Reinvention is the key to great artistry. Where many find comfort in following a formula that has already proven successful amongst their fans, it takes real bravery to risk failure for artistic merit, changing direction and wandering into the unknown.
Mac Miller has never been one for sticking to the script. From the “Frat-rap” days of his 2010 breakthrough mixtape ‘K.I.D.S’ to the noodley introspection of 2013’s ‘Watching Movies With The Sound Off’ - not to mention his alter ego side-projects such as evil high-pitched Delusional Thomas and jazz singer Larry Lovestein - the Pittsburgh rapper won’t be second guessed. While he admits he aims to make his best album with every release, his discography tends to explore new worlds and fresh concepts with each addition rather than a continually improving take on the same feeling.
From the moment he announced his fourth LP, ‘The Divine Feminine’, via a Beats 1 radio broadcast with Zane Lowe, it was apparent that another reinvention was on the cards for Mac. “It’s an album that’s all about the journey that is love,” Mac told Zane. “It started out as an EP and the deeper and deeper I got into it, the more that I realised I had to shed light on the topic.” Cue whispers and rumours that the reasoning for the album must be his budding relationship with pop mega-star Ariana Grande, who can often be seen dropping PDA with Mac on Instagram. But while it’s probable that his new relationship feeds into the record - Ariana does lend her vocals to track nine - ‘The Divine Feminine’ is far more than some gawking open-mouthed guy, unbelieving of his luck at dating one of the most famous women on the planet.
Mac set out to make an album about love, not about one specific person. And the result - from its nostalgic piano-tinkering opener, to an outro from Mac’s grandmother who tells the story of her “Love affair” with his grandfather - feels broader than simply a dedication from it’s author to his lover. “[I want people to] wear the album like a blanket,” Mac offers, of his intentions. “To just get into that feeling of love. Whether it be for somebody else, or for themselves. It’s something that you can quiet your mind [with] and enjoy. Just feel like everything is okay for a little bit.”
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In the past few years, Mac has been on a journey, both creatively and literally, giving up the Los Angeles home that would serve as an open studio for many of rap’s most promising West Coast talents - including the likes of Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples - and relocating to New York City. When it came time to complete ‘The Divine Feminine’ though, Mac found himself returning to the West Coast, which he says now feels like home.
On the figurative front he’s been on a journey of self-exploration and feels thankful to have been allowed to push his creative boundaries further. “I’m glad that I’m able to get better and further discover what I’m capable of,” he says. “I don’t like sticking to a formula when it comes to making music. I’m discovering new stuff about myself every day, so it’s important not to get comfortable. No one can guess what a new Mac Miller album will sound like, because they all represent different parts of my life.”
From early doors, Mac knew that he wanted his fourth album about love. He confesses that many of the lyrics began life as a very defined interpretation, but during the process evolved into some-thing looser, allowing the listener to draw their own conclusions. To craft an essay on love that stretches beyond his personal relationship, Mac found it vital to cultivate an ability to step out of his own head when writing, penning lyrics with broader strokes than ever. “I think that it helps to get outside of yourself when you are working on a record. To use your emotion and create, rather than getting locked into yourself. One thing I’m learning more and more is how to get a little more outside of myself with writing. I’m inspired by the world around me, rather than dealing only with my personal narrative.”
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I’m inspired by the world around me...
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While Mac has songs about girls sprinkled throughout his discography, he’s never been able to explore the topic in such a focussed way until now. Sonically too, Mac had a goal in mind that he set out to achieve: “I wanted to stay in a similar vibe, to keep the listener in one place,” he explains. “I wanted to work with live musicians and blend a bunch of different worlds together.”
Musically, the album taps into the current resurgence of live instrumentation, gospel and soul mu-sic influences of records like Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, Chance The Rapper’s ‘Coloring Book’, Kanye West’s ‘The Life Of Pablo’ and Solange’s ‘A Seat At The Table’. And although Mac’s beat-making alias, Larry Fisherman, doesn’t show up in the credits this time around, he con-siders himself to have been more involved in the creation of the music than ever. “I’m constantly learning what it is to be a producer,” he explains. “I didn’t sit down and make all the beats. I worked with a whole lot of different people, but I’m constructing a vision. Taking songs and really, really putting them together. I don’t know what that makes me as far as titles and credits are concerned, but I have a producing mind for everything I approach.”
While liner notes boasting a serious line-up of musical talent - Kendrick Lamar, Ty Dolla $ign, Bilal, CeeLo Green, Anderson .Paak, Ariana Grande, Thundercat, Robert Glasper, Dam-Funk, Frank Dukes, DJ Dahi, the list goes on - Mac’s production chops are on show in the way he’s able to bring such an experienced supporting cast together to deliver his cohesive vision. He maintains that the key to this is a shared passion for music. “It’s east to get into the science experiment of ‘What makes a hit record?’ or ‘How do you combine worlds to get bigger?’” he admits. “But I just love working with people who are just in it for the creation. People that are here to push them-selves and see what lines can be erased in order to make something new.”
Studio sessions saw musicians coming into the sonic world that Mac was cooking up, songs would be left open as work in progress, ready to be added to and altered until the final hour. Horn players passing through to enhance the beat that Vancouver producer Pomo had crafted for lead single ‘Dang!’, and legends like Bilal would hang out, layering vocals onto the intro track ‘Congratulations’, which would later be adorned with strings.
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It’s one of the most beautiful parts about making music; that open conversation that people lend their voice to.
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“I would kind of have the vibe going on at the studio and then we would bring people in and sometimes the musicians would just kick it there,” Mac describes. “They’d just get into the world, and then play later. It was always very important that everyone that was working on it was locked into what was going on; what the objectives were, what the sound was, and what the feeling was. It’s one of the most beautiful parts about making music; that open conversation that people lend their voice to. It’s really beautiful to see that come together.”
Taking some time out now, a couple of months on from its release into the world, Mac considers the impact of his latest work. Despite its title, and the dedication to “the energy of the planet being a female energy” that he talked of in his announcement with Zane Lowe months ago, he still isn’t sure whether to label himself feminist. “I would describe myself as someone with a good heart,” he says, feeling out his thoughts as he puts them into words. “And someone who appreciates women, and is inspired by women. So yeah, sure. I just don’t want the record to come across like I’m trying to market some feminist agenda. More just like, I do have a very strong appreciation for women, because I have a lot of very important ones in my life.”
Currently, Mac is more focussed on living in the present and being inspired around the world around him, than he is diving straight back into the studio to create more material the way he would have back in the days of his L.A. studio home. This new process - putting life first - has proven to work well for him with ‘The Divine Feminine’, and it’s safe to say that the goals he set out for him-self have been reached. “The fact that I had an idea and saw it all the way through, and wasn’t distracted by thinking about success or what is to be expected from me,” he reflects. “It was all for the sake of seeing it through. I really think I accomplished that, and I made a record about love; one that makes an actual statement.”
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'The Divine Feminine' is out now.
Words: Grant Brydon