Friday, August 10, 2018

album review: 'swimming' by mac miller

If there was a review I did not want to do, it's this one.

And I know that sounds bad, believe me, but it comes from a place of frustration on my part more than anything - because I tried to get into Mac Miller. I really did, I revisited every single damn record in his discography before this review, I wanted to really understand what the hell his audience sees in him spanning a career that's evolved from dumbass frat-bro rap to something a little more pensive and reflective. And I can't deny the guy has decent taste when it comes to production and guest stars - he'll shell out for some impressive lush and detailed instrumentals, from his textured grimy hip-hop on records like Watching Movies With The Sound Off and GO:OD AM to the jazzy R&B of The Divine Feminine.

But man alive, I just cannot get into him as a performer, rapper or singer. As a rapper, his wordplay is often way clumsier than it should be and I've never remotely been impressed by his content or any sense of thematic weight and as a singer... Look, there's a way his vocal timbre and delivery could potentially work if you pair it with more amateurish, rough-around-the-edges production or truly raw subject matter - it's what Chance and Tyler did - but when you place him opposite so many genuinely talented R&B singers and genuinely great production, it's impossible for me not to cringe at how flat, off-key and sloppy his singing is! You put him on songs with Anderson .Paak, Bilal, Cee-Lo and Ariana Grande and you expect him to not sound instantly outclassed in every way, and that's before you get to the fact that he can have shockingly little charisma as an MC, and this is coming from a guy who listens to more deceptively low-key and monotone rappers than him, but guys like Evidence and LMNO have a magnetism and intensity that Mac Miller has never had! And when you couple it with too many albums that all have a bad case of the bloat, I was not looking forward to another hour long project from Mac Miller with Swimming - but hey, it was either this or watching YG fumble things and that looks to be even more depressing, so screw it, how is Swimming?

Well, it's a Mac Miller record, which means that I have to assume that the fans will probably get into it - he's got his audience and a set of critics who are on-board with him. But I'll freely admit after the half dozen listens I gave this and this review, I'm never going back to this record and that while I was listening to it, my constant thought was that I'd rather be listening to anything else, an overlong languid slog through the most basic ennui and forced attempts at sophisticated, 'mature' hip-hop/R&B I've heard in some time. And while there are far fewer guests on this project, it means you have that much more unfiltered Mac Miller to deal with, and that's at best a lateral move.

So let's start with Mac Miller, because it's his delivery and presentation has always pushed me away... and it's honestly a little tricky to articulate why nothing he does works for me. As a singer, it's pretty simple: he does not project presence or character whatsoever behind the microphone, and no matter how many overdubs you drop on top, he can only barely stay on key. Now the former issue... look, there's not a lot one can do to escape having no palpable charisma or distinctive character or compelling flair as a vocalist, but you can at least compensate for bad singing, either for embracing rougher, more forgiving production or piling up enough overdubs or vocal layers to obscure it, and Swimming tries the latter. But the problem with that is that it serves to elongate the vocal track and strip out any tightness, which when you have more organic basslines from Thundercat only serves as a jarring contrast that utterly kills the momentum. I'll say more about the production in a bit, but then we have Mac Miller as an MC, and while I was most annoyed by how often he just falls off the beat for no adequately explained reason or with the weird awkwardness in his flow that comes out of nowhere, what irked me even more was the overall mood and energy he was trying to bring to the table. It's most reminiscent of the dispassionate lethargy Drake brings to his more monotonous cuts but minus the edge or occasional bit of vocal flair that Drake is capable of as a singer or rapper. And yes, I get that this is part of the point, that Mac Miller is treading through a listless ennui even despite his success, something that he can't quite put his finger on that drags him down, but there are two major problems with this. First is the obvious: if your general demeanor doesn't convey even a shard of emotion to hook us more, I'm not going to care - hell, the only reason anyone will come back will be if they can relate to that single dimension of emotionality. But more to the point, you should only embrace such a low key, moaning monotone if you're certain your content will be meaty enough to hook an audience.

And I'll be blunt: Mac Miller is not there. In terms of other low-key MCs he doesn't have the meditative poise of Ka nor the tempestuous stillness of Evidence nor the paranoia of LMNO nor the ruthlessness of Roc Marciano - all rappers who don't bring a lot of obvious emotion but are anchored in wordplay with distinctive personality. And yet with Mac Miller... well, let's get this out of the way, whenever he tries to brag about being the 'boss' or 'GOAT' it's about the furthest thing from believable, half because he's got no real conviction and yet if it's intended as a subversion there's very little of that edge or cutting insight to undercut it significantly. And when you factor out any significant or distinctive detail, what you wind up with are lines that feel cribbed from the skeletons of hip-hop punchlines, stripped to the most basic and easily digestible material. And again, stripping things down to their bluntest point can work if you're aiming to hit a transcendent moment or point through delivery or contrast, but since we've established Mac Miller has no potent delivery and that he nearly always sticks with this style of delivery, it leads to no significant quotable lines and gets really boring really fast! And of course some of this is built off of Mac Miller's clearly unrequited feelings for his ex Ariana Grande and if there's anything close to an 'arc' to this record, it would be learning to cope with it in some way. And again, while I get the artistic intent here, specifically the recognition that this sort of heartbroken healing takes time and is deliberately tedious to work through - which, for the record, is true - that intent only works if the execution can set the framing for the audience introspection. If you can indulge a comparison to film for a moment, when directors like Tarkovsky and Haneke choose to linger on empty, barren tableaus where it almost feels too normal, it's intended to draw forth introspection and that audience connection, and music can definitely do the same. But Mac Miller is still pushing in bragging and parties and trying to subvert the emotions they'd bring... which operates at cross-purposes with the minimalism and leaves the payoff feeling hollow and painfully underwhelming. And that's not even getting to the galling fact that by the end, it's not clear that Mac Miller has learned or changed much at all, which neuters the stakes and leaves our only investment point as Mac Miller himself - and that's a problem!

Now you might have noticed I haven't called out any individual cuts on this project, because this record intentionally doesn't have an obvious single and is intended as a longer album statement. All fine and good, and to Mac Miller's credit, if you can ignore him the production is easily the most enjoyable element of the entire project - not as lush or textured as GO:OD AM or The Divine Feminine, but there is a certain tasteful, languid vibe that might work... if the production didn't keep wedging keyboard lines or samples to clash with the guitars and rival Mac Miller for droning annoyance! It's not like the guitar lines or arranged strings are given much warmth or distinctive texture as it is to flesh out any sort of melody amidst the unsteady watery warbles that pulse through 'Hurt Feelings' or 'Wings' or 'Small Worlds', but the watery funk of 'What's The Use' could have worked if it didn't have all those flat, half-chiptune buzzy drone layers - same with the horn-inflected funk on 'Ladders'. So could 'Self Care / Oblivion' if it didn't tack in these autotuned adlibs that don't match the smoother groove at all before switching into a moaning watery R&B vibe that can't seem to decide if the synths are going to build real colour or gloss. And when you factor in how none of it is sequenced in a way to build momentum - and when you have production from Flying Lotus on cuts like 'Conversation Pt. 1', that level of failure is almost impressive - or even sequenced in a way to pay off a natural arc, given as it seems like Mac Miller resolves the emotional tension on 'Wings' by saying how much the pain doesn't bother him and which doesn't play like a fakeout when you consider the braggadocious content and grooves that come after, and that's before you consider how most of the hip-hop beats often feel leaden and overweight in their own right...

And again, everything I'm saying about the messy, discordant features will inevitably be countered by 'it was intentional, to highlight the contradictory emotions of ennui that come post-breakup, it's not supposed to be traditionally enjoyable'. And okay, fine, I could actually see that, but there's a difference between a complicated emotional tapestry in the wake of recovery and an over-indulgent, tonally dissonant slog that repeatedly neuters its own tension and drama through bad delivery, sloppy construction, and an inability to bring real lyrical nuance or thematic weight to the table. More to the point, it screams of the sort of forced sophistication in its presentation that doesn't have the emotional maturity or artistic daring to really force Mac Miller to confront his issues beyond a surface level. Hell, for an easy parallel look at Miranda Lambert's The Weight Of These Wings, which was also way too long and rooted in scattered emotionality in the aftermath of a breakup, but it had the courage to dig deep into the existential crises at the core of her art that drove her reckless choice to cheat and end her relationship with Blake Shelton - approaching middle age without a clear sense of purpose or home, alcohol abuse, breaking against deeply engrained traditional values and a real loss of faith. In contrast, Mac Miller is still stoned in the kiddie pool - strong 3/10, and I can't remotely recommend it. Look, I'll freely admit I wasn't a fan going in, but this was a tedious and often genuinely unpleasant listening experience for me. Fans, you can keep Mac Miller - preferably far away from any place where I can hear him.

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