How Mac Miller Went From Frat-Rap Bro To Critical Darling

On the five year anniversary of Mac Miller's much-maligned debut album, a look at how the rapper grew up—eventually.

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Complex Original

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“You're probably a cool guy. I don't feel violent in any way, but I really hate you. I hate your music, man. It’s just bad."

That’s how Danny Brown addressed Mac Miller in a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone, shortly after Mac dropped his debut album, Blue Slide Park. Brown wasn’t alone in feeling this way. The album—which turns five today—remains Mac’s most commercially successful project, but the critical savaging it received upon release is hard to forget. Most notable was Pitchfork’s infamous review, which gave Blue Slide Park a one out of ten and eviscerated Mac as the talentless face of the much-maligned “frat rap” subgenre.

Fast forward five years. Mac just released The Divine Feminine, the best album of his career. He enjoys near-universal respect from his rap peers, and he’s gone public with his new A-List girlfriend Ariana Grande. In short: he’s in a great place. So how exactly did the guy who was once denounced as everything wrong with hip-hop turn into a critical darling?

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Mac’s career transformation began shortly after Blue Slide Park dropped, and had a lot to do with the album’s poor critical reception. “A lot of the reviews were more on me as a person,” he told Complex in 2013. “To be honest, that was even worse. You’re 19, you’re so excited to put out your first album, you put it out—and no one has any respect for you or for what you did.” Whether the reviews were fair or not was beside the point; they got into Mac’s head.

The anger drove him to a serious lean addiction, and caused him to completely turn his back on Blue Slide Park for a time. “I went through a period of not performing anything off of Blue Slide Park, like ‘Knock Knock’ or none of that shit,” he said to Complex. Instead, his drug use and increasing seclusion from the outside world led to the project that would change the trajectory of his career.

you’re so excited to put out your first album, you put it out—and no one has any respect for you or for what you did.

His sophomore album, Watching Movies With the Sound Off, was the first indication that Mac was intent on redefining his artistic identity. Mac moved out to Los Angeles in 2012 and holed up in a home studio that ended up attracting a number of rappers. “I just moved out to LA to make music, because I had money and I wanted to try and have some adventure, and I ended up hanging around all these people and we ended up making music together,” he told The Come-Up Show in 2013.

Blue Slide Park was featureless; critics quipped that this was because no rappers wanted to work with him. By contrast, Mac’s relentless studio work led to Watching Movies With the Sound Off featuring a long list of critically-acclaimed artists, including Action Bronson, Tyler, the Creator, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt, all lending Mac some much-needed credibility.

Wielding psychedelic influences and dealing with more serious subject matter led to a critical turnaround for Mac Miller on Watching Movies With the Sound Off. Nobody was more surprised about this than him. “I expected everyone to talk shit… I think [the public] has trouble taking me seriously, which I mean, it’s my fault,” he said in a 2013 Huffington Post interview. “But it’s cool because I really just kind of appreciated how everyone was able to listen with an open mind.”

Although Watching Movies With the Sound Off was a positive first step, it was his Faces era that convinced a lot of people to take Mac Miller seriously. He pumped out side projects under alter-egos Larry Fisherman and Delusional Thomas, and cemented his new image as a spaced-out, psychedelic-fueled, and multi-talented weirdo. It was an image that people were ready to take seriously.
The about-face for Mac’s public perception came with a dark side. The Faces mixtape emerged from Mac’s battle with depression and drug use. “Faces was, in short, super depressing,” he said in a 2015 interview with Billboard. “I was super-insular all the time, just staying in a room by myself, and it’s so easy to paint this horrible picture of life when you’re not giving yourself a chance to live it.” It seemed the insecurities first fueled by Blue Slide Park hatred had caught up with him. “I was too worried about the legacy that I would leave behind,” he said.

Mac needed another turning point. He had gone from bright-eyed party rapper to drugged-out critical success, but he still wasn’t happy. If WMWTSO was Mac yearning for acceptance, his third album GO:OD A.M. was the start of him eschewing what was expected of him. It started with him sobering up. “It just eats at your mind, doing drugs every single day, every second. It’s rough on your body,” he said to Billboard.

Mac left Los Angeles for Brooklyn, where he moved in with his then-girlfriend and started focusing more on what made him happy again. “There are times in life where it makes more sense to just enjoy yourself and not think too deeply,” he told GQ in 2015. “You can't expect to appreciate moments of deep thought without appreciating moments of carefree enjoyment and confidence.” GO:OD A.M. would go on to be another success for Mac, and one that was predicated on more positive vibes.

Which brings us to his latest, love-fueled album The Divine Feminine. Easily the most cohesive, original body of work he’s ever released, the album feels so far from the Mac of five years ago it might as well be another artist. Could anyone honestly imagine the Blue Slide Park-era Mac Miller making a dynamite collaborative track with Kendrick Lamar?

In some ways, though, The Divine Feminine is more connected to Blue Slide Park than anything he recorded between the two.

“My ideology was, if I just make very happy music then people will forget about whatever their problems are. I will forget about my problems,” he told The Huffington Post about Blue Slide Park. It didn’t quite work out like he’d hoped—and Mac had to take a long, demon-confronting personal journey in the interim—but it finally feels like he’s figured out a successful formula for doing exactly that. Five years after Blue Slide Park, Mac Miller is sobered up, wifed up, and making the best, most positive music of his career. Now that’s Most Dope.

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