Mixtape Maturation: The Many Faces of Mac Miller

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Being a white rapper is hard. In a way, white rappers experience what most people of color experience on a daily basis: the need to be “twice as good,” the constant doubt of whether you belong or if you’re only there because of the color of your skin. Malcolm James McCormick, a gifted MC who performs under the stage name of Mac Miller, is white, and he has always been very good at rapping, but he didn’t grow up in a trailer park like Eminem, and didn’t have a battle-tested resumé to bolster his rep, either. Until very recently, despite his considerable talent, not everyone seemed ready to admit that Mac is legit, least of all himself.

Now, in the leadup to GO:OD AM, out September 18 on Warner Bros., those doubts almost seem silly. It’s Mac’s third proper album, and his first for a major label. He’s confident on the record (even arrogant), switching rhyme styles and handling production duties with equal adroitness. But it took a while for him to get this comfortable in his own skin. Growing up, he worshipped the gritty street dramas of harlem rappers like Big L and Cam’ron. He admired their skills and stories, but acknowledged the gulf of experience that separated them. Watching from Pittsburgh, he was a tourist.

When he put out his first mixtape But My Mackin’ Ain’t Easy, at 15 years old, both his pale skin and shallow but technically gifted raps were a blank slate. It’s taken two albums and almost a dozen mixtapes, but he’s matured into a colorful wordsmith, while rapidly covering his body in tattoos. As he colored his music with beats from the likes of Alchemist and rhymes elevated by his peers, the color granted by the ink of his tattoos finally reflects what he feels inside, on the outside. That forceful injection of color was undoubtedly a painful process.

And when you consider that all of this played out during years 15-23 of this young man’s life, it’s quite a feat that he has not only survived, but is better for it. So in honor of his graduation to the majors, we’ve collected a sampling of several points in the process of Mac Miller’s maturation—from the juvenile raps of his literally juvenile years to his drugged out mixtapes and onto his major-label debut. Keep an eye on what he does next.

“Cruisin'” (But My Mackin’ Ain’t Easy, 2007)

At this point in his career, Mac is still going by his early stage name, Easy Mac (and weirdly, using the Kraft product logo). He’s been studying his favorite art, and makes sure to wrap himself in signifiers. That means he’s rocking the fresh designer fitted cap with the flat brim and stickers intact, flanked by black homies who give him dap, including one exchange in front of a particularly dramatic backdrop of the Pittsburgh skyline.

Even for 2007, the beat is a throwback, the kind of instrumental Roc Marciano might make, with horns that Joey Bada$$ would salivate over. It only takes him a couple bars to get ig’nant (“Haters keep to hating/ Little faggots figure skating”), but it’s hard to fault him too much at this point: he’s a 15-year-old boy. And he flexes like one.

“Another Night” (The High Life, 2009)

Mac’s “Thugz Mansion” tribute. Between the acoustic guitar and string section, if you couldn’t tell, Mac has a softer, more contemplative side. “It’s just another night alone/ I spend another night alone,” he whisper-sings on the track’s hokey hook. He’s still rocking basketball jerseys with white undershirts, smoking spliffs and the like, but here, he drops the tough guy act a bit, and gets relatable. He sends a thousand nerds rushing to Google with the line “People love me they don’t even know my last name” and tells us to follow him on Twitter, even though he admits it “sounds lame.” 17-year-old Mac has thoughts, man, and they’re deep.

“Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza” (K.I.D.S., 2010)

18-year-old Mac Miller is confident — maybe a little too confident. With a few tapes under his belt, it’s as if he knows his success is inevitable — and imminent. “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza” would take off, and set the table for his first album’s debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. But the story of “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza” is a little more complicated, and representative of his career as a whole.

In typical mixtape fashion, Miller spit some bars over an instrumental for Lord Finesse’s 1995 jam “Hip 2 Da Game,” and gave it away for free on his Larry Clark-homage mixtape K.I.D.S. (Kickin’ Incredibly Dope Shit). He even says that shortly after its release, he spoke with the Lord on the phone, and they planned to make music together. It was a big deal for Mac, a devotee of Finesse’s Diggin’ in the Crates crew, whose influence on Mac’s music can be seen on any of the boom-bap standard productions he’s rapped over.

But just two years (and two wildly successful albums) later, Lord Finesse files a lawsuit against Mac, claiming, “This is a case about a teenage rapper — Mac Miller — copying the music from a song written, produced and performed by Lord Finesse, a hip-hop legend, changing the title and then distributing it under his own name in order to launch his music career.”

The suit made no sense — Finesse himself never cleared the Oscar Peterson sample he used on the original song — and to make matters worse, Finesse was now claiming that Mac owed his entire career to him. This was a gross overstatement, as the song hardly gives evidence of “copyright infringement, unfair competition, unjust enrichment, interference [and] deceptive trade practices,” as Finesse claimed. They would ultimately settle the suit, and Finesse said that he would even consider working with Mac in the future. Charge it to the game.

“Party on Fifth Ave” (Blue Slide Park, 2011)

The breakout. Finally confident enough to make fun of himself, Mac lets it all hang out on the big single for his first proper album, Blue Slide Park, which would move 144,000 copies in its first week, enough for the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart. “Party on Fifth Ave” features a classic sax sample from Marva Whitney’s “Unwind Yourself,” and a video that sees Mac and some friends dressed as senior citizens, tearing up the cul-de-sac on electric scooters. It’s goofy, celebratory, and features some of his most accessible (read: generic) lyrics. It would vibe well with the frat-packed college crowds he played for on the Blue Slide Park tour.

“Up All Night” (Blue Slide Park, 2011)

If you want a reason why critics bashed Blue Slide Park, an album that Mac’s rabid fanbase consumed voraciously, look to “Up All Night.” The Kidz Bop pop-punk beat is uptempo but hollow, and follows a “party hard, drink up, act crazy” formula that tires well before the song is over. It’s Asher Roth: The Sequel, yet somehow even less interesting. The harsh critical reception, and the “Frat Rap” label he was branded with, drove Mac to self-medicate; he began using Promethazine syrup heavily, and became addicted. Having finally achieved pop stardom, it wasn’t all he’d hoped for. This would significantly color the themes of his music moving forward.

“Donald Trump” (Best Day Ever, 2011)

But before he sank into a medicated stupor of self-doubt, there was celebrating to do. Mac had finally made that paper, and he wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to stunt. “Donald Trump,” from the 2011 mixtape Best Day Ever, is his most egregious money flex, name-dropping the Donald in the way that rappers used to evoke the name of Tony Montana, or the way they do now with Bill Gates. “I’ma take over the world/ When I’m on my Donald Trump shit/ Look at all this money/ Ain’t that some shit.” It’s aspirational party rap, and not even the Donald can shut it down — when he railed against Miller’s use of his name on the track, all he did was provide free publicity. Ultimately it wasn’t the mostly positive portrayal on the track that bothered Trump, but that when asked about him in an interview, Mac called him a “dickhead.” Hmm.

“The Mourning After” (Macadelic, 2012)

By the time he releases the 2012 mixtape Macadelic, Mac is fully in the throes of a drug haze. “The Mourning After,” is ostensibly a love song, sung in the wee hours of the morning to a lady he cares about as she sleeps off their wild night. “Morning after, my lungs hurt/ Eat your pussy just to show you how my tongue works,” he spits to open the track. Thankfully, the rest of the tape isn’t as self-pitiful, as Mac understands the power of the co-sign — for Macadelic, he secured guest appearances from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Lil Wayne, Juicy J, and his Harlem idol Cam’ron. For the most part, he abandons the party rap that the critics turned their noses up at, and starts accumulating the respect to go along with all that money.

“Red Dot Music” (Watching Movies with the Sound Off, 2013)

2013 finds Mac Miller doing all he can to shed his Easy Mac persona. He’s moved from Pittsburgh to LA, palling around with the Odd Future and Black Hippy crews, taking lots of (way harder) drugs, and honing his skills as a producer. His sophomore album, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, is anything but upbeat — rather, it’s dark and morose (“I think I can see a fucking halo/ About to meet my maker/ Brought a double cup of Drano/ Some soda for the flavor”). At times, it’s even mean. On “Red Dot Music,” he asks that you “suck a dick,” calls your girlfriend ugly, and teases a hypothetical neighbor with “special needs.” It’s par for the course for guest Action Bronson, an obese Albanian-American rapper from Queens whose genius-level rhyme skills are matched only by his absurdist fantasies (on “Red Dot Music,” he dreams of “groupies wild enough to suck a fuckin’ baby’s dick,” surprisingly not the first time he’s rapped about babies getting blow jobs).

But most telling is likely the interlude that follows the track, in which Mac enlists battle rapper Loaded Lux to mock his old name “I thought you were Easy Mac with the cheesy raps/ Who the fuck is Mac Miller?” and seemingly puts the art of his youth to sleep. It’s a symbolic execution of his Frat-packer persona, and it worked — reviews were positive, and he still moved more than 100,000 units in the first week.

“Here We Go” (Faces, 2014)

Fresh off an adulatory press cycle and world tour in support of Watching Movies with the Sound Off, Mac sounds more confident than ever on his 2014 mixtape Faces. He feels brave enough to joke about his whiteness while simultaneously asserting his lyrical skill (“I’m underrated, don’t fit on nobody’s playlist/ If I ain’t in your top ten then you’re a racist”). He mocks rappers that turn themselves out for a co-sign (“You spent your whole advance on 2 Chainz and a Gucci verse?”), before spitting the ultimate contemporary rap boast: “I did it all without a Drake feature!”

The tattoos that he’s been steadily covering himself with have finally creeped past his neckline; his skin that much closer to the amount of color that reflects how he feels inside. It doesn’t even feel that weird to hear Rick Ross boom “Mac Miller my real nigga” on “Insomniak.” Mac might not be totally sober, but he’s very much in control, and he finally has what he always wanted: Money, power, and respect.

“100 Grandkids” (GO:OD AM, 2015)

The narrative surrounding Mac Miller’s third LP, GO:OD AM, is one of an older, wiser, world-weary rapper with the world at his feet. Now that he truly feels like he belongs, the next step for Mac is to consider his legacy, which he nods at in a cheeky pun on the 100 Grand/kids his mother asked for. No one paying attention would claim Mac can’t rap, and after his production turn on Watching Movies with the Sound Off, he’s proven himself capable behind the boards, too.

GO:OD AM is Miller’s major-label debut, so expectations are understandably high. The album is excellent, a logical point in the evolution of a young rapper that has endured his growing pains in public and on the Internet, under ever-increasing scrutiny. But the interesting question — at least, more than whether or not the album is any good — is who is the Mac Miller fan of 2015? Is it the teen who fell in love with the juvenilia of K.I.D.S. and Blue Slide Park? The lean-rap aficionado that got swept up in the haze of Watching Movies with the Sound Off? Or is he truly ready for a mainstream crossover, appealing to top 40 pop fans as well as the hip-hop heads?

Regardless of the outcome, Mac has achieved quite an accomplishment. He’s matured from a pimple-faced punk who dressed like a Big L video for Halloween into a highly skilled MC and producer, with the respect of his peers as well as the critics. He appears to have become the man he wants to be, both inside and out.