It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happens, but somewhere along the line, we all realize that while life is great, it’s not as sunny as we once believed when we were children. Ignorance is bliss, but knowledge can also be refreshing, even if it’s sobering. At some point, we all learn that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are fake, and those realizations begin to gradually strip us of our innocence and mold us into the adults we eventually become.
For a child star, that process often happens with the world watching, and as spectators, we get to see the child we once knew turn into the adult we relate to all too well. For artists who are fortunate enough to come into fame and riches as a child, that transition typically represents the end of their relevant careers as well, as few ever surge through that into a career as prosperous as an adult as it was as a child.
When Mac Miller broke through into the mainstream he was only a teenager, a fresh-faced child looking to break into a world that was not eager to accept him. His raps were sophomoric, quite literally, as he rapped about skipping school and crashing house parties with the jubilance that is to be expected of someone so youthful and uninformed. He rode the organic momentum he spawned in his hometown of Pittsburgh to the top of the Billboard albums chart, becoming the first independent act in decades to do so. In months he went from a high schooler, recording albums and shooting videos, to a bonafide star.
As fame began to wear on him, the transformation began. Mac famously moved to Los Angeles and holed himself up in his new home, burying himself in his music and the substances that seemed to fuel him. His home became the petri dish for Los Angeles creatives like Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples and more to cultivate their own careers and sounds. He gained weight, made friends and his artistry improved exponentially. His metamorphosis from frat rap punchline into a genuinely respected artist known for his emotional projections all over the spectrum was a revelation, one of the more drastic turnarounds in hip-hop history.
But that drug-addled growth often comes with a price, and Mac paid his in droves. His struggles made headlines, and he candidly discussed battling his demons in his music and in interviews.
Perhaps Mac’s decision to sport a thick beard as he aged was one rooted in fashion and aesthetics, but it also served as a constant metaphorical reminder that the Mac Miller we saw in front of us was no longer the baby-faced Malcolm McCormick we met when he hit the scene in 2010. He’d grown grizzled, worn down by age and the stresses of life that even money and fame couldn’t fix or assuage. He was a man, and that youthful exuberance he once exhibited seemed to slowly be diminishing, giving way to something wholly separate.
By growing up in front of our eyes in that same way that often dooms child stars, Mac also presented his listeners and biggest fans with the unique opportunity to truly grow up with an artist, providing them with a meaningful soundtrack for their entire lives. His August album Swimming was a quiet masterpiece, juxtaposing vibrant, sunny instrumentation with solemn and downtrodden lyrics for a fascinating experience. Those teenagers who discovered him in his infancy now had something to get through their mid-20s with as they waddled their way into adulthood as well.
At just 26 and with so much growth behind him, it seemed like Mac was barely scratching the surface. The artist he’d become had so much more he could add to his already vast palette, and it was assumed he’d spend the next decade doing just that, and accentuating his fan’s own personal growth in the process.
He once rapped, “To everyone who sells me drugs, don’t mix it with that bullshit, I’m hoping not to join the 27 Club.” He was always keenly aware of his struggles with addiction. In the 2016 Fader documentary “Stop Making Excuses,” he was harrowingly prophetic. “I’d rather be the corny white rapper than the drugged-out mess who can’t even get out of his house,” he said. “Overdosing is just not cool. You don’t go down in history because you overdose. You just die.”
An artist’s artistic ascension coinciding with his spiral into substance abuse is hardly a new phenomenon, but one as open about the spiral might be, at least for the current generation. Mac didn’t glorify his drug use, so much as he depicted its various tormenting effects on his psyche. He didn’t treat addiction like some trend to fit in, he battled with it like the demon it was, and he wanted the world to know his battle was just like theirs.
In doing so, Mac occupied an odd space in the current era of codeine-fueled, woozy rap. As his addiction gripped him tighter, Mac seemed to get more musically inclined, leaning on lush instrumentation and cooing out ballads about love and pain while others sopped down in their syrupy stasis, warbling about frivolous nothings.
This all separated Mac from his contemporaries and placed him on an island all to himself. He seemed less a rapper so much as he was a troubled soul, emoting as best he could. His music had become beautiful and uplifting, and depressingly relatable all at once. Mac was figuring himself and the world out, realizing it wasn’t all as sunny as he once thought but projecting it all to his fans in a way they understood.
Mac Miller passing at just 26 years old means he missed the infamous 27 Club, the mythical list of artists who passed at 27 years old, often due to overdose. Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Amy Winehouse, Fredo Santana and more all passed before their 28th birthday and Mac missed the club like he’d once openly hoped, but not in the way he envisioned or wanted.
In passing so young, and with so much growth to be had and music to be made, Malcolm James McCormick leaves a void that likely won’t ever be filled. Rappers who begin their careers on the slippery slope of pigeonholing don’t overcome that, they simply become the limited act who everybody said they would be and nothing more. Mac broke those boundaries, evolving into something even he couldn’t have foreseen.
Like most artistic renaissances, the evolution was rooted in the darkest and the most troubled parts of the soul and eventually, the darkness won out. Mac Miller fought, and for years he won just enough to give the world a special brand of expression that so many people desperately needed. He grew up in front of our eyes, showed us that the road is jagged, bumpy, full of potholes and never quite makes sense. Except he made sense of it for us. Now he’s gone, and things don’t make sense again.