Make Miller painting

The Evolution of Mac Miller and His Discography

By Gage Sutton
Music Journalist

On Sept. 7 of 2018, the world lost Mac Miller, one of the most respected and talented artists of his generation. Born Malcolm James McCormick, Mac Miller burst onto the hip-hop scene in 2010 with a mixtape titled K.I.D.S.. Little did the music industry know that this 18-year-old kid from Pittsburgh would quickly become one of the most polarizing artists of the decade and would amass an immense fanbase for his laid back, yet bright personality.

Each project Mac released throughout the years brought its own sound that was different from the previous one. As the years passed and Miller became older, his music began to evolve alongside him. What started as raps of a carefree teenager ultimately became soulful melodies in which Miller tackled the struggles he faced. 

Despite Miller being only eight years into his career, he managed to build a vast discography including mixtapes, EPs, singles, features on other artists’ tracks and most importantly, six full-length studio albums. These albums are, in many people’s opinion, the collection of Mac’s best and most cohesive work. And while each album sounds different in terms of style, they all capture who he was as a person and what he was feeling at that point in time of his life. There are great concepts and songs on each album that make them memorable and enjoyable to those with an ear for hip hop music. 

While there’s always the possibility of Miller’s family and team releasing more music posthumously in the future, it looks likely that Circles is the last album (or at least last one for a while) in his incredible discography. The end of a music career this great can’t go unappreciated and deserves to be celebrated. So, let’s take a dive into Miller’s six studio albums, dissect the content of each album and pick some of the best tracks from each one. Enjoy. 

Blue Slide Park (released Nov. 8, 2011)

Miller’s debut album Blue Slide Park is one of his most beloved projects by fans for the bouncy instrumentals paired with Miller’s lyrics about drinking, smoking weed, being young and, of course, the repping of his hometown, Pittsburgh. Miller’s subject matter is admittedly not as deep as that of his later projects, but flashes his potential lyricism throughout the album. This is Miller in his most immature and innocent state of his career, but still managing to deliver a classic album that is beloved by many. 

Best Tracks:

“Blue Slide Park”
“Frick Park Market”
“Missed Calls”

Watching Movies with the Sound Off (released June 18, 2013)

The second studio album “Watching Movies with the Sound Off” took a different direction sonically than Blue Slide Park after Miller said he was upset about starting to get a reputation as a frat rapper (as a result of the release of his debut album). Watching Movies with The Sound Off is the first album in which Mac started writing while experimenting with various drugs, which is evident throughout the dark ambiance of the album in his lyrics, delivery and the addition of slowed down and reversed vocals.

What also makes this album unique from his first is the inclusion of having other artists featured on it including production from Pharrell Williams and many others as well as guest verses from Earl Sweatshirt, Schoolboy Q and more.   

Best Tracks:

“Watching Movies”
“Red Dot Music (feat. Action Bronson)”
“Objects in the Mirror”

GO:OD AM (released Sept. 18, 2015)

“GO:OD AM” is a much more upbeat album in terms of instrumentals in comparison to Watching Movies. The jazz influence can be heard with the use of horns throughout the project. But the most important thing about this album is how Miller is starting to become aware of the things he sees and the things he experiences, including his drug addiction and his place in hip-hop.  

You can hear Miller truly start to find himself as an artist and person on GO:OD AM. The change to his sound is becoming more melody-driven music with more glitzy and layered instrumentals while staying true to his sound of a laid back and raspy delivery. 

Best Tracks:

“Weekend (feat. Miguel)”
“Perfect Circle / God Speed”
“Two Matches (feat. Ab-Soul)”

The Divine Feminine (released Sept. 16, 2016)  

Miller’s fourth album is the biggest change of sound between any album in his discography. “The Divine Feminine” is a love-based album with Mac exploring all of the aspects of relationships and as Mac put it “the feminine energy of the planet.” He gets help in creating this theme of love from Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak and many other talented artists.

I wouldn’t be able to explain why this album was so great without mentioning how Miller and pop superstar Ariana Grande had begun a publicly-covered romantic relationship not long before the release of this album, despite them having multiple interactions together since 2013. With that being said, the influence of Grande is heard all over the album in Mac’s lyrics as well as Grande’s appearance on the track, “My Favorite Part.” This album was by far Miller’s most ambitious release and most critically-acclaimed to this point. 

Best Tracks: 

“Dang! (feat. Anderson .Paak)”
“Stay”
“My Favorite Part (feat. Ariana Grande)”

Swimming (released Aug. 3, 2018)

“Swimming” is Miller’s fifth studio album and comes after a breakup with Grande. The result is an album in which Miller is having an internal battle with himself and trying not to “drown,” but rather swim (as the album’s title entails). Swimming contains the more instrument-driven beats that Miller had started using heavily on his fourth album.

Miller also continues using singing as one of his most effective ways of reaching the listener and taking them through what can be inferred as his reliance on drugs to get him through the breakup. Miller’s depression had many times been made clear on previous projects, but on this album, it’s perhaps the most obvious – and at some points even sounded like a cry for help.

This would end up being the last album Miller released before his death in late 2018 of a drug overdose. If the album didn’t resonate with fans before, it should now. Hearing this album now makes people reflect and sympathize with Miller in a way they hadn’t before his death at the young age of 26. 

Best Tracks:

“Come Back to Earth”
“Self Care”
“Jet Fuel”

Circles (released Jan. 17, 2020)

In the posthumous project that was released as a companion album to “Swimming,” Mac finds himself recovering, and finally starting, to take life a day-at-a-time, rather than continuing in the path that the previous album saw him in. The project was never finished before Mac’s death, but with the help of Jon Brion, the producer of “Swimming,” Mac’s vision of the album “Circles” came to fruition and was a cohesive album that Mac himself would surely be proud of.

Brion took his time on making sure this album would do right by Mac and his fans alike instead of releasing an unfinished work to capitalize on the money that could be made off his death. The album finds Mac singing more (and better) than he had on any album beforehand. Pair Mac’s singing with the lush production, and you get a relaxed, yet hopeful feeling that he would finally break free from his vices.

This album is bittersweet in that it’s sad to hear it and think of how far Mac had come as an artist and how much further he could have gone with all of the potential he showed. But, I ultimately think this is a perfect goodbye to one of the most beautiful souls hip-hop has ever seen as we hear him finally gaining closure and becoming happy. 

Best Tracks:

“Blue World”
“Good News”
“Woods”

Miller left a legacy that will be remembered forever with memories of one of the most down to earth people hip-hop has ever seen. I want to thank Mac Miller’s team and family for handling his death in a respectful manner and seeing his vision of Circles and whatever else may proceed it with careful consideration for what he would have wanted. May he finally rest in peace. 

Featured image by Eric Hernandez.

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