“Circles” is Malcolm McCormick’s — better known by his stage name Mac Miller — posthumous album and letter written to himself in an attempt to understand his own struggles.
The rapper, multi-instrumentalist and producer died Sept. 7, 2018 due to a drug overdose of fentanyl, cocaine and ethanol. He was set to leave for tour in support of his album “Swimming” Oct. 27, 2018, just over a month later.
In a statement released on McCormick’s Instagram nine days before “Circles” was released, it was revealed that “Circles” is meant to be the companion to his last album with the concept being “swimming in circles.”
Sonically, the album is consistent with rhythmic instruments leading most tracks while smooth synthesizers command others. The album follows McCormick’s trend toward slower-paced songs over his last few releases. When compared to early singles of his, this album proves to be the end of a long artistic adventure.
The entire album is a testament to the artist’s weariness as he battled addiction and mental illness. It’s a personal, straightforward and honest dialogue with just one character — McCormick himself. While McCormick’s previous release had songs like “Jet Fuel” that used the titular substance as a euphemism for the substances McCormick was abusing, “Circles” is a lot blunter lyrically.
The first and only single off the album, “Good News” is the epitome of what McCormick tried to convey in the album. It’s subtle in its instrumentation, which many of the tracks are, but the lyrics depict a vivid picture of hardship. McCormick asks questions including “Why can’t it just be easy?” and “Why does everybody need me to stay?” further depicting the struggle he was dealing with toward the end of his life.
Later in the album, the song “Hands” continues McCormick’s dialogue with himself, albeit much more harshly. He asks “when’s the last time you took a little time for yourself?” before telling himself, “there’s no reason to be so down” and explaining he would “rather fly around like there’s no ground,” seemingly a reference to getting high to avoid his problems.
The track “Everybody” stands out from the rest of the album with a simple piano opening, but also in the fact that it’s a cover of Arthur Lee’s “Everybody’s Gotta Live.” The beautiful interpretation stays true to most of the lyrics while changing the instrumentals to make it a contemporary version of the track.
A noticeable feature of the record is the diminished number of writers from his previous album where there are only two tracks with less than three writers. In contrast, “Circles” only has two tracks with more than three writers. Most tracks have McCormick and Jon Brion, the producer tasked with finishing the album, credited as the only writers.
It’s clear those involved with finishing this album did it in good faith and at no point does the album feel incomplete as many posthumous releases tend to. Brion seemingly understood the direction that McCormick wanted to take the album and delivered it accurately.
Enunciation is another stark contrast from McCormick’s previous release. Some critics mentioned McCormick’s mumbling on “Swimming” as something that took away from the album. “Circles” is quite the opposite in this manner as McCormick not only enunciates every word but also used these songs to show off his singing voice a bit more than he had previously.
The largest difference between the two albums, however, is the tone. While “Swimming” may not be considered a happy album, it still had tracks including “What’s The Use?” that carried a lighter feeling and brightened the album as a whole with funky bass lines and a faster flow. “Circles” has no such songs.
“Circles” is available on all streaming services.