Mac Miller’s “Circles,” reviewed: A circle worth retracing

Rating: 8.5/10

Zach Christian

On the afternoon of Sept. 7, 2018, I was sitting in the living room of my former frat house, about to receive the most surprising and heart-rending news I’ve ever received. Mac Miller had died from a drug overdose at the age of 26. It was completely out of left field. Miller had released his album “Swimming,” one of my favorites of his, just a month before. I remember blasting his music all through the night. Many of my Red Square neighbors did the same. On that day it felt like campus sung in the voice of Mac Miller.

A couple of weeks ago I was blindsided by another unexpected announcement: the release of a posthumous album by Miller, entitled “Circles.” According to the announcement, Miller had been working on the album at the time of his death and it was meant to be a companion piece to “Swimming.” The concept was Swimming in Circles.

The news was bittersweet. I would get a new Mac Miller album. But that album wouldn’t be the album he wanted to release. No matter how much care the collaborators put into the project, there was no denying the fact that Mac’s absence would be felt. Maybe that’s why it’s so surprising just how complete “Circles” feels. This is no semi-circle. In many ways, it might be Miller’s most complete project. Although maybe that’s me projecting an air of finality, that is unfortunately the reality of the situation.

Although Mac Miller is a rap artist, “Circles” is not a rap album. If I had to hazard a guess, I would estimate that possibly 85 to 90 percent of the album features Miller singing rather than rapping. And he’s not the most talented singer. But that doesn’t make his singing any less beautiful. Miller’s vocals are haunting in more ways than one. At times it sounds effortless. At times it sounds tired. At times it sounds sad. And this is not helped at all by the lyrics. So many lyrics about death, one wonders if Miller had an almost psychic level of foresight. Or maybe that was just what was on his mind, and his fears came true.

The album is also a departure from Miller’s foray into jazz, funk and soul, as evident with his “Swimming” and “The Divine Feminine” albums. It’s a more quiet, somber album, which is appropriate, given the context. Miller sings about depression, a shared theme with “Swimming,” but his tone here is more heartbreakingly optimistic.

On “Complicated,” he sings “Some people say they want to live forever/ That’s way too long, I’ll just get through today.” The debut single “Good News” is just as optimistic as the title suggests.  He sings, “Then I finally discovered/ That it ain’t that bad/ Ain’t so bad.” At times on “Swimming,” it felt like Miller was drowning. He finally found his footing on “Circles.”

Standout songs on the album include the song “Blue World,” which starts out with a gorgeous snipper of the song “It’s A Blue World” by The Four Freshmen before developing into a looped sample of breaths, cut and looped. My description truly does not give the song justice.

Then there’s “Hand Me Downs,” the only track to have a verified feature artist in the form of Baro Sura. And what a great feature it is. The first time I heard the song I had to pause it and search for more of Sura’s music, a telltale sign of a great feature.

I don’t want to fall into the trope of overly praising an artist who has unfortunately passed. But the truth of the matter is that most of “Circles’” impact is precisely due to Mac’s untimely death. Here is an album full of optimism, full of recovery—recovery that was unfortunately cut short. “Circles” is a hauntingly beautiful album. It may not be Miller’s best or most complete album, but it might be his most beautiful. All in all, it’s a fitting send-off to an artist taken too soon.

Rating: 8.5/10