In the video for Mac Miller’s latest single, “Self Care,” he’s thrust into one of the most famous scenes from Quentin Tarantino’s 2004 film Kill Bill: Volume 2. Mac is in a coffin, buried alive with nothing but his wits to get him out of the life-threatening predicament. It is, of course, a metaphor for Mac’s mental situation, he’s in dire straits and desperately needs to get out of his own head. Eventually he does, emerging from the dirt triumphantly, but before he can celebrate overcoming that particular obstacle another arises as the ground beneath him explodes.
Though this video is meant to parallel his mind state, it also could apply to his career, and is cyclical. Mac broke out as a teenager in Wiz Khalifa’s shadow as a Pittsburgh native who seemed to mimic Wiz’s aesthetics, down to the clothing brands he chose and the way he wore his hats. He fell right into the niche he was born to fill, as a white kid who spoke to the frat houses, stoners and slacker kids right in his age group. He quickly became an internet sensation, and eventually, as his Blue Slide Park debut became the first independent album to top Billboard’s album charts, a commercial success as well.
But one thing that eluded Mac was critical acclaim. He was slammed by both critics and his fellow rappers as a sham, a try hard and worst of all, a talentless opportunist feasting off of his skin color. The criticism hit him hard, and he sunk into a depression that saw his weight fluctuate as he turned to drugs.
This also lead to an artistic breakthrough, as Mac began toying with production and holed himself up in his Los Angeles in-home studio for months at a time. Suddenly, Mac was musically inclined, and with the mixtapes and albums that followed the commercially successful but critically-panned Blue Side Park, he’d finally garnered the respect for his artistry that he’d always craved.
The 2012 mixtape Macadelic was as psychedelic as the title implied. His sophomore album Watching Movies With The Sound Off was the evolution and the largest fruit of all of his labor during his marathon sessions. His endeavors as alter egos Larry Fisherman and Delusional Thomas were celebrated as intriguing experimentation from an artist once believed to be as shallow as a kiddie pool. Subsequent albums GO:OD AM and The Divine Feminine were lauded, especially the latter, as signals of true growth and expansions of his artistry.
In about five years, Mac Miller went from one of the lowest brow and groaned about artists in rap’s ecosystem, to one of the most celebrated and appreciated. Suddenly, the frat boy had grown up, learned some stuff and more importantly, figured out how to project that in his music. It’s a success story that should serve as a model for some artists who hope to grow musically as they age. But more importantly, it should serve as a cautionary tale for those fans who often refuse to give those artists the necessary room to grow.
For hip-hop’s old guard that craves more traditional sounds, young artists like Lil Pump, Trippie Redd, Playboi Carti, Tekashi 6ix9ine and more are admonished constantly. Their work is shunned, as some wonder if it should even be bestowed the honor of being called rap or hip-hop. They’re written off, ignored by the older guard and cast aside as beneath them. When it’s time to eulogize hip-hop, their names are some of the first mentioned. To the old guard, they’ve ruined hip-hop, and all of the world’s ills are their fault.
The generational gap was never clearer than when Cole “interviewed” Lil Pump, who is 16 years his junior and quite literally young enough to be his child. Though there was a feeling of respect between the two, and genuine intrigue for J. Cole, the interview never strayed below the surface no matter how hard Cole tried. Instead, what fans got was an hour-long conversation between a fascinated adult and a disinterested but gracious teenager. Their strange beef was over, but the two worlds they represent never felt any closer. As much as Cole wanted to understand Pump, and as much as Pump was honored by the attempt, it just didn’t work.
But as Mac showed, a lot can happen in five years, especially for an artist who has yet to truly find themselves. There is no telling what the currently 17-year-old Lil Pump may be five years from now. When Kendrick Lamar was 19, he was mimicking Lil Wayne for an entire mixtape. When Cole was 17, he still went by his old alias The Therapist. Nobody truly knows who they are at 17, or 22, and chances are Mac Miller is still trying to figure things out at 26. But his growth has shone through, even though he’d previously been written off. It may be time to give the younger artists that are in the same shoes he was in all those years ago the chance to do the same.
When troubled Florida rapper XXXTentacion was gunned down at just 20 years old, one of the most common refrains was that he was evolving, growing and working to become a better person. Whether or not that was the case for his personal life, it was certainly true in his artistry. XXX long displayed his musical acumen, and genre-bending abilities, but on his final album ? he seemed to be finally finding the cohesion that his previous efforts lacked and truly mastering his craft.
Time will tell if his contemporaries can similarly find their footing, especially in the eyes of the old guard who often wish for safer, more familiar sounds and despise newer, foreign, weirder evolutions of what rap is and can potentially be. Trippie Redd and Playboi Carti may never diversify their content, but they could widen their palette and add new colors to their apparatus with which to paint their work. Maybe those fans will appreciate that, maybe not, but the growth won’t go completely unnoticed if they do try.
Mac is now readying the release of his fifth album, Swimming. Much like all of the work he’s released since his artistic epiphany, it appears it’ll be deeply personal. He’s recently been through a very public break up with his pop star ex-girlfriend Ariana Grande, and watched her immediately jump into an engagement with another man. His sobriety has been challenged, again. He has some legal troubles he’s dealing with thanks to that, and he’s busy trying to bust out of that mental coffin and dig himself out of his own mental grave. These are trying times for Mac Miller, and judging by agony, melancholy and catharsis that can be heard in his new music, it seems to all be manifesting itself in the studio. Hopefully, therapeutically so.
Eventually in the “Self Care” video, Mac stands peacefully amidst all the chaos. Seemingly, he’s learned to manage all of madness, and with the tranquil and serene way this moment is displayed, he seems to be relishing it. That’s growth, newfound maturity and a man finding himself and growing comfortable with just who that is, even if it’s damaged and flawed. Fortunately for Mac, he got the time and space necessary to do all of that growing, and now his fans old and new are reaping the benefits.
Maybe, thanks to him, the youngsters following in his footsteps and figuring themselves out on the way will get that same opportunity. And maybe, just maybe, with that chance they will develop into something our uncles can appreciate later.