Malcolm McCormick, A.K.A. Mac Miller: The Evolution of an Artist and a Journey Down the Rabbit Hole

He pulled out an acoustic guitar and began playing songs that everyone in the crowd knew – very famous songs, but they weren’t his, of course. Waterstreet Music Hall in downtown Rochester, NY was jam-packed with stoned white kids from the surrounding suburbs ready to see Mac Miller, the stereotypical, yet inaptly called “frat-pack” rapper, perform his newest album, Blue Slide Park. Without much of an ear for instrumental talent, I couldn’t tell if he was any good at guitar, but the fact that he was playing it seemed off par with how I had expected the evening to go – I mean, he’s a rapper, what’s he doing with a guitar? Seven years later and I now love and appreciate that I witnessed him pulling out his strings and belting out songs like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Two years ago on this very same day – the day of the dead and the disguised – I watched Mac Miller perform in the most perfect venue that nature has gifted us: Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado. It was a strange night for me on a personal level and that concert solidified to me that Mac Miller (real name Malcolm McCormick) is a consummate creator and a major influencer in my life. To watch an artist who had tweaked and worked tirelessly at his craft go from performing at a location that holds no more than 1,000 patrons to a world-renowned music venue that holds ten times that amount is a truly magical experience. From that day in Rochester to the chilly evening on the front slopes of the Rocky Mountains, nothing had changed in the energy levels of McCormick’s performance; he was an artist and a professional through and through.

Today I watch nearly twenty artists in an unmatched concert in a celebratory dedication to that same Mac Miller that has captured my attention for the past seven-plus years. The music world can be a difficult place for some to find meaningful connections. I mean these are rich rockstars for fucksake, what do we have in common with any of them? Well, not much. But once in a fateful and goosebump-inducing indigo moon do we stumble upon a creative person – an artist who works a way into our soul in a funny sort of way. A sort of way that doesn’t quite feel right because it’s about a person who I will never meet or get to know, but through his music it’s almost as if I can see through into his soul. With his creations, his music, he has provided us a glimpse into a beautiful and troubled human being.

I just witnessed one of the greatest musical artists of my time, John Mayer, cover a recent Mac Miller song called “Small Worlds.” Before beginning the performance, Mayer recalls a story in which Miller discussed how nervous he was before performing the same song at LA hot spot Hotel Cafe. Mayer then goes on to say how nervous he is now before dedicating his rendition to the late Miller. Mayer’s performance ends with a touchingly introspective verse from Miller in which he asks, “Do you want it all if it’s all mediocre?” In the background, Mayer shreds on his guitar before belting into a rendition of his own song, “Gravity.”
John Mayer was at least the fifteenth performer and he certainly was not the last, which just goes to show the impact that Miller has left on the music world. All the while that the likes of Anderson .Paak, Chance the Rapper, Schoolboy Q, Thundercat, and Miguel serenaded the stage, a foundation in Miller’s name was receiving over $20,000 in donations. The Mac Miller Circles Fund at the Pittsburgh Foundation of Miller’s hometown is dedicated to supporting youth arts and community-building programs in Mac Miller’s memory.

Of course, the reason for this collaborative concert at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles brings to mind harrowing elephant in the concert hall. McCormick battled his demons constantly over his spaced up, or trapped-out, or jazzy beats throughout the course of his career. Drug addiction was the consistent devil on his shoulder and, ultimately, led to his demise; a situation that was discussed a number of times on most of his albums and mixtapes. Over his 10 years in the limelight he went from the top charts of the US Independent Music scene to a near top of the charts artist at major label Warner Brothers; but his drug usage became an increasingly more persistent subject as his albums evolved.

At just fifteen years old, Malcolm Mccormick gave himself a moniker that was ultimately scrapped due to its super-duper cheesiness: EZ Mac. Under this name his first tape was released: But My Mackin’ Ain’t Easy. After switching up his stage name to Mac Miller, the one he would stick with, the next two mixtapes came out in 2009, first Jukebox: Prelude to Class Clown and then The High Life.

In 2010, Miller rose to the underground, YouTube-driven hip-hop scene with his widely acclaimed and fame-inducing classic, K.I.D.S. (Kicking Incredibly Dope Shit). This free album featured Miller’s own version of an old school hip-hop Lord Finesse song, titled “Hip 2 Da Game.” The K.I.D.S. rapper entitled his own version “Kool Aid and Frozen Pizza,” set to the sample of Lord Finesse’s hit. At the time of Miller’s first big successful release, this track would go a long way in proving to hip hop heads, or connoisseurs of the art form, that Mac Miller knew his history and respected the origins of the music scene he was entering. Just a couple of years and a settled lawsuit later, it turned out that Lord Finesse did not feel the same way about Miller’s use of his beat as many other hip hop fans and critics.

The year after the release of K.I.D.S., Miller had created yet another successful project in the form of Blue Slide Park, his first studio album, which was released independently through Pittsburgh based label, Rostrum Records. Nostalgically named after a childhood playground in his Pennsylvania hometown, the album would go on to be certified Gold by the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) after becoming the first independent album to debut at #1 on the US Billboard 200 chart. The album explored some introspective themes, such as love and sexuality, as well as the life changes brought on by his newfound fame. In the limelight however, were the tape’s party and ‘hip-pop’ hits like “Donald Trump.”

The beautiful thing about Mac Miller as an artist and a consummate professional was his work ethic, which included an unwavering thirst for improving and experimenting with his sound. From The High Life to K.I.D.S to his next few mixtape which included I Love Life, Thank You and the psychedelic, Beatles-inspired, and inward-searching beats and lyrics of Macadelic. Prior to the release of Macadelic, much of Miller’s music had either an old school hip-hop vibe or painted scenes of high school parties and bongs being cleared in somebody’s parents’ bedroom. To those who listened closer to Miller’s music and found hidden tracks and unreleased music of his, it was clear that his introspective lyrics went back to the early days of his musical creation, but, Macadelic was the first time he had put his inner struggles into a full-length project.

From there came the signing with Warner Brothers – a deal worth $10 million that also included backing for his new label, REMember Records, featuring the initials of a departed childhood friend of Miller’s. Around this time, a Los Angeles mansion and a customized record studio inside of that mansion’s pool house became Miller’s new music paradise for the next couple of years. As he tore through California’s music scene set on creating music every day and working with a wide array of talented artists, he continued to gain respect as an artist, and notoriety as a partier.

And yet, the music never stopped. Although the music world may never know just how many creations were founded in the pool house studio where he often collaborated with the likes of L.A. based crews, Odd Future and Top Dawg Entertainment, in addition to a large repertoire of talented musicians. Over these years, Miller developed a dependence on codeine-based lean, but, also continued to pump out music, spending days and weeks at a time tweaking pitches and instrumentals and lyrics, until his final product sounded just right.

After signing his deal with a major label, Miller would go on to drop three studio albums before his untimely death in 2018. Before any of those came out, the eleventh and final free mixtape that would be released by the artist was shown to the world in 2014. Faces was one of the lengthiest projects that Mac Miller would release and was noted for being one of his best pieces of work, as the free album delved deeply into his issues with drug abuse.

In 2016, a new jazz-influenced sound was experimented with on The Divine Feminine, an album that was created and released in the midst of his relationship with pop-star Arianna Grande. Shortly after their breakup, it became evident that Miller was having tough times adjusting to his new life sans Grande. In May 2018, he crashed his Mercedes Benz G-Wagon into a pole, fled the scene, and was later arrested for DUI.

What would turn out to be his final album, Swimming, appeared to showcase that although he had come close to drowning in the past, his body now floated, and he was able to swim. Throughout the 13-song album, he speaks about taking care of oneself and made it seem through his lyrics that he was here for good. Not only was he here, but his music continued to evolve and improve, as he experimented with new sounds and different artists. Unfortunately, it turned out that Miller may not have been doing as well as his fans had hoped. On September 7th, 2018, he was found unresponsive in his home in Studio City, LA, where he was pronounced dead at the scene. Toxicology reports would later reveal that a lethal dose of cocaine, fentanyl, and alcohol were present in his blood stream. The deadly fentanyl had taken yet another life too soon. Miller’s newest album has been nominated for The Grammy Award for Best Rap Album. Upon the news of his death, the darker undertones of Swimming’s lyrics become much more harrowing and evident as he sings in the very first song, entitled Come Back to Earth, “I just need a way out, of my head. I’d do anything for a way out, of my head.”

There are countless songs in Mac Miller’s repertoire that touch on the possibility of an early death in his future. He constantly pondered the idea of going to sleep and not waking up again. He recounted the fear in his father’s voice on the phone that it could be their last conversation. It is clear that he recognized the problem with drugs that he had battled, considering the way in which he talked about it in interviews and his music. At the same time, he cherished his moments on this earth and made the effort to create and do as much as he possibly could while he was standing on it.

The last words here will be from the man this article is all about. At some point in his final weeks, he took out his phone and set it up to capture himself on the piano as he debuted his rendition of a new, unheard song. At the Mac Miller tribute concert, as all of the performers had wrapped up their songs and their words of recognition, the large video screen suddenly changed from black to Mac. His phone camera was on and his tattoo-covered arms began typing away at the black and white keys in front of him. The video is a perfect example of watching a person put his heart and soul into his craft, as you can feel the pain in his voice as he sings “I wonder do they see their own reflection in the mirror, and look away?”

“Once a day I rise.
Once a day I fall asleep with you.
Once a day I try, but I can’t find a single word.”

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