Mac Miller is a changed man-boy. A year and three months ago, he released the personally progressive yet unfocused Macadelic mixtape. While Macadelic was under-the-influence, underwater, and somewhat under-focused, Watching Movies With The Sound Off, carries the sound of a graceful surf, occasionally dunking its head in and even exploring the ocean floor, but more often breathing the crisp air of the horizon. Here, Mac gets higher off of experimenting with thoughts rather than chemicals. The first words that the Pittsburgh native utters on the album (barring the pitch-shifted semi-prayer intro) tell us that he’s “trapped inside [his] head / it kinda feels like it’s a purgatory”, showing what’s at stake and how it’s being approached on this heavy and heady tape. Mac, while still somewhat infatuated with the lifestyle he’s afraid of wasting his future on–drugs and women–is equally concerned with the cerebral, the theoretical, nuances of human ups and downs and getting his mental state intact.
Everything about this album should help Mac Miller shed the less-than-desirable aspects of his former reputation. Nobody can call “S.D.S.”–which prominently features lasers, off-kilter Flying Lotus keys and questions of how much Christ sold the cross for–frat rap. It would be more than jaded to call “I’m Not Real”–the swirling, dark questioning of existence itself–bland. Only a closed-minded critic could fail to see the growth in the mere inclusion of a song like “REMember”–Mac at his most hurt and lost, mourning the loss of a childhood friend–let alone the craft in its execution. Amongst the song’s most memorable moments are Mac wondering if his deceased friend would be proud of who he is now, his half-ashamed wish that the friend would have had an illegitimate child so that Mac could have someone to tell the deceased’s story to, and, perhaps most painful, the child-like deflation in Mac’s voice when he realizes he can’t use his newfound fame or money to save those he loves–“Can you please help me find my friend? / I’ll give you anything you need, multiplied by ten”.
Though Mac’s pen is still not the sharpest in the game and he sometimes has trouble staying on topic, he more often than not makes up for it with his delivery. What truly sells all of Mac’s strange ideas, occasionally half-baked rhymes, mostly stagnant flow, and new subject matter is the bare, cracking, in-your-ear quality of Mac’s voice. Mac’s voice has always helped to sell him as a real and approachable figure, but now, rather helping Mac seem more similar to his listeners, his voice is a device to bring us around to his world perspective, much in the style of Macklemore or the late Capital STEEZ.
Mac’s voice isn’t his only instrument of his to play more prominently this time around. The dumbfounded 21-year-old on the cover, the same one who raps about having “your lil’ brother ask your moms where the pussy is”, who started his absurd album listening party by humming and mumbling, is the same one behind the boards–alone–for four of the album’s sonic highlights. The twinkling simplicity of “Avian”, the cartoonish, lurching, and downright perfect-for-Jay Electronica “Suplexes Inside of Complexes and Duplexes”, the aforementioned grandiose ache of”REMember”, and the catchy and quirky if somewhat unchallenging “Aquarium” are all produced by Larry Fisherman, Mac Miller’s unnecessary but still funny production alias. Mac is no master craftsman yet, often failing to change up the beat in any dramatic way to keep energy afloat through a song’s second half, but he is a surprisingly promising musician. He knows what he will sound good over, what others will sound good over, how to match song content and sonic landscape, and how to step towards powerful album cohesion. He also uses the pitch-shifting and vocal stacking techniques that are so popular these days to perhaps their best potential yet. If it seems the tracks Mac produced are particularly sleepy, remember that he also was half of the production credit on wild and wicked album centerpiece, “Watching Movies”. It seems it took having Sap alongside him to liven Mac up.
That benefit of friends and collaborators is a theme throughout both the album’s construction and its content. WMWTSO boasts a number of high-profile and high-quality features: Action Bronson, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q and the aforementioned Earl and Jay Elect all elevate the levels the tracks they appear on by a sizable margin. Particular highlights are Bronson, who has the best chemistry with Mac; Soul, who drops one of the album’s best verses; and Earl, who, delegated to the hook of “I’m Not Real”, instead leaves his mark by producing both that track and the haunting “The Star Room”. Rhyming alongside Bronson and Earl, Mac is inspired to his sharpest peaks, rapping “Think I can see a fucking halo, about to meet my maker / brought a double cup of Drano” with control and gravity to begin “Red Dot Music”, and pairing confessional rhyming with other-worldly detachment–“I been going in raw, it feels better that real pleasure / I’m not real, I think I never was”–on “I’m Not Real” to dramatic and clever effect.
The rappers aren’t the only outside aid for WMWTSO: the production is it’s true unexpected highlight. While Mac certainly does his collaborators justice with his own work behind the boards, the most lasting, intriguing gems of the album are made possible only by Alchemist (“Red Dot Music”, a masterful mini-maxi boom bap opus), Ado The God (the smoky, thoughtful “I Am Who I Am (Killin Time)”) and Chuck Inglish (the goofy, grinding “Gees”). That’s not even to mention the presence of Flying Lotus and Clams Casino, the latter of which produces two tracks, with “Bird Calls”, the stripped down and rowdy departure from style, being the better. Without this arsenal of producers at the top of their game and their clear understanding of Mac’s vision, the album wouldn’t be half of what it is. The effect of giving Mac’s other-worldly questions and average-joe voice a fittingly spaced-out and somewhat somber palette to stretch across cannot be overemphasized. The only problem with this cohesion from beat to beat and congruence with the lyrics is the dragging quality that this will give the album for some listeners. If you’re looking for a new “Donald Trump”, stop looking at “Watching Movies”, the recent video single. That’s the closest you’re going to get to any truly wild moments. Lord knows how Mac is going to make a concert out of this album–there is a disproportionate amount of lighter-wavers that could only be balanced, energy-wise, by the lesser material from his earlier works.
What does Mac Miller mean to hip-hop as a whole? Were he to be posed the question himself, it’s hard to guess whether Mac would humbly shrug off assertions of his top-tier status or if he would take the “Watching Movies” route–“People worship these idols, ’til they come in contact with gods”. Most likely, though, he still feels that his connection to his fans is his most important contribution, and his relatability still stands among his defining characteristics. In Mac’s words, he’s “a news anchor the youth can relate to” (from “I Am Who I Am (Killin’ Time)”, just reporting from planet Miller, where everything just barely stays above water. Even from that height, though, it’s a beautiful view. Sure, Mac Miller is miles out from shore–or the throne–but simply the fact that the kid from the ‘Burgh had, arguably, the best album to drop on June 18th, 2013, is an achievement worthy of standing ovation.
Best Tracks: “I’m Not Real”, “Matches”, “I Am Who I Am (Killin’ Time)”, “Red Dot Music”, “REMember”
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