What did Mac Miller mean to Pennsylvania?

September 21, 2018

Admittedly, I’m not sure.

I’m from a small suburb in eastern Pennsylvania, roughly six hours from Mac Miller’s native Pittsburgh. A Philadelphia artist like Meek Mill arguably should have been the more relevant musician in our area. Yet, while I was in high school, no artist was more widely listened to than Mac Miller. Kanye was considered hit or miss. Before “DAMN”, no one at my incredibly white high school could relate to Kendrick (I remember ScHoolboy Q’s “Banger” being more relevant). But everyone (or at the very least, every dude) listened to Mac Miller. Maybe that’s a race thing. But most likely it’s a suburb thing. All I know is, I own two of his albums and a few of his songs are near the top of my most listened list in my iTunes, yet I’m still a below average Mac Miller fan where I’m from.

I’ve had a difficult time explaining what Mac Miller meant to people. I think the carefree high school-type vibe he had early in his career gave him initial appeal. The more times you’ve walked into a 7-Eleven post-hot-box, the easier a song like “Senior Skip Day” is to relate to. But he wasn’t just EZ Mac with the cheesy raps. After 2011’s “Blue Slide Park,” Mac took a turn into more psychedelic, darker sounds. But although drug culture was a central theme in his discography, he was not Trippie Redd. People related to Mac on a much deeper level.

Mental health was always a struggle for him. But not until very recently has mental health really been a focus in his music. Instead it was always the subtext, especially on songs like “Ascension” and “Jump” on “GO:OD AM.” On the former, there’s a set of bars that I think says a lot: “My eyes same color as cherry pie, whoa, see I’m terrified.” On its surface, that doesn’t seem like much, but let me explain. The people Mac Miller connected with the most were those who were most like him. Like him, Mac Miller fans were (and are) scared. Of course, that is not unique to them. But because suburban life is supposed to be problem-free, those who originate out of it are likely to be scared to talk about their anxieties or confront them. So one of the only solutions left is drug-fueled escapism, especially if you’re 17. Maybe just to distract yourself, maybe even to find some sort of meaning, whatever the case may be.

Mac represented this scenario more than any other artist. Albums like “Faces” and “Watching Movies with the Sound Off” portray these attempts to escape depression, ennui or both while being ill-equipped to really do so. And let me be clear, for a lot of people, Mac Miller’s varied discography is something you could turn to through the highs and lows, whether it be feel-good frat raps by a class clown when things were good or songs from someone vulnerable who wasn’t quite sure how to talk about it when things were bad. Because of his unique trajectory, Mac was a rapper we grew up with in many ways. We went from this only-the-good-times-are-real vibe of “Blue Slide Park” to the bad-times-exist-but-we-can’t-really-deal-with-them of “Faces” to trying to redefine ourselves on “GO:OD AM” to leaning more on others in “The Divine Feminine.” While nominally just a collection of love songs, “The Divine Feminine” is the first example of Mac focusing on someone other than himself consistently in his music and turning to that person in times of need from time to time. Even if expressed in cliches on the album, Mac clearly realizes his relationship is a means to “seeing the sunrise.”

After his breakup, we were given “Swimming.” This is the first album where Mac most directly addresses his troubles, from the breakup to difficulties with fame in general. Mac displays a mature outlook in how he speaks of his failed relationship, taking responsibility for where he has messed up and not casting blame as to why things didn’t work out. Either as an artist or a person, Mac has developed to the point of being ready to get more intensely introspective.

This is the beauty of “Swimming” being his last album. Because, maybe inadvertently, Mac has taken this group of people who come from these sheltered backgrounds, where mental health is not something we talk about, touched them with his own struggles and now brought us to this point where we are on the precipice of being ready to tackle these issues. And that’s awesome.

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