Two years after the release of Mac Miller’s Swimming, his family has released its companion piece, Circles. We explain what it is, how it came together, and why you need to listen to it.
What is Circles?
Miller’s sixth studio album, and his first album release since his death in 2018. It was recorded soon after Swimming and initially intended as a companion piece, and listening to Circles that comes through clearly. The album is chilled out, occasionally optimistic, and full of Miller’s trademark honesty. It bookends the rapper’s life as well as any album can, and celebrates a career of constant growth.
His family have said the albums were meant to complement each other; “Swimming in Circles” was the concept for the two. After Miller’s death, producer Jon Brion, who worked on both albums, dedicated himself to realising Miller’s cohesive vision.
Who’s on it?
Most Mac Miller albums are spilling over with talent. Previous collaborators include Pharrell, Clams Casino, Earl Sweatshirt, Action Bronson, and Tyler, the Creator. His network was crammed with artists and producers who would go on to be critically acclaimed if they weren’t already – Miller could pick ‘em.
With that track record, it’s notable that the only credited feature vocalist on Circles is the relatively unknown Australian singer and drummer Baro Sura, who appears on mid-album high point ‘Hand Me Downs’. Though the album credits a grand total of six producers, it’s largely the product of Miller’s work with Brion, the composer-producer behind Swimming’s celebrated and vulnerable jazz- and funk-inspired sound.
That said, if you think someone sounds familiar on the ballad ‘I Can See’, it could be Miller’s former girlfriend Ariana Grande. She hasn’t confirmed it’s her vocals on the track, but Brion seems convinced.
Why Jon Brion?
Having worked so intensely on Swimming, it made sense to bring the composer-producer back for the companion work. He’s one of the most renowned names in music, celebrated and revered for his work with artists as varied as Fiona Apple and Kanye West, and on films ranging from Lady Bird and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind through to, uh, ParaNorman.
He’s also a session musician, and has said his much of his role on the two albums was convincing Miller to play his own instruments. “He had a self-consciousness about playing and always wanted to hand it over,” he said in a recent interview with Zane Lowe. Despite this, Brion was determined to get Miller on the strings and keys.
The single ‘Good News’ is the song Brion had the most influence over. The track was half-finished and without a chorus when he heard Miller singing in the control room. “I said, ‘that’s the chorus,’ and he said, ‘I dunno, I think this could be another song’. In a very rare moment… I said ‘no, you’re wrong’.”
What does it sound like?
‘Good News’ is maybe the song which best exemplifies what Miller and Brion were trying to achieve with Circles. It’s a sweet, loping song with lyrics that captures both melancholia and a sense of gentle optimism, and a melody that strikes an emotional chord without feeling maudlin or corny. And that’s the kind of energy which permeates the record as a whole.
While samples from funk, psych and even indie-rock have been a Mac Miller mainstay since the beginning, Circles is also the first of his albums to include an actual cover. ‘Everybody’ was originally recorded by Arthur Lee, the San Francisco legend and former Love frontman who referred to himself as “the first black hippie”. Miller’s version turns the loud, blues-y anthem into a piano-driven, heartfelt take that honours the psychedelic undertones in the melody, accentuating its basic beauty by stripping it bare.
What does it look like?
Companion music videos for the album are out on Miller’s YouTube channel, each directed by Anthony Gaddis and Eric Tilford. Though they’re largely pretty varied, the videos consist of two main elements: behind-the-scenes footage of Miller in the studio – mixing sounds, playing instruments, clapping, and generally brimming with joy – and psychedelic imagery – blossoming flowers, running horses, oceans, and spinning planets interspersed with stills of Miller.
Though there’s an element of sadness to the whole package, the overall effect is more heartening than harrowing. The combination of sentimental archive content mixed with bright colours and playful animation does a good job of summing up the idea that Circles seems to have been built around – as Mac himself says it on ‘Good News’: “it ain’t that bad”.
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