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Mac Miller - Swimming Music Album Reviews

On his wounded fifth album, Mac Miller sings deftly about heartbreak and his mental state, capturing his resignation without turning sadness into a performative spectacle.

When Ariana Grande left Mac Miller this spring, he lost a relationship, a collaborator, and muse. Miller’s 2016 effort The Divine Feminine was recorded closely with Grande and doubled as a love letter to the woman he’d hitched his star to. He’s gone from "you and me against the world" to just “me against the world,” and as much as he tries to convince himself that’s almost as good on his warm but wounded fifth album, Swimming, he knows it’s not.

At its lightest, Swimming plays a little like Mac Miller’s own Forgetting Sarah Marshall, an amiable account of involuntary bachelorhood. “I know I probably need to do better, fuck whoever, keep my shit together,” he ambles over an aloof beat on “Smaller Worlds.” On “What’s the Use,” he shrugs off his foibles over some buoyant roller-disco, accompanied by low-key vocal assists from Snoop Dogg and Thundercat. Miller’s flow is limber and self-deprecating; he tries any pattern of singing or rapping that might lift his spirits for a few seconds. He’s doing his best to find the humor in a situation that isn’t really funny, as his arrest for a DUI and hit and run this May made all too clear.

Miller has long been open about his struggles with addiction, which Grande cited in her decision to end what she called a “toxic relationship.” But those looking for any dirt-dishing or ax-grinding on Swimming will be disappointed. “Everybody want a headline, I don’t got nothin’ to say,” he rapped on “Programs,” a loose track from May with more of a chip on its shoulder than any that made the album. Even at Swimming’s bleakest—“Self Care/Oblivion,” a dispiriting account of his pain-numbing regime, or “Hurt Feelings,” which shines some light on his mental state during that DUI—Miller resists the suggestion that anybody in particular is to blame for him bottoming out. The furthest he’ll go is acknowledging life was a lot easier with Grande than without her. “She put me back together when I was out of order,” he admits on “Perfecto.”

This sort of heartsick longing is not exactly something new—in 2018, you can’t toss a stone without it landing in some chart-topping sad rapper’s styrofoam cup. But Miller explores his headspace with considerably more focus than Drake, Future, or Post Malone, artists who sometimes cut emotional corners in their rush to the next banger. An album with nothing but time on its hands and an understanding that healing is a slow, tedious process, Swimming is most engaging when it details the simple things Miller tells himself to keep his spirits up. "Every day I wake up and breathe/I don’t have it all but that’s all right with me," he sighs on “2009,” even though he only sounds half-convinced.

He’s come a long way since his overbearing kid brother act of his early Blue Slide Park days. Where he used to mug over his music relentlessly, on Swimming he mostly lets the beats breathe, clearing ample space for the record’s peaceful orchestral swells and blushing keyboards. He’s also singing more than ever, and he sounds better than ever doing it. Modest as it is, his voice is expressive in ways his plainspoken prose could never be, capturing his resignation without turning sadness into a performative spectacle.

As always, Miller remains a step behind the prestige artists he emulates—Chance the Rapper, Anderson.Paak, and, increasingly, Frank Ocean, whose nonchalant songcraft looms large here. Swimming is less virtuosic than those artists’ recent works, but no less heartfelt, and the album’s wistful soul and warm funk fits Miller like his oldest, coziest hoodie. He may be unable to escape his own head, as he laments on the opener "Come Back to Earth," but he’s decided to make himself as comfortable as possible while he’s trapped there.

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