This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Genre: Alternative R&B, Pop Rap
Favorite Tracks: “Hurt Feelings,” “Self Care,” “Wings,” “Ladders,” “Small Worlds,” “Conversation, Pt. 1,” “Dunno,” “2009”
The album cover of SWIMMING features a slumped, bedizened Mac Miller inside a jet (presumably his own), barefoot, weary, and alone. Mac has been here before. He seems all partied out, the buzz has faded, and the hangover has begun. Real-life context only adds to the misery: his ex is marriage-bound, tagging him “toxic,” he crashed his car and then got arrested for a DUI and a Hit-And-Run. There was no doubt in my mind that SWIMMING would be the uglier cousin of WATCHING MOVIES WITH THE SOUND OFF. But upon hearing him rap, it’s nothing of the sort: he’s got a hold on his demons.
There’s a sense that five years ago, heartbreak alongside a mentally and physically exhausting tour life would’ve truly put him over the edge. Coming now, though, when the rapper is at his most level-headed, that heartbreak is a rebirth. You can hear it in the deliquescent funk of “Ladders” or “What’s the Use?,” risky moves that actually succeed due to the sheer contagion of him so desperately trying to feel himself. On opener “Come Back to Earth,” while in full acknowledgement of the dissociative woes that plague him, Miller has no intentions of drowning. As a mature, young man, he’s toughing “through stressful waters, to relief.” It’s a pleasure to see him take on life’s curveballs with such resounding poise and tenacity, something that is a bit of a feat for a 26-year-old. “Hurt Feelings” is essentially his take on the “shit happens” maxim, understanding that he’s got too much good in his life to let the minor mishaps be his ruin: “I’m too grounded . . . / I be goin’ through it, you just go around it.”
The album represents a coming into his own, not just personally, but professionally too. His discography has become a track of literal growth, seeing him sprout from Pittsburgh upstart to musical maven. Under his Larry Fisherman moniker, he shows off his skills behind the boards on gauzy, THC-dusted highlights like “Dunno” and “Jet Fuel.” And his singing has only improved, his relaxed cadence becoming just as enjoyable as his relaxed emceeing. He handles the soulful ‘70s-era groove of “What’s the Use?” with worry-free charm; “Self-Care,” woozy and diaphanous, finds him giving one of his most varied performances, going from sing-rapping to straight-up slow-jam warbling by the outro. Sometimes Miller’s equable nature can bleed too much into his raps, where some rhymes feel inconsequential and overly conversational, like just props to get from one idea to the next. Stylistically, though, the album benefits from it. One of SWIMMING’s greatest strengths is how even-sounding it is, without ever sacrificing experimentation; like its title during nighttime, all the songs flow quite smoothly into the other with grace and ease.
He also leaves room for stoner rap ballads like “Small Worlds” and “Wings,” two songs that clinch his pro status in the genre. He’s kind of perfected the sound—the former playing like a wake-n-bake in the park, the latter a bedside, post-rager blunt to the face. And of course what would it be without all the existential contemplation that follows: “The sun is shining, I can look at the horizon / the walls keep getting wider, I just hope I never find ‘em.” Recurring throughout is the classic trope of being so high, or so rich, or both, that you’ve graduated to some celestial realm. Titles like that of the opener, or “Wings” and “Jet Fuel,” more than allude to that, and while it’s a far from original idea, especially for him, Miller subverts it by championing a high-off-life attitude. “My head up in the clouds / But my feet on the pavement,” he raps on “Conversation, Pt. 1,” suggesting that stable bearings, not weed smoke, is the key to his happiness.
For an album released in the wake of one of the music world’s biggest splits, the drama is only tangentially addressed until we reach “Dunno.” And even here I dunno (sorry) if it’s fair to classify this one as a traditional breakup song. It is about the aftermath of a relationship and it is about looking back on all the good times, but it’s so subtle and so genuine it’d be unfair to lump it into that canon of cliches. From the heartfelt memories, “You was coughin’ when you hit my weed… so cute you wanna be like me,” to the recognition of faults, “But I’m taking too long / I’m always taking too long,” to the denial of it all being wrested from you, “Touch you one more time so I know you’re real,” to the desire of keeping the bridge from being burned, “Wouldn’t you rather get along?,” “Dunno” is so much more than the average fallout ballad. It could’ve easily slipped into schmaltz territory, but Miller delivers with such sincerity you just want to hug the guy.
Following this highlight is the album’s back-half dud, “Jet Fuel,” which is filled with obligatory flexing that gets in the way of what are some of the best songs of Miller’s career. Luckily, by the time the strings open “2009,” any worries of a botched conclusion are washed away. Mac is far from old, but here he sounds like a wizened vet as he reminisces on the fleeting nature of life and thereby the fleeting time to be happy: “Now I stay inside the lines / ‘Cause it ain’t 2009 no more / Yeah I know what’s behind the door.” Over the warm, Nujabes-lo-fi-relax-and-chill-style-beat Miller makes nihilism sound cozy. “So it Goes” isn’t exactly the ceremonious ending that “2009” feels like, but that’s ok, because he’s clearly having a swell time on it, softly declaring his rejuvenation, “Did I mention I’m fine?” The track builds into a lovely, serene soaking of synths and it’s what “everything is fine” sounds like. SWIMMING is not an album dedicated to lost love, but the life that comes after. And if this guy can see that it’s not all darkness from there on, then anyone can.