With ‘Circles,’ Mac Miller was finding a way to sing about depression

Mac Miller

Mac Miller Associated Press

Mac Miller was depressed.

The rapper, songwriter, and producer was also addicted to downers, including prescription opiates. He died from this addiction in September 2018, leaving a wealth of material behind, some of which has been assembled postmortem into the album Circles by producer, multi-instrumentalist, and film composer Jon Brion.

Since its release last month, Circleshas been universally lauded, and the album truly is fantastic. It stretches Miller’s voice, deepens his presence as a writer, and expands his musical vocabulary. I do wonder about the narrative around Miller’s death, and how Circles’ reception has been altered, exaggerated, or romanticized by its status as epitaph to a young and talented performer—one who died the same way as many of his peers in recent years, from a taste for downers or opiates. But fortunately, the music itself gives us a way to hear beyond such simplistic possibilities.

Circlesis an addict making work about his addiction, an album partly about not being able to stay clean. It’s also explicitly an album about being depressed. Some people mistakenly view depression as just unending sadness. But though sadness is part of depression, and Circles is not a happyalbum, both are more than that. If this is an album about mental illness, or drug use, or some combination of both, it is one that primarily reflects not sadness, but anhedonia—an inability to feel.

In many places on the album, complex music contrasts with a vocal flatness, creating the feeling of a will at first imposed and then subverted. Listen to the mellotron resembling percussion and the near-country-style drawl of the opening title track, or the quadrupled clapping that provides the rhythmic backbone of “Blue World.” Or focus on the abstract guitars and synths of “I Can See,” a song on which Miller asks to be rescued, talks about being alone, and fails at any human connection, his voice a disorderly slur.

Similarly on “Surf,” Miller sings about how people view him as crazy; begging for a reconnection to a lover, he argues not about his sanity, but about the failure of the world. There is an exhausted quality to these vocals, and sometimes an odd nonsense verse (on “Surf,” a recitation of the children’s song “heads and shoulders, knees and toes”) also suggests an exhaustion of meaning. Whether it’s Brion’s production hand, the cumulative effects of the opiates and benzos, or Miller’s own artistic choice, Circleslacks the skeletal, anxious quality of Miller previous work—it seems flattened into a severe, isolating blankness.

There’s a circular pattern going on here: Miller makes an album that is mostly anhedonic, the drugs that he chooses are drugs that flatten affect and anxiety, and the music and drugs mutually reinforce each other, generating feelings about non-feeling. On the final, almost lullaby-soft track, “Once a Day,” Miller sings the line, “Once a day, I try, but I can't find a single word.” Think about how much absence and failure are contained there, coming from a performer who was known for his adroit storytelling and brilliant use of words.

Yet this album full of absences, an album so explicit about not feeling, seems incredibly heartfelt. Anhedonia does not mean a commitment to nothingness, to nihilism. Miller sounds as though he desires something better, to feel something once again, to be sober. Talking about the album as confessional. or thinking about Miller as a tragic figure—with tragedy’s inevitably—tends to romanticize both the album and his mental illness.

In the wake of Miller’s death, critics have treated this flawed, difficult work as a perfect one, and by extension a work compiled by a producer the final statement of artist. This is an excellent album, and one of Miller’s best. But it’s a continuation, a set of arguments, of autobiographical snippets, drug talk, and self-loathing. that is part of a whole body of work. And it’s also a part of a group of works by other hip-hop performers who struggle explicitly with mental illness, who have the same tastes in drugs and aesthetics as Miller did, some of whom have died in similar ways. 

Listening to a decade’s worth of these artists— Lil Xan, Lil Peep, bblackbear, Lil Pump, Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, XXXTentacion, Yung Lean, or JuiceWRLD—they form a genre, in which the dominant mood is one of flattening and hardening, against the backdrop of a loose, lethargic psychic swamp. Lean, opiates, benzos, all of these kinds of central nervous depressants, match the social and economic systems that are failing, and mark a kind of obsessive need to obliterate the self. These artists occupy a world of vast debt, climate emergency, and limited access to medical or psychiatric help—but easy access to pharmaceuticals. None were as good as Miller at his best. Some sold better; some died sooner. But all share these deep similarities.

Think of Lil Peep, the young, talented Long Island musician who died of a benzo overdose last year at 21 or JuiceWRLD, an artist who was at the top of his commercial game, filling stadiums, beloved by kids and baffling adults. His overdose on a private tarmac in a Chicago airport was the result of combining pills and booze, after years of trying to get off both. He appears posthumously on a mix called Benzos and Heartaches.

And that’s the circle suggested by Miller. Benzos and heartaches. the cycle between sobriety and using, between being in love and not thinking you’re worthy of love—or even between feeling sad and not feeling at all.