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‘Swimming’: How Mac Miller’s Fifth Album Plumbed The Depths Of His Psyche
In Depth

‘Swimming’: How Mac Miller’s Fifth Album Plumbed The Depths Of His Psyche

Showcasing his growth as an artist, Mac Miller’s fifth album, ‘Swimming’, saw the rapper dive deep into introspection and vulnerability.

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Taking a leap into the uncharted ocean of mindfulness and self-care, the Pittsburgh-born rapper Mac Miller used his fifth album, Swimming, as an opportunity to embrace an ethos of personal growth and introspection while in the midst of great personal difficulties. Through vivid lyricism and mesmerising jazz-rap soundscapes, Miller faced up to some hard truths about himself, inviting the listener to join him on his journey of self-discovery.

From its deeply melancholic synths to its lush yet mellow production style, Swimming would come to be regarded as one of the best Mac Miller albums yet, adding a weight of unflinchingly honest emotion to the world of hip-hop in songs that ponder resilience and growth. However, within a month of the album’s release, Miller’s story would take a tragic turn. The sudden death of the rapper at age 26, in September 2018, meant Swimming would be the last album he released during his lifetime.

Listen to ‘Swimming’ here.

https://open.spotify.com/album/5wtE5aLX5r7jOosmPhJhhk?si=HuK2kGvGThymkPCZbsLxtA

Here we examine the enduring legacy of Swimming, and why the album remains a high-water mark for Mac Miller’s emotional acuity, marking him out as an inspiration to this day…

The backstory: “I was getting my bearings, figuring out how to move”

In May 2018, Mac Miller’s highly publicised relationship with pop star Ariana Grande came to an end. Just days after the breakup, the rapper found himself in legal trouble when he was arrested for driving under the influence, after crashing his Mercedes SUV into a utility pole near his Los Angeles home and fleeing the scene. Admitting fault, Miller committed to putting himself through a period of sobriety and deep self-reflection.

In an interview with Zane Lowe on Apple Music’s Beats 1 later that year, Miller opened up about his past relationships and appeared to be in a much better place. “I was in love with somebody,” Miller said. “We were together for two years. We worked through good times, bad times, stress and everything else. And then it came to an end. And we both moved on. And it’s that simple.” Despite the assumption that Swimming would be Mac Miller’s “breakup album”, he swiftly dispelled those notions. “It frustrates me that people take something and put it into this small window narrative,” he later told Vulture.

As a matter of fact, a significant portion of the material for Swimming had been produced over a two-year period, with many of the lyrics being written during Miller’s time with Grande. However, following their breakup, it became evident that Miller’s relationship difficulties, as well as his own mental well-being, would be inextricably linked with the album’s public reception. As Miller faced the challenge of overcoming his heartbreak to bring the album to completion, he knew he had to get himself straightened out in order to move on.

Working on his fitness by going on daily morning runs, Miller made bids toward self-improvement that often crept into his music. “It’s good for the chemicals in your brain,” he told Rolling Stone. “It puts my mind in the proper place to start the day.” Given Miller’s reputation among the hip-hop community for his chilled-out beats and laidback drawl, he knew he had to feel comfortable in his own skin if Swimming was going capture his newfound psychological outlook. “At the end of the day, I was serving myself most by just chilling and enjoying my shift in life,” Miller said. “I was getting my bearings, figuring out how to move.”

The recording: “The goal here is just to be as much me as possible”

Recording at his own home and at numerous locations in California, New York City, Pittsburgh, Hawaii, Texas and Seattle, Mac Miller reportedly slept in the studio while working on Swimming, often working late into the night to finesse his ideas. Keeping round-the-clock hours with a close-knit group of like-minded musicians – most notably Dev Hynes, of Blood Orange, and virtuoso bassist Thundercat – Miller began to pen self-probing lyrics to jazz-rap instrumentals that plumbed the depths of his psychological hardships.

Often using aquatic metaphors, Miller began to see Swimming as a water-themed album that would be the first in a trilogy of records that laid bare his own mental-health struggles. “He had this whole aquatic theme that came out of something we’d talked about when he was working on Swimming,” co-producer Jon Brion later told The New York Times. “I’d noticed he mentioned water a few times in the lyrics, and then that grew into all these discussions about water and what it sounds like.” Billowing like a hot spring, album opener Come Back To Earth dove into this slipstream with lyrics that addressed Miller’s experiences with depression and substance abuse (“I just need a way out/Of my head”).

When speaking with producer Rick Rubin on the Showtime docuseries Shangri-La, Miller gave a fascinating insight into his headspace when he was making Swimming. “It’s been an interesting journey for me to realise that the goal here is just to be as much me as possible,” Miller explained. “That’s it. That’s the only goal.” There’s a definite sense that, with Swimming, Miller was fishing for something deeper, and that he had cast the net wider than ever before, not only in terms of his musical collaborators but also in the album’s geographical sprawl, with songs such as Hurt Feelings and Wings being recorded in Honolulu, Hawaii, and Perfecto being recorded in Santiago, Chile.

Produced by Carter Lang and TaeBeast, and released as the album’s lead single in May 2018, Small Worlds felt like a session of funk-lite hydrotherapy, featuring guitarist John Mayer laying down some blissfully jazzy tones while Miller directly addresses the car crash that led to his arrest (“Tell myself to hold on/I can feel my fingers slipping/In a motherfucking instant I’ll be gone”). Though the song finds Miller grappling with the consequences of his actions, he was keen to stress to Rolling Stone that he was now on a much better path, and that his conscience was clear. “I have a past history with that shit, so they’re going to naturally assume that that means I’m back going through it,” the rapper explained. “I can’t change it. I’m not going to lose sleep over it, though. I’d rather just continue living my life and see where that goes.”

From how Ladders muses on the idea that no matter how high you climb the further you have to fall, and how a ticking clock on Dunno underscores the impermanence of his romantic relationships, Miller’s deeply sincere lyrics washed over the grooves he was concocting in the studio. On 2009, he reflected upon his pre-fame days over lilting piano (“Sometimes I wish I took a simpler route/Instead of havin’ demons that’s as big as my house”), perfectly illustrating the introspective mindset he was in at the time. “The way he did the song, he did it so quickly,” producer Eric G said of 2009 in an interview with DJ Booth. “He works really fast and does a lot of stuff at all times.”

Exposing his inner turmoil for all to see, the music video for the album’s second single, Self Care, saw a cigarette-smoking Miller buried alive in a coffin, carving the words “memento mori” (“remember you must die”) into the lid. Despite this, the lapping beats produced by DJ Dahi, Nostxlgic and ID Labs are warm and jacuzzi-like, bubbling away as Miller gives voice to his semi-destructive urges (“I got all the time in the world, so for now I’m just chillin’/Plus, I know it’s a, it’s a beautiful feelin’/In oblivion”). Peaking at No.33 on the US Hot 100, Self Care became one of Mac Miller’s biggest hits released during his lifetime, selling over five million copies in North America alone.

The release: “I’m just talking about things that I’m proud of myself for”

Released on 3 August 2018, Mac Miller’s fifth album, Swimming, peaked at No.3 on the US Billboard 200 and No.17 on the UK album charts. Submerging the listener in a tidal pool of fluid synths and floaty beats, the album was Miller’s most mature offering to date, proving just how far he’d evolved both as a rapper and as an artist. With each diary-like song, the album dived into Miller’s battles with self-despondency and explored new depths of introspection, immersing listeners in a profound exploration of his mental and emotional struggles as well as his discovery of self-worth. “I’m just talking about things that I’m proud of myself for, things I’m afraid of, or things that are just thoughts and emotions,” Miller told Zane Lowe.

A little more than a week prior to the album’s release, third single What’s The Use? was released. A woozy cut featuring a deliriously funky bassline from Thundercat, sounding like Chic’s Bernard Edwards playing pool volleyball with Michael Jackson’s Thriller bassist Louis Johnson, it benefitted from the bassist’s almost supernatural abilities. “Swear to god, that was the first thing he played, like not even checking the notes or anything,” Miller told Zane Lowe. “He literally picked up the bass and that was the first thing he naturally did.” As Snoop Dogg’s backing vocals emerge like a G-funk ghost, Thundercat’s bass work on What’s The Use? truly elevates the song, though the bassist modestly credited Miller for his guidance. “I feel like he’s always got a vision,” Thundercat told Rolling Stone. “He’s a monster of his craft.”

With Swimming, Miller examined his mental-health struggles with clear-headed frankness. A masterclass in sonic craftsmanship, the album’s production blended a rich tapestry of lush instrumentals, soulful melodies and intricate beats flowing like a riptide off the Cali coast. Riding it all, Miller’s lyrical prowess truly shone, weaving together an intricate wordplay and introspective self-examination that was nothing short of profound.

Never shying away from addressing his alcohol consumption and drug usage, the song Jet Fuel is one of the album’s standout moments, exploring Miller’s difficulties with sobriety (“Now I’m in the clouds, come down when I run out of jet fuel/But I never run out of jet fuel”). The song’s sky-scraping beats were originally created by co-producers DJ Dahi and Steve Lacy for Kendrick Lamar’s album DAMN.. “That’s one of the fan favourites,” Mac Miller said of the song on the podcast The Internet Presents. “They hear them Steve Lacy chords, they get excited, you know what I mean?”

What’s most haunting, however, is how So It Goes brings Swimming to a close. Taking inspiration from a line about death from the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse-Five, the song was produced by Mac Miller and Jon Brion, and found the rapper reaching conclusions about the fickle nature of success (“You could have the world in the palm of your hands/You still might drop it”). With its blend of buoyant yet wistful ambience, enriched by ethereal synths and multilayered melodic vocals, So It Goes ends the album on a bittersweet and dream-like note, made all the more poignant due to the fact that the song was featured in Miller’s last Instagram story before he died.

The legacy: “I’m less concerned with being king of the hill than being able to put shit out”

Following Mac Miller’s accidental death at the age of 26, of a lethal combination of fentanyl, cocaine and alcohol, Swimming became a requiem to his remarkable talent. The tragic circumstances of his demise shocked the music world, and his passing served as a stark reminder of the perils of substance abuse.

In one of his final interviews, published by Vulture a week after his death, Miller shared his hopes for the album’s reception, expressing a desire to simply release his music without the burdens of chasing commercial success. “I’m less concerned with being king of the hill than being able to put shit out,” the rapper admitted. These words reflect his commitment to authenticity and creative freedom, a sentiment that permeates through the raw and introspective tracks on Swimming.

Today, it’s much clearer that Swimming provided a glimpse into Miller’s state of mind at the time of its recording. Acknowledging the complexity of his emotions, Miller expressed a desire for a nuanced existence beyond the confines of constant happiness or relentless sadness. “I don’t want to be depressed,” he continued in Vulture. “I want to be able to have good days and bad days.” Drawing listeners into a profound understanding of his personal battles, the vulnerability and honesty Miller displayed on Swimming resonated deeply with listeners, and was only thrown into sharper relief after his death.

Despite the tragic loss of Miller, Swimming continued to receive commercial acclaim and chart recognition. The album gained a nomination for Best Rap Album at the 2019 Grammy Awards, solidifying its place among the best releases of the year. Furthermore, in 2021, Swimming achieved a significant milestone, earning double platinum certification by the Recording Industry Association Of America (RIAA) for selling over two million copies in the US alone.

Just as Mac Miller had hoped, the legacy of Swimming extends far beyond chart success or accolades. Its impact lies in its ability to touch the hearts and minds of listeners, offering solace, relatability and a sense of shared humanity. Miller’s musical evolution, as showcased on this album, continues to resonate with fans, ensuring that his artistry and spirit will endure long after his death. Standing as a testament to his talent, introspection and unyielding pursuit of authentic expression, Swimming is a timeless classic of contemporary hip-hop that will forever hold a special place in the hearts of fans worldwide.

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