Monday, March 20, 2023

How Mac Miller Grew Up—And Grew Into ‘The Divine Feminine’

Mac Miller paused, contemplating the question. He seemed unsure. Not about his answer, but if he should admit it aloud. “What emotion do you want to explore next in your music?” a fan had asked at CRWN, rap journalist Elliott Wilson’s interviewing series with artists like Mac Miller.

The moment occurred within Miller’s press tour for GOOD:AM, his previous record. Conversations and narratives around that album involved the artist’s waking up from the demons and poor lifestyle choices that had become his routine. It eventually led to his drunk-dialing super producer and music guru Rick Rubin one night, and then escaping to Rubin’s Shrang Li studios. The spot has served as refuge for some of your favorite artists—Bob Dylan, Adele, Kanye West, among them—and did so for Miller, as well.

It showed in his work. “Wondering how I got this high, fell asleep, and forgot to die,” he rapped on GOOD:AM’s Miguel-assisted “Weekend.” That record served as equal parts drunken confessional and brash revival for Miller. He seemed to empty part of himself on those tracks, leaving behind the Los Angeles druggy smog and psyche-exploring queries that had recently defined his work and led to his moving into a Williamsburg apartment. Changing his environment, he was. But how would this reflect in the music? Where could he go next?

“Love,” Miller eventually answered at CRWN, his cigarette-stained voice quavering a bit. The crowd slightly pulled back, unsure what this direction meant for Miller, but the more he discussed exploring love in its various forms, the more visibly excited he grew.

A lot has changed for Mac Miller since then. He’s become sober, he moved back to L.A., he’s dating pop star Ariana Grande. But he cites this moment as when he knew he wanted to create the album that would become The Divine Feminine.

The record sounds unlike anything Miller’s ever produced. It fits in with the acid jazz- and funk-infused waves that fellow artists Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar have sampled. Unsurprising then that both make memorable appearances on the record, but within new contexts. For example: With a Kendrick Lamar feature, you expect bars. But Kendrick sings the raspy hook to “God Is Fair, Sexy, Nasty,” a passionate ballad, crooning his plea into a woman’s body, his only salvation.

Miller’s collaborations include an impressive list of performers from outside hip hop’s realm. He’s recruited cats like contemporary funk god Dâm-Funk to play keytar, as well as  jazz studs like pianist Robert Glasper and trumpeter Keyon Harrold. String arrangements from Julliard orchestras and bass lines from “Brainfeeder” alien Thundercat (though Miller calls him a close friend) provide depth and flair. By the time Cee-Lo Green graces “We,” instilling some serious soul vibes, it’s not shocking anymore just who Miller flies into his orbit. It all makes sense.

What surprises, then, is how little of Miller’s previous personas appear on The Divine Feminine. On his Faces mixtape and Watching Movies With The Sound Off album, Miller smashed himself into pieces through his multiple vices and, like a kid picking up a new toy, discovered what was left. He even tried performing as new characters, like on his Delusional Thomas mixtape, which turned darker and stranger, Miller distorting his voice throughout to sound nothing like him. Shedding the mainstream “frat rapper” that defined his earlier career, yes, but also lost, beset by the same identity-fracturing struggles so common of those in their early 20s. His glorified drug usage fell in line with those fellow hedonism chasers, muting qualities of himself he didn’t like, praying a solution would fall from the sky. He rushed inward, ignoring his fears and responsibilities lurking on the outside.

Creating from all that pain and confusion gained him critical adoration and a dope catalogue, sure, but by GOOD:AM he sounded exhausted by himself. Like he was asking, “We’re still talking about this, about me?” He’s admitted as such in recent interviews, and it shows in the new project.

Though much speculation abounds over whether new girlfriend Ariana Grande added extra inspiration for the album—hers is the first voice we hear, asking “Where are you?”—the songs taps into a more universal expression. Personal specifics flitter through, but the record interests itself in the conceptual and the ethereal. This isn’t like Beyoncé’s Lemonade or Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, where we know the “you” character on trial. It’s simultaneously everyone and none of the females on the planet.

Which is probably great, considering how downright dirty and explicit this album is. If there’s supposed to be a limitation on the amount of times a man can reference a woman’s sexual organs, Miller blows right past it. And it’s not metaphorical: he doesn’t mince his words. This is grown folk’s music. No kids or childish concerns are allowed.

The record doesn’t dwell on one idea for long, either. Though Miller delivers blue-eyed lines like “I felt the highs and they felt like you” on opener “Congratulations” and “You in my dreams, that’s why I sleep all the time” on Ty Dolla $ign-assisted standout “Cinderella,” he moves on quickly, not obsessing over the thoughts. He’s more interested in his ideas and settling into the feel-good vibes the production provides. Whereas on tracks like “Dang!” he might’ve rapped his face off previously, he settles into the groove, letting the flow happen, not forcing anything.

To a large degree the album sounds like acceptance. Mac Miller sounds pretty happy, actually. His concept of love offers a wide embrace, ranging from the eternal to the bedroom. He doesn’t have all the answers. But that’s okay. He has love. Even, finally, for himself.



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