Just Keep Swimming

by Anh Nguyen

photography courtesy of The 405

It was a Friday afternoon in early September when the news broke of Mac Miller’s death – the repetition of the accompanying words “death,” “26” and “overdose” seemingly inescapable. However, these are not be the words that any avid listener would immediately associate with Miller. The untimely death of the rapper still seems unreal to many, especially considering his very recent release of Swimming and the influence it has had in the short time it has been out.

Evolving from party bangers to jazzy lyrical ballads, Miller has undergone “artistic reinvention” throughout his career. Even The Rolling Stones, in a statement following his death, touched on this: “To do so, he often turned away from guaranteed commercial success in favor of experimentation and craftsmanship in his work.”

Especially in recent years Miller became increasingly popular, despite straying from the mainstream. Instead, he stayed true to his emotions and communicated them to the world through his music. 2016’s The Divine Feminine, was arguably one of the most beautiful albums – lyrically and musically – and it captured the feelings of love and infatuation. It’s an intoxicating exploration of the ways we love and the ways we are transformed by love. However, with Swimming, he shifted the focus to his most important relationship – with himself.

This transition leading to the rapper’s most recent album is a transcending indication of his versatility, depth and wisdom. In the first song off the album, titled “Come Back to Earth,” Miller says “I was drowning, but now I’m swimming.” These words immediately stand out to listeners, referring to the album title and presenting a new definition to the word “swimming” – a state of existing between drowning and flying. He was simply existing in a state of self-awareness and coming to terms with his unstable life, and this acceptance was the first step to moving forward.

“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,” said Pitchfork magazine in a review of the album.

Miller has openly dealt with his mental state and drug addiction through his music. His lyrics detail every step of his chaotic journey through fear, self-hatred and pain, but also ephemeral joy, love and everything in between. He wasn’t afraid to let us know that things haven’t gotten all better for him, but he was trying and he was taking care of himself.

Though bittersweet, the most meaningful art seemingly always comes from pain or a place of hurting. This is why Miller’s last album, Swimming, was particularly bare and beautiful. The upbeat instrumentals temporarily uplift our spirits, but when contrasted with hauntingly powerful lyrics, it leaves many listeners with a sense of shared comfort and un-idealized optimism.

Mac Miller will always be remembered as an artist, with his unique lyricism and musical talent, but he should also be recognized as a person, for the kindness and love he exuded during his time on this world.