Mac's latest brings dope beats and rhymes, but leaves many questions unanswered
Mac Miller is 21-years-old and he’s already having a mid-life crisis.
Back in 2011, buoyed by years of mixtape buzz and relentless touring, Miller’s official debut LP, Blue Slide Park (Rostrum), topped the Billboard Top 200 chart, breaking a 16-year dry spell on an indie LP holding that position, and subsequently put the industry on alert: Mac’s fan base was very real. But with a heightened profile came the pressures of fame. His shows got bigger and tours got longer. He squabbled with Donald Trump, whose namesake earned him his biggest hit. Rap legend Lord Finesse sued him for $10 million over “Kool-Aid and Frozen Pizza,” a mixtape cut built on the instrumental to Finesse’s 1996 song “Hip 2 Da Game.” He developed an addiction to syrup, then alcohol. Everything was going so right, yet so wrong. Perhaps needing a change, he packed his shit and moved all the way from gritty Pittsburgh to sunny Los Angeles. There, he built a studio and shot his MTV reality show Mac Miller and the Most Dope Family. He also recorded his second album, Watching Movies With The Sound Off, a transformative body of work with its sights set on casting Miller in a much more serious light.
The album largely picks up where his 2012 mixtape Macadelic—a trippy ride through hip-hop psychedelia— left off. The results are mixed. Mac’s pre-Macadelic material was enjoyable because it was fun and seemingly light-hearted. Older songs like “Knock Knock” and “Wear My Hat,” among others, while not exactly displays in lyrical mastery, displayed a certain youthful energy that just isn’t present here. Instead we have songs like the Flying Lotus-produced “S.D.S.,” where he taunts his listeners (“Somebody do something!”) over airy synthesizer pads and a lagging drum track. “Objects In The Mirror” finds Mac ditching rap for singing (“I never thought that it would feel this way/ You never taught me how to heal the pain”) over an electric piano progression that just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. He sings again on the prog rock-tinged “Youforia,” which also suffers from a lack of musical direction.
But Watching Movies With The Sound Off is hardly a bad album. In fact, despite the aforementioned gripes, it’s quite the opposite. To wit, Mac has made his career by invoking the true schoolism of '90s. But this project, more than his others, nails that aesthetic in a way that is much more clever and refined. Where in the past those efforts seemed, well, a bit cheesy, here they’re noticeably less so. Like the Action Bronson-assisted “Red Dot Music,” which finds the two white rap kingpins trading verses over a chunky kick-snare pattern. Then there’s “Suplexes Inside of Complexes and Duplexes,” featuring an amazing guest verse from Jay Electronica, and the off-kilter “Gee,” with its superb arrangement. And while the LP is certainly short on introspection—this, considering the wealth of personal demons Mac’s fought off recently—there is “REMember,” a touching ode to a fallen friend. “I hope you proud of me, the dude I grew to be/ ingenuity, influenced by your euology,” he confesses over the track’s somber melody.
Typically, when an artist shifts their creative direction so drastically, the outcome is disastrous. But with Watching Movies With The Sound Off, Mac Miller makes a strong case that it can be done. It might not be a perfect album, but it’s a strong one. It’s got good production, strong lyrics and overall it’s a good listen. That said, the LP’s biggest drawback, again, is that shift in direction. We get that Mac is feeling, well, a little different now. He’s just not exactly showing us why. —Paul Cantor