Mac Miller’s Swimming is a trippy, soulful journey through the psyche of a maturing artist.
A hip-hop artist and producer from the city of Pittsburgh, Mac Miller’s first exposure to a large audience came at the tender age of 18, when his freshman mixtape K.I.D.S caused a stir in online hip hop circles. K.I.D.S hit the scene in 2010 and left a mark, standing out from the crowd for its unique and infectious energy; whether it was the catchy, tongue-in-cheek production on tracks such as “Don’t Mind If I Do” – which features a chopped-and-screwed sample of Owl City’s “Fireflies” – or the hilarious and cocky punch-lines of a young rapper already confident in his abilities and potential, Mac Miller instantly found a following from audiences and critics alike. Since then, the Pittsburgh-native has gone through an artistic transformation like few others in his creative space.
This transformation is told through his discography, which plays as a kind of biographical account of his journey through the challenges of celebrity: we can hear the changes from the carefree frolicking through sex, drugs, and partying of K.I.D.S, to the depressive episodes and substance abuse of Faces, to the woozy, harmonious exaltation of love in The Divine Feminine. And just as Mac’s last album, The Divine Feminine, narrates the chapter of Mac’s relationship with Ariana Grande, Swimming follows into the time surrounding their breakup. Given the recent passing of such an emotional event, fans would be excused for expecting a full return to the unstable, depressive Mac Miller of projects past – especially in view of his hit-and-run conviction in Southern California this year and the complete withdrawal from social media before the album’s release. What we find instead is a Mac Miller that has metamorphosed into something entirely new; while there are certainly notes of deep pain and references to past mistakes in Swimming, they come packaged alongside a glimmering vision of peace and self-acceptance.
The opening track, “Come Back to Earth”, launches us straight into a jazz instrumental and vocals that are both dream-like and achingly melancholy. The layered harmonies, muted bass and piano licks play against each other beautifully, adding untold dimensions of emotion to Mac Miller’s gentle crooning. The lyrical content of this track is a bittersweet melting pot, with imagery of rainclouds, the reflection that, “I was drowning but now I’m swimming”, and the hook’s subdued call for “a way out of my head”.
Where the opening track sounds lost in its own world, the following track “Hurt Feelings” drags the listener back out of this meditative bubble with a vengeance. The aggressive and hypnotic repetitions of the instrumental compliment Mac’s stone-cold flow as he relates his personal evolution and renewed determination; the transition between these dual headspaces is shocking and rather jarring. As for the track’s message, it’s hard not to assume that his attention is turned in the direction of one certain person with bars such as “everything is different, I can’t complain” and “don’t know what you missin’, shame on you”. This atmosphere is later echoed on the single “Self Care”, an energetic cut built on a spritely sample, over which Mac raps about his self-medication (“feeling like you’re high enough to melt, yeah”) and hostility to outsiders and harm-wishers. Then, in a dazzling beat-switch that is mirrored throughout many tracks on Swimming, the aggressiveness in Mac’s voice melts away to his serenading of “oblivion”, a word which he sings distortedly and into the oblivion. This moment is one of several turns around the poles of restlessness and peacefulness that recur throughout the project, producing a core tenet of its artistic integrity.
Swimming owes much of its success to the virtuosic jazz production throughout, reaching its zenith with tracks such as “Small Worlds”. A slow waltz in which a tired, almost defeated-sounding Mac shares the futility of “building up a wall til’ it breaks”, “Small Worlds” is a grainy and lo-fi cut that is arranged with beautiful percussion and strings. The second half of the track retreats into a minimal piano arrangement where Mac performs some of his most honest and heartfelt poetry to date; few of his peers in the hip hop industry can rival this level of introspection. However, the highlight of the track listing is the raw and delicate “2009”. Here, Mac sings with a wondrous, choked-up delivery about the turmoil of past experience as viewed through the lens of present salvation. The sparkling waves of the instrumental wash over the listener as Mac lays out the lessons he has learned and emotional maturity he has developed since entering the industry as a youngster: “it ain’t 2009 no more: yeah, I know what’s behind that door”.
Swimming marks an evolution for Mac Miller in more than one sense. While he has always been an intelligent lyricist with good creative instincts, his experimentation into the realm of singing has resulted in varying levels of success – take, for instance, a rather painful early attempt of his on the K.I.D.S cut “La La La”. His style has always been a little off-key and more improvisational than classical, but this has not stopped him from increasing volume of singing on his projects over the years. Swimming is a high watermark for his development in this area, proving that he is capable of producing a wider range of styles and emotions through the instrument of his voice than ever before. However, Mac’s singing proves to be a limitation rather than an asset in a few unfortunate moments; the dreary hook of “Wings”, for example, does not feel like it does justice to the instrumental. Another avoidable track is “Perfecto”, which suffers additionally from a certain repetitiveness.
However, the merits of Mac Miller’s latest album outshine its downfalls, and in many places the risks he takes to push his craft forward pay off in dividend. For a jazz rap album that moves skilfully through a kaleidoscope of human emotion – at times delicate and withdrawn, at others energetic and determined, but always controlled and thoughtful – Swimming is definitely worth a listen, or ten. Fans of Mac Miller, and particularly fans of his later work, will not be disappointed…