Mac Miller's Hidden Tracks

Artwork by Liz Benjamin

Artwork by Liz Benjamin

by Noah Adaikkalam

Having passed just under three months ago, a lot of Mac Miller’s music has resurfaced. People began to nostalgize everything with his name on it, starting with Swimming (2018), his most recent album. There was actually some initial pushback over this renewed support because the album wasn’t received well when it was first released. In a tweet, Ugly God summed it up well:

I was in the camp of people that never fucked with Travis Scott, his social media presence was something that I was never down with, and his music seemed like people had already done it before. That being said, I hadn’t really gotten into Swimming until about two weeks before Mac died. Nevertheless, I took plenty of long showers as I struggled to adjust to my Emerson dorm. Several of these were set to the sound of his Tiny Desk Concert, the set list of which contained only songs off of Swimming.

From Swimming, I launched into a much deeper listen through Mac Miller’s music. Before he passed, I had really only listened to Faces, his mixtape from 2014, all the way through. Macadelic, the mixtape dropped the two years before, was a bit too much for me. The sex noises that transitioned between tracks were not what I was looking for. Blue Side Park (2011), Watching Movies with the Sound Off (2013), and GO:OD AM (2015), his first three studio albums, were all released years before I was into the kind of rap music he was putting out. Faces, however, was something I really got into because it was all I had to listen to on planes. Because it’s such a weird and versatile album, I got something different each time I listened. There are jazz-based piano rap tracks like “Ave Maria” or “Diablo”, mixed with harder tracks like “Insomniak” or “Malibu”. It ends in an optimistic place with “New Faces”, an upbeat song, with good bars, and a solid Earl Sweatshirt feature that brings the record to a close. For the musical diversity and association with travel, Faces will always be close to my heart.

Anyways, after his death, I re-upped myself on his music. I watched interviews, read articles, found any form of media that would help me feel like he was still there. I found a lot more mixtapes than I expected. They covered all different styles of rap: harder rap, like Stolen Youth (2013), the EP under the name “Larry Fisherman” with Vince Staples, and others that are much softer, like You (2012), his Jazz album under the name “Larry Lovestein & The Velvet Revival.” Miller’s versatility as an artist is incredible.

In an interview in New York with DJ Clockwork, one of Miller’s frequent collaborators, he talks about his favorite time with Mac being while they were working on Faces. “He had like a Tupac work ethic, you na mean, wouldn’t, barely wouldn’t go to his room to sleep, you know? He’d just sleep in the studio, wake up, record.” This shows. In 2013, a year before he dropped Faces, he came out with four EP’s: Run-On Sentences Vol-1, Stolen Youth , Delusional Thomas , and ShowTime, as well as his second studio album, Watching Movies with the Sound Off . That was a five project year.

His singles, the ones hidden in-between recommended videos, or a few scrolls deep on his SoundCloud page, not even released under his name, are the pieces of Mac that I am going to miss the most. They are authentic and unfiltered articulations of him. They’re free, so his intention in making them was not to get paid (but for someone who has fifteen free mixtapes, I doubt it ever was). Mac Miller likes to present the world with music, and these tracks were evidence of that. He liked to make music. The enjoyment derived from the process was made all the better once he shared with people. I’m going to focus on the four that I found that stuck with me.

The first song is a five-year-old cut “Doodling in the Key of C Sharp”. He opens it up by saying  “It is 6:26 in the morning. I made this beat because I realized I enjoy playing piano. I.. you know… fuck you. No one is in the room with me right now, so I am going to record myself. I am gonna try and do this in one take, so that there's not a lot of editing, because, quite frankly, I am too drunk to edit, and that's just the truth of the matter.” The rest of the song rolls on, the beat creeping in during his monologue, and reaching full development by the time he stops talking, locking the song down and coming in on top of a few repeating piano chords. There’s an additional ominous voice layer in the background, a female church singer sounding like the backtrack in Mario Kart 64’s Bowser’s Castle. I love the honesty in the opener, “I am too drunk to edit, and that’s just that’s just the truth of the matter” admitting to the mystified story of night-before genius that we feel apart of. This track stands alone, no connection to album or anything, simply a night in Mac’s career that he wanted to share with us. All this humanity manifests itself in a self-reflective unsettling ending: “my kryptonite is me,” a scary conclusion to come to, even more so to share. Still, Mac trusts that we will enjoy this tired, ominous tangent of his music, his “doodling” in C sharp.

The next is his cover of “Isn’t She Lovely”, by Stevie Wonder. He published this cover on his own YouTube channel. This one includes a shitty camcorder music video, a red light casts a sitting Mac and a keyboard in shades of pink. It’s titled “Random Stevie Wonder Cover”. The camera is set on one end of the Piano, and he plays two minutes of “Isn’t She Lovely” singing along. He’s got his classic hoodie-over-snapback look and hums along for the parts of the song he doesn’t know. You can watch him tentatively play the chords, it’s not a piece he’s mastered yet. He even pauses at one point, hesitating to find the right chords for the next part of the song. He ends it by deconstructing the chords, and then, before the music stops, leans forward and turns the camera off.

It’s short, two minutes, but beautiful and simple. He sat down, played and recorded a piece he liked and uploaded it. No editing, no cuts, the sound quality is manageable, but it gives us variation from the polished, clean cut, nicely recorded Mac Miller that we’re used too. It pays tribute to his musical influences, putting action behind statements in interviews about his love of blues and soul. Similar to “Doodling” it feels like a spur of the moment sit-down-and-record-track that he shared. By doing so, he shows his trust in his audience to appreciate and respect his cover, a faith in his audience few have.

The next one is Mac Miller’s cover of “Lua” by Bright Eyes. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, they ask him why he covers this song. He talks about it being his “middle-school depression song”, a very universal experience (mine was “On Melancholy Hill” by the Gorillaz). Certain lines from the song feel oddly applicable to where he is now, despite this coming out four years ago on his SoundCloud. He acknowledged the correlation this song has to his life, saying “There are two kinds of covers: one you play because you know and like it and one that you believe every word you’re saying like they are your own”. The line in particular “we might die from medication but we sure killed all the pain” hits the hardest.  

Lua’s creation is the same process as the Stevie Wonder track: Mac is paying tribute to a track born of emotions identical to the ones he possess. On both of these tracks we get to hear him sing rather than rap, something that happens a lot on the more buried tracks, expressing a level of comfort with off album projects. This comfort builds the sense of intimacy that makes these tracks so valuable.

The next one is called “You” and it’s technically off of that 2012 mixtape named You that I mentioned earlier. It’s a five-piece jazz album that was released under the pseudonym “Larry Lovestein & The Velvet Revival.” Though the project does not appear on his Wikipedia page, the final track “You” has gained much more traction than the rest of the album. The whole EP is about, well, love. It’s not clear who he is really singing about, but it explores a warped and difficult definition of love, embodying the struggles of dysfunctional love. The songs talk about being neglected and forgotten by a significant other, and the realization of being in love with the idea of someone rather than who they actually are. For those of you who familiar with Jill Scott, it’s as if an entire EP was inspired by the end of “Cross My Mind”: “But the reality honestly / You were never good for me and I was never good for you /  just remember what we used to do.”

The EP itself is fairly upbeat, at least through the first four songs. The first three being straightforward jazz songs with a four or five piece band behind him, rap-singing over the solid high-hat and jazz rhythms. The fourth is a pure instrumental track- showing off his musical knowledge and ability. The composers of this project are pretty well hidden, Mac not even releasing it under his name.

The last song is the supposed single that I found on YouTube along with the other three tracks. It’s simply titled “You”. The whole time Mac sings in a falsetto, crooning in a gritty voice over a seemingly endless keyboard improv that blends perfectly with the drums and synth, only three instruments composing the song. It’s a new direction for him, especially during 2012, when he was in between Blue Side Park (2011) and Watching Movies With the Sound Off (2013) yet still in the process of making Macadelic (2012). Theres a level of bravery that comes with releasing a jazz record amidst a booming rap career, a level of not caring about the label given to your sound. It explains the versatility found on Faces, showing the roots of Mac’s comfort in the different sounding tracks. An argument could be made that the emergence of dominate jazzy instrumentals and singing interludes on Divine Feminine (2016) and Swimming (2018) are a result of a comfort established while making this EP. When we look at the first Mixtape he dropped, K.I.D.S (2011), we are exposed to an entirely different sound and artist than we get on Swimming (2018), and “You” as well as these other deep tracks are windows into the less popular steps of this progression.

These four tracks are not what Mac is known for. I think, one of the good things that come from losing someone is that it brings people closer together and Mac’s singles definitely brought us all closer to him. The safety net of another album was suddenly taken from us, and we all went running, through youtube and SoundCloud, dragging up, some for the first time, some for the millionth, these intimate tracks created out of his love for music. The covers especially, are for him, and he shares that interaction with us in an almost Banksy like fashion, nonchalantly dropping something new. Mac didn’t popularize them, letting them lie where they will on the internet, knowing that someone who needs them will find them when they need it. That is what I love the most about Mac Miller, no disrespect to his studio albums or EP’s, they have played their own important role in my life, but these deep tracks gave us a sense of who he was. There a vulnerability that comes with releasing tracks that you made for you, tracks that record your development as an artist. Vulnerability is so undervalued, especially in the rap scene. The music that dominates the scene feels heavily produced, following the tradition of hiding the steps of production, and presenting the world with a finished product. The illusion of perfection created by this process takes away from the humanity of art, because we are by nature, imperfect. Mac was not afraid to share this imperfection with us, and for that I will always respect the work he did.

Thank you, Mac. You are missed.