Isolation’s Picket Fence: There’s Something I Have To Say About Mac Miller

I didn’t even know he had a new album out.

Mac Miller’s music came into my life at about the only time it could. His breakthrough mix tape – KIDS – paired well with the typical struggles of a freshmen year at the University of Rhode Island. I was in a jail cell suite with 5 guys and we were all just a bunch of goons to put it plainly. I was trying to transfer and make it out of there alive. Top bunk freshman living at public school can feel like a sentence. The guys next door bumped a lot of rap and at that time Kid Cudi had just risen to the top with Man On The Moon so we were all well into indie rap and the awesome beats and concepts that genre afforded. This was around 2009 and that year Kid Cudi was gracious enough to play a show at U.R.I. I think everyone but me bought tickets because I distinctly remember being abandoned in the dorm. Turns out I was all the wiser for saving the $50 because my suitemate, Kyle, came crashing in before anyone all pissed off. ‘Didn’t the show just start?’ I asked. ‘Dude only played a fucking hour,’ Kyle replied. Everyone filtered in all pissed off that night and I distinctly remember my suitemate yelling at one point, ‘Fuck a Kid Cudi! I fuck with Mac Miller!’

Enter the soundtrack to my Sophomore year of college.

It was party music. Content involved drinking, smoking, women, bravado – the stuff that a young kid in college is enamored with. He was white, which quite honestly was a draw for me as well as other white kids my age, he rapped about being a stoned bum, and he sampled indie music that was already on our playlists. In summation, Mac’s stuff was a safe bet at a party to get everyone loose and having a good time. He ended up playing in Maine towards the end of my first year at Bates. My girlfriend at the time and I didn’t have tickets so we found a section of fence to hop over. She managed it with ease, but I ended up getting stuck at the top, ripping my jeans, and slightly impaling my inner thigh. Watching Mac with a bleeding groin was less than ideal, but also worth it.

But we were already maturing, myself and Mac included. I remember listening to some of his new music before two consecutive semesters off my junior year and making note of the change. His music had become sadder and darker. It’s a progression that we see with most artists. They’ve come back to earth after doing a couple tours only to learn that everything around them has changed. Their old crew is gone, fame has brought phony people into their life, and their day-in-day-out involves the same apartment in a city where they know only a few people. They aren’t privy to fresh, authentic experiences. The content turns to the isolation and commodities. The music suffers and we the listener, move on.

Mac died last Friday, September 7th, 2018.

He was 26 years old.

There was a time when the radio was king and good music was actually played on that medium. Artists seemed less manufactured, rock and roll was still a thing, and you had authentic struggling performers at the top of the charts living fast. Back when some dudes in a garage could make an album and hit it big quick. That rarely exists today.

Mac was one of those exceptions.

One of my favorite songs off KIDS, ‘The Spins,’ isn’t actually allowed on streaming apps because he never acquired the rights to the sample from Empire Of The Sun. He was quite literally just a kid making a mix tape illegally in his parent’s house that ended up booming on the then infant internet. And he leaned into that monster of new technology. His first tour he sold out every show on the tour…as a teenager. So he did what any 19-year-old kid with a shit load of money would do. He bought a big old house in L.A. and lived in it alone.

On May 25th, 2014, I stood in front of my graduating class at Bates and delivered these words,

‘There is no need to navigate the inaugural corridors of American adulthood alone. There is no need to return to an empty apartment every night or to bury ourselves in the obsession of our work. The triumphs we experience, the failures we will meet, these will be sweetened and softened by true friendships.’

I meant those words with every sinew of my being. Post college isolation terrified me. The idea that the ride was over. That socialization was a thing of the past. I loved my friends and I wanted to let them know that I was committed to working on continuing the connections we had forged. Regardless, I knew, as everyone knows, that an abundance of alone time comes standard with adulthood. A good number of people fill that space with a partner, children, pets – growing wary of that sound of the dripping faucet in an apartment for one. There is only so long you can stare up at the ceiling after all. Sure, you can fend that inevitability off for a while. Team up with a couple friends in a city. It will still find you eventually. When it does, it’s going to challenge your mental fortitude. If you are still stuck in your youth with some unwanted baggage then there is a good to fair chance that you will find a substance of choice to hang your hat on. Once that starts it’s easy to lose control and as a bunch of 20-somethings trying to claw our way over the white picket fence that comes with aging it’s no surprise that some don’t make the climb.

When celebrities die I don’t tend to mourn them. I’ve never met them, shared words with them, nor carried a person-to-person connection. I’ve only seen them on a screen or listened to them through some ear buds.

I am mourning Mac Miller.

Of course I heard about his death through Facebook, the best, most preferable, most awesome way to learn that someone isn’t alive anymore. It hit me like a punch in the chest. I did what anyone does when this happens. I started relistening to his music.

So I went to Spotify and what did I see, but a new album released a couple months ago titled Swimming. I hadn’t even known it existed until that moment. He didn’t look himself on the album cover. Just him sitting there barefoot in a pink suit looking down. First, I played all the songs I knew, but then I ventured into his new music. I sat there and listened to every song stunned. That will forever be the first time I shed a tear for someone I never knew. I sat on the edge of my bed and cried.

Musically he had matured eons. Swimming is a masterpiece, sonically, spiritually, lyrically with the kind of honesty and fragility that is rarely seen in a 26-year-old artist. He exposed his demons to the whole world knowing that only a few committed fans from the old days were still slogging through this melancholy musical journey with him. He was a true musician, bold enough to incorporate strings and piano on his tracks, adventurous enough to croon in that raspy, cigged out voice of his, honest enough to make the music that comes from pain, lyrics straight out of the rag and bone shop of the heart. So yes, when Mac opened the album with the refrain,

My regrets look just like texts I shouldn’t send,

And I got neighbors, they’re more like strangers, we could be friends,

I just need a way out of my head,

I’ll do anything for a way out, of my head.

I felt it, just like I felt that same fear at my college graduation. He had found himself faced with that steep climb that comes standard with the brutal transition of lost and fleeting youth. He even penned a track, ‘2009,’ an ode that addresses the realization that his youth wasn’t coming back. That the hole you filled with your crew back in high school and college is now hollow. This wasn’t the same teenage rapper that had originally turned my ear. This was a musician, age 26 going on 35 that had channeled beautiful, painful truths about himself and transformed them into pervasive, all too relatable sentiments.

So I made the climb, barely, and yet Mac could not and did not. He had attempted to reconcile his inevitable future. The sacrifice to solve the equation would have been great, perhaps too great for him to solve. And yet I am forced to come to terms with why he should have had to do it alone in the first place. And I cannot help but witness this untimely passing of a young talent and take it as a strong reinforcement in the power of a genuine hug and a heart-to-heart with the people we love. The best way to free someone from their island is to build a fare-less bridge. Sometimes – hopefully never – you need to dive in the water and pull someone to the surface. Sometimes you need to be prepared to do so as many times as needed until that person learns to swim.

Thank you Mac. If you had more time, you would have made the climb. You would have seen all the people celebrating you. You would have seen all of us in our late 20’s dust off the old albums and listen to your new tracks. You would have seen us fall in love with you all over again.

Rest easy, young warrior.

“You eventually realize you’re the only variable. The only difference is you. That’s why you have to be that honest. You put so much of yourself into what you do. Because in the end you’re the only thing that’s different. You’re the only thing that sets it apart.”

–  Malcolm James McCormick