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Hip-hop savant Mac Miller’s death in Sept. 2018 shook the music world to pieces, because it was such a startling example of potential cut short after showing so much growth. Artistically, Mac ascended from early perceptions as a vapid frat rapper into a serious, well-rounded musician who offered soulful production, tender vocals, and was ambitious enough to bar up with hip-hop’s best lyricists and serve as a hub for some of Los Angeles’ most talented artists. But a big reason why his music was loved so much was because of his vulnerability: Mac created art that attempted to battle depression and substance abuse, which appear to have eventually taken his life. Swimming, the album he released less than two months before his death, saw him take on those demons face to face – and the new posthumous LP Circles, which Miller’s family reveals was well into production at the time of his death, was meant to be a “companion” album to its predecessor, with a concept of “Swimming in Circles.” Such a sudden death will always haunt those who loved him, but Circles could give fans closure and healing that Mac seemed to never receive.
Circles embarks where Swimming ends with more exploration of self-discovery, seeking understanding, and working towards becoming a better person. Both records mirror what many millennials are currently facing when it comes to their mental health. Mac Miller was gripping with his desolation, battling his vices and dark thoughts, but pursuing peace and refusing to apologize for his mistakes. Despite knowing how his personal story ends, his honesty and vulnerability prompt you to root for him to make it to the other side. His confusion and frustration, like many millennials, are reflective of feeling defeated by waves of emotions with the understanding of the world as well as ourselves. According to a report released in 2019 by Blue Cross Blue Shield, millennials are seeing their physical and mental health decline faster than Generation X as they age. The report showed that depression found in American millennials increased by 30% between 2014 and 2017. However, unlike previous generations, adults between the ages of 23 to 38 have become open about their struggles with mental health. Mac Miller died at age 26, and Circles showcases his willingness to share his battles.
In a Buzzfeed article, written by Anne Helen Peterson explained how millennials are becoming the “Burnout Generation” from the intense pressure of emulating a life similar to our parents had. This isn’t surprising as many millennials have experienced the 2008 recession. After graduating, many found entry-level positions do not pay a livable wage. The constant news cycle being available to us through our phones, social media, the desperate need for a work/life balance, and the opioid epidemic have all been linked to the deterioration of this generation’s mental health. From the outside, Mac Miller seemed to have everything right – a successful career, the access to do what he’s passionate about, and money – but his lyrics show that he was also dealing with being burned out like many of us. The most relatable song on the record is the synthy “Complicated,” where Mac laments the constant traffic running through his mind. “I’m way too young to be gettin’ old,” he tragically observes, questioning why he’s dealing with so much daily stress. In the following Disclosure-produced track “Blue World,” Mac honestly raps about the the ups and downs of depression: “think I lost my mind, reality’s so hard to find/when the devil tryna call your line.” Mac Miller was battling his opiate addiction and his breakup with pop star Ariana Grande during the creation of his final two albums, and Circles depicts a man exhausted from his constant hurdles.
The somber tone of Circles blends the jazz-hop of Divine Feminine (“Hand Me Down,” “Good News”), the lo-fi of Swimming (“Woods,” “Once a Day”) and indie rock vibes (“Everybody,” “That’s On Me”), similar to his Tiny Desk performance. “Blue World” and “Surf” are the only songs where you’ll hear Mac rapping, whereas the rest of the album shows his vocal range that sets the mood of his emotions. While the musicality certainly deserves some attribution to producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West), who also worked on Swimming, it’s also a testament to Mac’s own artistic progression over the last ten years. He learned to use a variety of tools by the time of his death, and that was on display here.
The breezing tranquil rhythm of “That’s On Me” is one of the more positive vibes on the album, feeling content with what’s happening. Listening to the lyrics after knowing how this chapter ends is hard. “I don’t know where I’ve been lately, but I’ve been all right/I said good morning this morning and I’ll say goodnight,” Mac says. With the beautiful production and his willful vocals, it makes us know that there was a time where he felt okay through it all.
Millennials are breaking the cycle of other generations that didn’t tend to their emotional and mental needs. Whether it’s through humorous memes on the internet or healing crystals and meditation, they’re finding new ways to develop self-care and improve their health. Circles and Swimming were therapeutic for Mac, a window into his psyche and his therapy sessions to see the multiple layers of who Malcolm could have been. Hopefully, they can help his fans process their pain as well.
It became easy to hate on Eminem going into the 2010s. Starting with 2009’s Relapse, his first album in five years after taking time off to recover from drug addiction, the Detroit legend’s peerless mic wizardry became increasingly overshadowed by plodding production and below-the-belt potshots at pop stars. Never mind that that album contained some of Em’s most pristine, conceptually-driven bars; to a maturing fan base, the retreads of previous themes and a liberally-employed new accent missed the mark. And though Recovery seemed to be just that for him, culminating in some noteworthy hits like the Rihanna-assisted “Love the Way You Lie,” Marshall Mathers spent the rest of the last decade releasing a series of uninspiring missteps leading up to 2017’s forgettable Revival. Fortunately, Music to Be Murdered By is an ably produced late-career triumph, with some of Eminem’s most poignant and exquisitely crafted lyrics in in recent memory.
What better backdrop for Eminem’s refocused angst than that which is invoked by the shoveled-dirt sounds and an eerie drop—announcing the album’s macabre title—by a Hitchcockian narrator on the intro? From jump, it’s a way of keeping things fresh and thematically consistent for a potentially daunting 20-song stretch. Suddenly those lazy strays by far too many on Rap Twitter at his supposedly lame “skippity be bop de boo” rhyme patterns seem moot when the 8 Mile representative comes off newly enlivened in his grown-man vent, with one of the best openers since Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares.” Over woofer-caving bass and a dramatic organ, he spits, “They said that they hated the awake me/I lose the rage, I’m too tame/I get it back, they say I’m too angry.” It’s thrilling to hear him sounding this focused—no funny voices or childish slurs—while defending the humorous and reflective aspects of his legacy and persona.
The former aspect is on display on “Unaccommodating,” his link-up with Young M.A, the first of several well-placed features here. Em’s lighthearted lines—in all their hacked-algorithm complexity—about “getting head like a Pillow Pet” blend unusually well with the Brooklynite’s loose, languid flow. And far from the workmanlike thud of past Slim Shady beats, the song’s hypnotic, bells-driven melody adds some much-needed verve and bounce, helping modernize and stabilize a beloved MC whose verbiage tends toward rigid and caffeinated.
“Cause, see, they call me a menace and if the shoe fits, I'll wear it. But if it don't, then y'all will swallow the truth, grin and bear it” #Renegade #MusicToBeMurderedBy pic.twitter.com/2aIFk2kz8a
— Marshall Mathers (@Eminem) January 23, 2020
But those revitalized hijinks of Em’s soon give way to some of the headier material that one one would expect on such a darkly-themed project. “You Gon’ Learn,” with a guest spot from Royce da 5’9”, is a moving meditation on the inevitability of struggle. Whereas his longtime friend recalls his past with alcoholism, Marshall ruminates on the existential dilemma of being white and poor in a Chocolate City: “Didn't have knots, I was so broke/On my last rock, for my slingshot/Better haul ass, don't be no slow poke/Through the tall grass, run your ass off/Oh no, got your pants caught on the fence post/Getting chased, by them Jackboys.” These sepia-toned snapshots, emboldened by world-weary synths and hard snares, bristle with a fuming blue-collar furor, reminding us once again of Em’s remarkable triumphs over adversity.
But what about those well-crafted bars? Not only does Music to Be Murdered By possess them in spades, it also astoundingly manages to bring the ever-illusive third verse back to the forefront. Its inclusion on “Yah Yah” is obvious, if not expected alongside such heavyweight spitters as Black Thought and, again, Royce da 5’9,” though Em makes it indelible: “And I'm like a spider crawlin' up your spinal column/I'm climbin' all up the sides of the asylum wall/And dive in a pile of Tylenol, you're like a vagina problem/To a diabolical gynecologist tryna ball a fist.” More surprising, however, is “Lock It Up,” a hit waiting to happen, which features Anderson .Paak and a third verse whose heading-spinning quatrain (“Get a whiff of the doctor's medicine/Like sedatives you'll get popped, Excedrin/'Cause you can get it like over the counter/Like I just left the damn concession stand”) seems all the more outstanding amid Dr. Dre’s lucid and infectious guitar stabs.
Less a radio-ready earworm than a morbid monologue, “Darkness” is a tragic narrative in the tradition of “Stan.” In under six minutes, Eminem embodies a deranged shooter, self-medicating backstage with Valium and alcohol before opening fire on his audience then killing himself. The song ends, significantly, with Eminem highlighting gun debate loopholes and playing news clips from the 2017 Mandalay Bay Hotel shooting in Las Vegas as well as the 2019 shooting in Daytona, Ohio among others. This is social commentary with the subtle implication that white male privilege in this country far too often hides an unchecked anxiety, along with the observation that these mass shooters aren't as far from us as we may think. It may fall flat with some listeners since just several songs earlier he makes a punchline out of the deadly bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, but for an artist who has previously likened himself to the Columbine shooters, the song is growth.
A more suitable conduit is the punk-rock-like Stepdad,” where Marshall blows up on his guardian for abusing him and and his mom to the point where “I’m startin’ to think I’m psychotic.” What would otherwise serve as a welcome reprieve, “Those Kinda Nights,” a saccharine ode to hitting up the strip club, with Ed Sheeran on the hook, falls flat. It’s not that we don’t want to hear Shady at his ease; it’s just that with such a formulaic setup (not to mention a clunky line about D12 member Bizarre and a lap dance—something no one really ever needs to visualize, no disrespect), it dissipates some of the album’s bullet-point intensity.
That eye-of-the-tiger ferocity is, thankfully, flexed on “Little Engine,” which revisits the zany worldview introduced on his debut some 20 years ago with bars like, “I'm still the one that your parents hate/I’m in your house eatin' carrot-cake/While I sit there and wait and I marinate/I'm irritated, you 'bout to meet a scary fate/And come home to find yourself starin' straight into a fuckin' barrel like Sharon Tate.” Elsewhere, “Marsh” mines a similarly combative mode while showcasing more breathtaking internal rhymes: “A pad and pen'll be great, but a napkin'll do/Return of the whack sicko/Head spinnin' like Invisibl Skratch Piklz/Yeah, Shady's back, see the bat signal.”
But it’s “I Will,” which boasts the remaining Slaughterhouse members, that marks his newfound penchant for score settling. Here, instead of coming for R&B songstresses who are for the most part defenseless against him, Eminem trains his sights, finally, on someone who’s fit for the smoke. In a blistering swipe at former Brand Nubian and frequent VladTV affiliate Lord Jamar, he observes: “Yeah, your group was off the chain, but you were the weakest link.” If it seems like presumption to go at one of the culture’s pioneers like that, it’s thanks to a buildup of bad vibes that have long been brewing between the two. It’s a sentiment he echoes in the aforementioned “Lock It Up,” where he addresses the proverbial elephant in the room, regarding Joe Budden’s exit from Slaughterhouse, degradingly referring to the podcast host as “Trader Joe.” Eminem doesn’t merely get mad here; with Music to Be Murdered By, he also gets even.
“Ain't no pretend, ain't tryna make amends / Just tryna keep my legacy, I'm legend in the end,” Danny Brown raps on “Change Up,” the desolate opening track to his new album uknowhatimsayin¿. Danny Brown has been one of the most consistently great rappers this decade, his adventurous ear and gonzo humor spread across four full-lengths and numerous features. His latest album solidifies that legacy by reviewing familiar themes with a fresh approach.
The Detroit artist’s sound has continually evolved to match the concept of each album, and he points to deceased art-rock god David Bowie as an example. After plunging into the industrial goth abyss on 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, the concept for his latest project uknowhatimsayin¿ is no concept. (Which in Bowie terms would mean it’s his Tonight, I guess?) “Is the music good or not? You don’t need to put the tracklist backwards or anything, you know what I’m sayin?” the Detroit rapper recently told Pigeons & Planes. “Just rap—dope beats and dope rhymes.”
Danny has referred to uknowhatimsayin¿ as “his version of a stand-up comedy album.” Of course, he’s always been funny in his verses. (His breakout project XXX, where he boasts about literally shitting on your mixtape, “wipe with the credits, leave stains on the jewel case,” was just ranked among the 100 best albums of the decade by Pitchfork.) But previously the jokes were there to lighten up the horror of his hardscrabble situations. Now the ratio has flipped, like he’s looking back on his life through the Get-A-Load Of This Guy Cam. There’s an adage from mid-century comedian Steve Allen that comedy is “tragedy plus time;” perhaps, after years as an internationally touring rapper, he feels far enough removed to look at tragic circumstances in a new light.
Hence lead single “Dirty Laundry.” It’s a no-hook compendium of some of Danny’s scummiest moments from back when his main concern was selling drugs without violating his parole. He can afford a prostitute but not a room, so they meet in a Burger King bathroom like Humpty Hump. He turns detergent brands into gun talk with “High Tide, Gain off of Arm & Hammer.”
The literal and metaphorical interpretations of the title interlock in the final verse, where he pays a stripper for sex with change he had left over from the laundromat and spots her doing laundry the very next morning. It’s the sort of free-associative thrill ride Robin Williams used to specialize in, especially while under the influence of the powders Danny used to traffic. It might not all be true, but he’s not lying. It’s not a joke, but it’s funny as hell.
“Belly of the Beast” is from a separate routine entirely. Longtime producer Paul White creates a barely-there beat out of pinging bass notes and vocal sighs. Nigerian singer Obongjayar offers a yearning chorus in his gravelly voice: “They can’t contain me, I’m free / it feels like losing your mind.” The overall effect is like a glimpse of some unknown netherworld beyond human comprehension, like the best psychedelic trip imaginable, and the punchline is Danny’s verses are down-to-earth sex talk. “If it smell like syrup, you gon’ get this work,” he says, “but if it smell like perch, gotta disperse.” And that’s after he brags “Hoes on my dick ‘cuz I look like Roy Orbison.”
To be clear, Danny’s not only focused on sex. He tries out other hip-hop tropes on this record, like a stand-up finding new ways to joke about dating or airplane food. “Savage Nomad” is a flashback to childhood, fighting on the playground after school and stealing the scales from chemistry class for unsanctioned extracurriculars. He references Minnie Riperton and Eric B. & Rakim in the same verse, despite sounding the polar opposite of those artists’ smoothness over rigid hi-hats and squealing guitar. To rhyme it with “impotent” and “licorice,” the rapper bends “LinkedIn” into three syllables. It’s a reference to a podcast, sure, but it also sounds like how a kid might mispronounce a social media site he has no business being on.
“Theme Song” is a diss track. Danny is demanding respect from a new class of rappers ripping off his outlandish style and getting rich, instead of losing a label deal like he did. If he has a specific rapper in mind, it’s too tricky to pin down, but pity anyone whose music is compared to disgraced pastor “Bishop Eddie Long with a thong on.” A$AP Ferg bellows affirmations in the background, like a hypeman chiming in via FaceTime.
Only two other rappers appear on uknowhatimsayin¿, and they’re veterans like Danny himself. Run The Jewels, the duo of El-P and Killer Mike, appear on posse cut “3 Tearz” to boast about not caring about anything and illuminate the pasts that brought them there. Danny fakes being a crack user so he doesn’t get caught selling in the wrong territory, while El hosts Death on his couch and stalls him with jokes. Like their last collaboration, it’s steep competition, but Killer Mike gets the best line, capping the track with “Win in the end like Tina did goddamn Ike.”
Other luminaries are lurking in the album credits. Dev Hynes of Blood Orange sings the chorus of “Shine,” his airy voice a natural counterpoint to Danny’s yelp. Aggro rising star JPEGMAFIA pops up twice, providing the loping beat for “3 Tearz” and a breathy, Pharrell-esque hook on “Negro Spiritual.” Flying Lotus and Thundercat supply the frantic beat for the latter track, which feels like riding in a car swerving across every lane.
The biggest name attached to the album is executive producer Q-Tip. Though he only produced a few beats for the album himself, all three continue the loose, funky sound explored on the last A Tribe Called Quest record. In particular, Tip shows how to color outside the lines with the chords on “Best Life,” a shoo-in for feel-good rap song of the year. Most importantly, Danny credits the Tribe mastermind with pushing for a simplified sound, requiring him to “damn near relearn how to rap.” Q-Tip may have only been behind the boards for three tracks, but his influence is felt across the record. It’s easy to imagine him lending his ear to other middle-aged rappers in need of a way forward, but Tip is likely too bombastic of a talent to settle into being a background figure forever.
After anticipating trends like pills, EDM beats, and mall goth chic, Danny Brown has sidestepped them entirely on uknowhatimsayin¿. He’s re-focused on spitting memorable verses over hard beats, and as a result, created one of 2019’s best rap albums. It’s replayable with its 33-minute runtime, and the psychedelic beats ensure there’s something new to notice with each spin. Like the best stand-up specials, the album is meant to be passed among friends, choice passages memorized and referenced ad nauseam. As long as there are fans guffawing as their heads knock, rest assured, Danny Brown’s legacy is secured.