“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” — Mac Miller, “Come Back to Earth”
Mac Miller spent a majority of his career looking for an escape. His 2012 mixtape Macadelic was out-of-body and manic, but it was only on 2013’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off that we first heard him declare a desperate need for multiple forms. The record opens with a monologue from alter ego Delusional Thomas, and is immediately followed by a confession from Mac Miller himself: “But me, I’m still trapped inside my head / It kinda feel like it’s a purgatory / So polite and white, but I got family who would murder for me.”
These anxieties are not new for Mac’s music, but they carry a new weight when presented side-by-side with the opening lines of his 2018 album, Swimming. The sentiments here are identical, and in light of Miller’s tragic passing and Swimming being billed as his album of overcoming, unraveling these threads is all the more heavy and harrowing. But grief aside, looking at the way Mac Miller approached his music, we find that he was not helpless.
Mac Miller desperately needed escapes — plural — and he crafted them for himself by way of alter egos and jazz compositions. He was blessed with an insatiable artistic energy that overflowed from the ethos of Mac Miller into the bent world of Delusional Thomas, the cluttered and ambling production of Larry Fisherman, and the coy, romantic stylings of Larry Lovestein. In the end, Mac Miller shape-shifted to escape himself and then eventually to find himself, with Swimming set to go down as the ultimate culmination of all the artist journeys he walked. Across his career, Mac was constantly presented as a man evolving, and in the wake of his passing, people are finally beginning to ask: Who else was Mac Miller?
The anxious mind is equal parts convincing and nightmarish, producing vivid and physically stunting thoughts that suck the oxygen out of a room. The anxious mind operates on a haphazard and wholly inconsiderate timetable and moves with the precision of a killer. To be a killer, you must train like one, and following the release of Watching Movies, Mac Miller went into his own mental dungeon to record under the pitched-up and horrorcore-influenced Delusional Thomas moniker.
Thomas’ scant appearances on Watching Movies served as a small precursor of the terror to come. To escape his own despair, Mac Miller adopted the alter ego known as Delusional Thomas. “I just feel like everyone has that shit in them,” he told Noisey in 2013. The tape is riddled with grotesque imagery and mentions of torture and murder. As Thomas, Miller buries himself in the underbelly of his personal underworld, and for the time being, it saved him: “It’s actually been therapeutic. It felt so good to go in and just fuckin’ talk about the sadistic urges that everybody else has but doesn’t want to say.”
Delusional Thomas, as an identity and the project itself, was about voice. A true artist’s artist, at the onset of the most introspective arc of his career at the time, Mac Miller was writhing from unrest. His image from 2011 to 2013 had changed so drastically, the transference of energy from sets of expectations would be enough to make any living person want to scream. So Mac Miller screamed until he became Delusional Thomas, until the delirium from being lightheaded made him sound like he took a helium toke, and Miller took himself deep into a desperate and dank hollow of his psyche.
In that way, Delusional Thomas was the first in a series of fights Mac Miller had to win with himself before overcoming on GO:OD AM. The terror of Delusional Thomas allowed Faces to be an equally abstract, but more true-to-life exploration of self. Often, and rightfully, lauded as Miller’s opus, Faces made all the turns Thomas eschewed, though both iterations of Mac Miller were on the same journey. Delusional Thomas was the wanton explosion that allowed Mac Miller to enter into a phase of controlled burns.
Mac Miller made heat. Mac Miller helped break Vince Staples. Mac Miller was a musician for the love, which is why his Larry Fisherman producer alias served as yet another creative outlet. Miller did not necessarily move in the shadows, but he did require a brim to be able to create in the daylight. Consider Larry Fisherman his unofficial bucket hat. Working with a score of rappers we’ve come to know and love — canvassing the Los Angeles rap troupes to join him in the studio became his special skill following his move to LA — Larry Fisherman’s true identity formed across two noir-esque beat tapes.
Run-On Sentences: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 bookended Faces and revealed Miller to be a producer in constant conversation with his samples. Each of the samples on Run-On Sentences, and consequently the samples on Faces, razed the tender nerves of the listener. Deep fears of loneliness, worthlessness, and voicelessness were triggered in passing on Vol. 1 (“Birthday”) and Vol. 2 (“Fuckin Shit”). The warp and crackle of these samples gave them a warm and familiar feeling. There was no line between song and listener, and with so many of the samples featuring older folks in conversation, it was as if Larry Fisherman was crafting a sorrowful lineage for himself and his fans to tap into when they were feeling at a loss for family.
Where Delusional Thomas had Mac Miller becoming the voices in his head, Larry Fisherman took his time finding the kindred spirits of Miller’s demons. A tireless exercise, the subtle and harrowing quality of the Run-On Sentences tapes promised listeners they were not alone in their thoughts. For decades, for all time, we are not alone with our thoughts and woes. Beyond production chops, that was the big sell of Larry Fisherman: he was human connective tissue. Fisherman’s tapes and production style served as self-orchestrated group therapy and spoke to Miller’s uncanny ability to turn a generation into a community.
Larry Lovestein & The Velvet Revival
Larry Lovestein was the kid brother to the Mac Miller we uncovered in part on Watching Movies (“Youforia”) and GO:OD AM (“ROS”) before fully appreciating him on 2016’s The Divine Feminine. Miller’s 2012 album under the moniker, You, was plush and smokey Chesterfield-couch-jazz. Driven by rickety romance, there was a boyish charm to the love affair on You that made it one of Mac’s most endearing works. The recording sounded like a toothy grin, and Mac Miller aggrandized love the way youth predisposed us all to aggrandize love.
Fanciful and exciting, You played out as Mac Miller’s jazzy fairytale, and as the foil to the endless questions and compounding weight of Macadelic. Preceding You by eight months, Macadelic appeared as Mac’s first formal yowl under the pressure of celebrity and burgeoning addiction. The jeers and breeze of his earlier mixtapes and debut album did not evaporate on Macadelic, but they were swept up by hurt and ambling cuts like “Thoughts from a Balcony” and “The Mourning After.”
Larry Lovestein, then, was blithe and crisp, charming as a coy carpe-diem poem, and had an impeccable ear for jazz arrangement. He may have been a reaction to Pitchfork’s supposition that Mac Miller had not a musical bone in his body, or he may have been a behind-the-scenes gag that evolved into a skeletal jazz sensation. Either way, there was a beauty and pureness to Larry Lovestein who had no negative reviews to his name, no media pressures, no expectations to satisfy, and no rules to follow.
In 2012, Larry Lovestein stood for jazz revival, but more importantly, he stood for freedom.
Originally published at djbooth.net on September 12, 2018.