by Patrick Preziosi
When it comes to reevaluating posthumous releases from recently passed rappers these past few years, it’s been best to cede a little more slack than usual to the overall integrity of such projects, given the ever-growing porousness of release guidelines. SoundCloud snippets, unceremonious album drops, rumored wealths of unreleased material, all have effectively dispelled the formal strictures of the music industry at large. Thusly, such informality dictates the occasional patchwork qualities of the posthumous release, a strange development considering the borderline-bastardization of an artist’s work; however, such bastardization has been the hallmark of contemporary rap for this particular run, flying in the face of anything that could even be considered oldhead mentality.
Mac Miller, who died in September of 2018, is the latest artist to have his vaults mined for his “newest” release Circles, although this project’s coming together differs greatly from the likes of recent Lil Peep compilations, or XXXTentacion’s Bad Vibes Forever. As Miller began hewing more towards actual instrumental arrangements, as opposed to just overlaying vocal takes and beats, there’s a lived in quality to Circles that can momentarily evaporate the occasional clunkiness of the bars; for Peep, as cohesive as Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2 is, the stitching of the lyrical content unto Smokeasac’s tasteful production is still visible. Circles is a spiritual successor to Swimming, the last album Miller released before he died, and its slightness is outweighed by the logical progression it hints at within a considerably large discography for someone who was only 26.
The presence of superproducer Jon Brion adds a new wrinkle to the proceedings as well, who’s as far removed from an emo-rap beatsmith as can be. Although his risible origins as a Pittsburgh/internet frat-rap progenitor still hold a relative blight on his early work (Blue Slide Park especially), it’s fair to assume that Miller’s ever-growing patience in accordance with an actual sense of craft could’ve easily brought him into conversation as an Elliott Smith (of whom Brion produced XO for) or Fiona Apple (whose work with Brion was once given an overhaul by Dr. Dre collaborator, Mike Elizondo) for the boundaryless streaming age. That the songs were being workshopped between the two musicians before Miller’s untimely passing allows the project to go down somewhat easier, all the more digestible for Brion’s signature pop-minded rigor.
The songs still operate within Swimming’s politely dejected orbit: marble-mouthed cadences, piano chords and subtle basslines in conversation with one another, a cloudy minded Miller trying to take stock of both the day’s anxieties and its silver linings. With Brion behind the boards however, Miller seems to have truly been pushing in a direction that would only present straight bars fitfully, otherwise concerned with a funky acoustic template that feels at least partially inspired by his friendships with The Internet and Dev Hynes.
Given the relative unobtrusiveness of the compositions, Circles, for better or for worse, perpetuates that inherent fascination of combing the lyricsheet for hints of the artist’s mindstate, which is handily provided in the leadoff title track; “This is what it looks like right before you fall.” As the swirling confluence of understated synths and softly strummed acoustic guitar continues, Miller offers even more in this vein: “Who am I to blame though? And I cannot be changed, I cannot be changed, no.” Miller straddles cutting straightforwardness and redundancy throughout Circles, and certain tracks can unfortunately play like retreads of what came directly before, such as the second song, “Complications”, which aside from its pitch shifting ad-libs, doesn’t do much to differentiate itself from the opener.
It’s the subtle updates to the sound Miller was chasing with Swimming that fare the best, firmly grafted atop the simple backbone that Brion and Miller consistently provide. On one of the most straightforward rap tracks, “Blue World”, Guy Lawrence (of Disclosure fame) flips a stuttering vocal sample that wouldn’t sound out of place on Jamie XX’s In Colour. And on the disarmingly folksy “Hand Me Downs”, Rex Orange County knockoff Baro Sura provides a chorus that nevertheless maintains the song’s sobering melancholy. With rap fading evermore into the background of the record, Miller seems content to decenter himself, his voice mutating into another texture, such as the endearingly pained falsetto on “I Can See” or the chantlike verses of “Surf” which are later overtaken by squalling guitar à la Kanye’s “Devil In a New Dress”.
Given the mannered, nearly blemish-free backing, the present hiccups can be attributed to Miller himself, no matter how unfair a criticism that may be. There’s some too-winsome knuckle-headedness on “Hands” that distracts from the record’s greater concerns, and Miller usually wanders into each song with the same, attemptedly conversational asides (i.e., a startling amount of “yeah” and “okay”). This then positions Circles at an interesting crossroads, as Swimming acted as something of a formal send-off (in hindsight) in the vein of David Bowie’s Blackstar or Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker. Circles has the cohesion of these statement albums, but the glaring faults hang around, not minute enough to ignore, but still wispy enough to not have anyone or anything to assign blame.
There is something hopeful to be found in that, however. The sliding scale of quality amongst posthumous releases still at least guarantees a unique individuality, one that can cut through either belabored patching-together, or an inexplicable consistency. Circles thankfully falls on the side of the latter, but given Miller’s own hardheaded artistic maturation, it’s hard to not wish for a little more seams to show.