thing about life right now is that he can lie down and fall asleep at the end of the day.

"I'm a lover. Sliding into DMs doesn't sound fun to me."

After two LPs and a few mixtapes unpacking his psyche, it seems healthy that Mac's "just having an idea and making an album" for The Divine Feminine. On kinda braggy 2015 single "100 Grandkids" he raps, "When I first made a hundred grand, thought I was a king." Now that he’s far richer and increasingly humble, what does he think he is?

After mulling it over, Mac says, "I'm a farmer. Self-sustaining. Just trying to tend to my plants and make sure they grow. If I can feed myself, I can feed a lot of people, but I need to be growing things from a good soil. It's like, 'Why was I afraid of sun before? The sun is great.' Man, everything I thought I was scared of is bullshit."

As if on cue, a bee breaks away from the small lavender bush Mac’s sitting under to inspect his face. He leaps from the bench: "I swear to God, I do not fuck with bees! I haven't been stung in so long, I don't even know how I would take it. It might be the end of the interview: 'Mac Miller defeated by bee.'"

He takes the interruption as an excuse to move to the parking lot and light up another Spirit, but we're about done, and soon a force more powerful than fear or nicotine will step in. Seconds after the recorder cuts, he's on FaceTime blowing kisses to someone with a perky voice, small face, and serious bangs. Mac's looking at her like she's a tree.

Mac Miller Smile Trees

Latest in Music