“Self Care”: Mac Miller’s Swimming Paints the Disorienting Nature of Finding our Path

Mohith Subbarao
beats and thoughts
Published in
8 min readJan 30, 2020

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Self-care is at the core of humanity. While it has become a prominent buzzword in recent years, the basic methods of self-care — breathing, hunting for food, and finding shelter — have been the basis for the prolonged existence of the human race. As we evolved, so did our ability to take care of ourselves, in both exponentially healthy and potentially toxic ways. As we explore and experiment, we find and gravitate to different methods to take care of our physical and mental health — exercise, drugs, food, sports, religion, therapy, alcohol, careers, art, friends, family. Mac Miller knows the tumultuous nature of these methods on “Self Care”, the standout from his fifth studio album — and the last album to be released during his lifetime — Swimming, a simultaneously angsty, somber, hopeful, and beautiful track that paints the importance of discovering the path to preserving one’s sense of inner peace.

“Self Care” by Mac Miller

Mac Miller has had a long and varied journey with self-care.

The hip-hop world witnessed this journey in all its glory as Mac went through a shocking and fascinating personal and artistic transformation throughout the 2010s — from the “party rap” days of 2011’s Blue Slide Park to the depiction of substance abuse and depression on 2015’s GO:OD AM to the search for spirituality and romantic love on 2016’s The Divine Feminine to the internal focus towards mental health and personal growth on 2018’s Swimming.

With each project, Mac became less concerned with making music that could impress certain demographics or bring him artistic respect, and became more at peace with making the music that he truly wanted to make. Swimming encapsulated the final stage of Mac’s progression, as he shifted focus from selflessly helping others to trying to extend some well-needed care for himself — a shift he describes in a 2018 interview with Zane Lowe.

[Mac Miller]: “You get the urge and the itch to tell people ‘don’t worry, I’m okay. don’t worry, I’m okay.’ Because, you know, like [I have] people who care about me and fans that love my music. And it’s a beautiful, beautiful relationship with them. [These are] people who have been with me through [me] being a wide-eyed 19 year old kid to [me] being a self-destructive, depressed, drug user to [me] making love music to all these different stages. And then they see something like [my DUI] and they worry. So your first reaction is, let me tell them I’m cool.”

[Zane Lowe] “Yeah, your first reaction is to think about the wellbeing of others. Which is kind of crazy, when you should actually be concentrating on yourself to some degree.”

Mac’s new concentration on himself and his overwhelming desire for self-care is apparent throughout Swimming, alternating between feelings of quiet despair over dreamy and stripped-back soundscapes (“Come Back to Earth”) and deep convictions of self-acceptance and self-love over orchestral strings (“2009”) . Yet the album is most enthralling and captivating in the moments where Mac is struggling somewhere in between these dichotomous mindsets.

On “Self Care”, Mac Miller captures that flawed humanity in all of us.

The slow, spacey, and electronic-tinged synths draw you into the moody and sprawling atmosphere of Mac’s mind, as the hip-hop drum that kicks in injects a much-needed bounce and energy to the track. The psychedelic atmosphere plays into the trippiness and confusion of trying to find a light through the fog, while the trap-inspired and hard-hitting drums highlight the determination of attempting to find a path anyways.

The juxtaposition of sounds is a perfect showcase for Mac’s free-flowing rhymes and care-free cadences as he approaches his depressing woes of angst, anxiety, and addiction with a detached coolness.

His coolness, however, has its cracks.

“I switched the time zone, but what do I know? / Spendin’ nights hitchhikin’, where will I go? / I could fly home, with my eyes closed / But it be kinda hard to see, that’s no surprise though”

With a somewhat distorted and surreal sing-song delivery on the chorus, Mac makes references to treks through space and time and laments his inability to have a clear vision of his destination. He hopes to find a life purpose that isn’t so murky, but finds it too difficult of a task with eyes that always seem to be closed off to the world.

In moments of desperation, he grasps for anything that can open them right back up.

“Swear the height be too tall, so like September I fall / Down below, now I know that the medicine be on call, yeah / It’s feelin’ like you hot enough to melt, yeah / Can’t trust no one, can’t even trust yourself, yeah / And I love you, I don’t love nobody else, yeah”

Mac’s addiction is the focus of his first verse, as he personifies substances as a medicine that can help him in a way no one else can. This personification is present throughout Swimming — this simultaneously imaginative and haunting writing device showcases the nature of personal demons. These dark spots that have lived with us for many years can become their own type of pseudo-human presence in our lives without us even realizing it.

If we’re not careful, our demons can become our own form of self-care.

“Tell them they can take that bulls*** elsewhere / Self-care, I’m treatin’ me right, yeah”

As the first verse transitions into the pre-chorus, the stretching of the words on the last couple lines highlight the tongue and cheek nature of Mac’s self-satisfaction. Mac has gone on record many times to detail the way his drug abuse took a toll on his physical, mental, and spiritual health. He knows fully well that in his pursuit of short term gratification, he is sacrificing a deeper and more hard-earned form of fulfillment and self-care.

After a certain point, the sacrifices catch up to us.

“Yeah, I been reading them signs / I been losin’ my, I been losin’ my, I been losin’ my mind, yeah / Get the f*** out the way, must be this high to play / It must be nice up above the lights / And what a lovely life that I made, yeah / I know that feelin’ like it’s in my family tree, yeah / That Mercedes drove me crazy, I was speedin’ / Somebody save me from myself, yeah”

Mac is hoping for someone to come save him, as he reckons with how his lifestyle is ripping at his mental sanity and leading him into reckless behavior, referencing his 2018 DUI. The transition from desiring the medicinal effects of drugs in his first verse to longing for a real human connection in the second verse — using the word “somebody” rather than “something” — illustrates Mac’s core virtue of believing in the power of people. So often known for his down-to-earth nature with friends, family, fans, and fellow musicians, Mac saw the beauty in people even when he struggled to see the beauty in himself.

Yet even in his darkest times, he had hope.

“Hell yeah, we gonna be alright (We gon’ be alright)”

The end of the pre-chorus brings the song back to the one thing that keeps Mac and the rest of the world going: hope. Despite the somberness and melancholy that permeated Mac Miller’s musical catalogue, there was always a sense of tranquility and peacefulness living along the surface as well. There always seemed to be a deep trust in his art that things will all be okay.

To get to that place of okay-ness, self-care becomes the key. Not superficial, instagram-ready self-care but the self-care that requires blood, sweat, and tears. The self-care that requires having the difficult conversations with oneself about how we may not be living up to who we want to become. The self-care that avoids the victim mentality and instead puts thoughts, desires, and goals into purposeful action. The self-care that reaches out for help from others as we work to eventually provide it for ourselves.

For Navy SEAL and ultramarathon athlete David Goggins, that self-care was exercise and self-discipline. For hip-hop billionaire Jay-Z, that self-care was therapy and creating music. For poet and activist Maya Angelou, that self-care was writing and public speaking.

For Mac Miller, that self-care was often substances — which he documented in honest and visceral detail throughout his discography. To say that substances were his only self-care would be overly simplifying, dehumanizing, and disrespectful to a deeply complex and incredibly passionate human being. But it was a larger aspect of his self-care that he publicly acknowledged through his interviews, his music, and his message.

Through these interviews, through his work, and through his artistic themes, the world was privileged enough to see Mac grow and evolve over the course of a decade until his untimely death a month after Swimming’s release. The music community was shaken up to witness such a warm-hearted soul leaving our planet at such a young age. I was just one of countless people who shed tears for Malcolm James McCormick when I read the news in disbelief.

Swimming was the last musical gift Mac Miller gave us during his lifetime. The album represented a groundbreaking turning point for him and his listeners. Through 13 soul-baring and life-affirming tracks, Mac acknowledged that he may have not conquered all his demons, but that he was attempting to swim to the currents of personal transformation and inner peace. With each push within those waters, Swimming represented the search for and the belief in that hope.

Mac Miller will always be remembered for his outstanding artistic and human journey — one of the most awe-inspiring of the 21st century. His ability to bravely and creatively document his tumultuous relationship with self-care served to highlight the humanity that exists in all of us. The beautiful and tragic story of Mac is a reminder for the rest of us to continue to persevere through the ups and downs of life. We will never fully know the man, but his music suggests that he only wanted the best for his listeners and the human race at large. His music encouraged us, and continues to encourage us to find the habits, the disciplines, and north stars that give us purpose. Along the way, we need to understand that self-care is not always fun and glamorous. When we care for ourselves, it is not treating ourselves to our favorite indulgences. It’s providing a varied village of love — tough love from the coach who sees our wasted potential, nurturing from the parents on days we are truly lost, laughter and real talk from the best friends who have been with us through thick and thin. As we grow up, we will still have these support pillars but we need to learn how to be our own coach, to be our own parent, and to be our own friend. To learn how to truly care of ourselves.

Maybe then, we can light a path forward.

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