“He’s Different Now.”
An artist’s life can be like a film. Most of us watched Mac Miller’s on mute.
During my Junior year at Sonoma State University, my roommate one day asked me if I had heard Mac Miller’s new album.
“No,” I replied, “why would I listen to that?”
I was confused by the question. Our shared knowledge and discerning taste in rap music was at the core of our friendship. Was he joking with me? Was he not the hip-hop head I thought him to be? I remembered our freshman year, when we were also roommates, and undoubtedly had multiple conversations bashing Miller. I was fresh out of Berkeley High School, and was immediately jaded by the white suburban-ness that surrounded me. I was part of the racial majority at school for the first time in my life, and yet as I looked at these kids from rich suburbs that would wear backwards baseball caps, act too cool for class and treat black culture like a novelty, I felt, for the first time, like an outsider.
This was at the exact time that Miller was blowing up. My classmates looked like him, dressed like him, acted like him and always listened to him. Girls were obsessed with him, and obsessed with guys that emulated him. Miller came to represent everything I hated about white college culture.
My roommate, who was from San Francisco, felt similarly, and this is why I was shocked two years later to hear him suggest a Miller album. When I showed apprehension, however, he understood. “It’s really good,” he explained. “It’s different. He’s different now.”
I respected his music taste, so I gave Watching Movies With The Sound Off a try, at least for one song.
“The Star Room” was not the best album opener I’ve heard in my life, but it may have been the hardest hitting. The gap between my expectations (still extremely low, despite me trusting my roommate) and what I felt the moment the opening bars hit was unprecedented. It’d be like putting on 2014 Forest Hills Drive and hearing “Wesley’s Theory.” When Miller’s non-distorted voice first came in, I was instantly entranced.
“But still I’m trapped inside my head, it kind of feels like it’s a purgatory
So polite and white but I got family that’ll murder for me
Think I’m in paradise, so what I have to worry bout?
Dealing with these demons, feel the pressure, find the perfect style
Making sure my mom and dad are still somewhat in love
All these backfires of my experiments with drugs
And I experience the touch of my epiphany in color form
Difference between love and war for me, I’m above the norm”
Five years have passed since then.
A few hours after hearing that Miller died last Friday, I decided to listen to “The Star Room” while driving. I turned it up high. I gazed out my windows. Miller’s voice was haunting, and as I heard the opening verse this time, I was hit even even harder than I was on that day five years ago. It was more than the typical emotion that comes with listening to an artist for the first time after their passing. Those same words that blew me away with their craft, depth and aesthetic in 2013 sounded completely different now. The theme hadn’t changed; Miller was rapping about mental purgatory, demons and drug addiction in my car in Detroit, Michigan, that Friday, just like he was when I first listened in Rohnert Park, California. But my original takeaway from the song — that Miller had profoundly grown as an artist in a very short amount of time — was shattered. It was not an inaccurate assessment, but an insignificant one. Miller’s sound did not change because he grew up, matured artistically and learned from his peers. He was rapping about his experiences, just as he always had been. His experiences had simply shifted from something generally uninteresting — a day in the life of a 19-year-old white boy who has more money, shoes and fame than he ever thought possible — to something generally interesting — the interior monologues that echo across the cavernous space of a troubled mind.
I began to question whether Miller’s artistic flowering should have been met with less applause and more concern. This was not to retroactively blame anyone for “not seeing the signs.” We have a natural tendency to view musicians as artists first and people second. The best art is generally dark and demented, and the best art is also generally authentic and genuine. Put these things together, and most great art should also be a warning sign.
Naturally, we form a stronger bond with an artist’s work than we do with the artist themselves. I’ve listened to hundreds of rappers’ songs hundreds of thousands of times, and have almost never spoken a single word to any of them. I’ve thought to myself things like “I hope Lil Wayne doesn’t die of a lean overdose,” but I have never once thought “I would rather the world lose all of Lil Wayne’s beautiful drugged out music in exchange for him getting sober than for him to continue on like this.” I’m not saying that kind of thinking would change anything, or even that I necessarily should think that. Great art is crucial for the human spirit, and it is at least worth considering if the struggle of its creators is, in some ways, for the greater good.
A couple days later, I go back and watch the “Nikes on my Feet” video, which came out during my senior year of high school. Miller was just a year older. He has bad acne, good flow and a love for sneakers. I click on “Best Day Ever” next. The video starts with a home movie of Miller reciting “Rapper’s Delight” as a little kid. Maybe 10, maybe younger. When the 19-year-old Miller takes over, he raps about appreciation and joy. His love for life.
While watching, I realize something: There was absolutely nothing wrong with his early music. It was not particularly gripping. His lyrics were forgettable and unoriginal. But he could spit, his beats were solid and he rapped from the heart.
I am also a white boy who rapped in high school. I did not get famous doing it. Miller did, and his humanity was viewed differently as result. He was a cocky, privileged douchebag who represented everything that was wrong within hip-hop, frat culture and more. Three years later, he blossomed into a fully-formed, mature, wise artist who finally “got it,” and was positively contributing to the world rather than taking away from it.
Or maybe, Miller had gone through a different transformation. That from an innocent 10-year-old who loved rapping, got pretty good at it and hit some good fortune, to a 21-year-old succumbing to the inhuman pressures of fame. As a result, we have been left with his entire inheritance: his music. For Miller, the transformation will be forever fruitless.
“Can’t decide if you like all the fame
Three years ago to now, it’s just not the same
I’m looking out my window ashing on the pane
Shit, wonder if I lost my way”
Follow Simon on Twitter @Simoncgo