I was wrong about Mac Miller. Really wrong. Back in 2011, I was one of many music critics who slated the Pittsburgh-raised rapper's Blue Slide Park debut with an enthusiastic abandon and lots of cheap puns about the tyke-like Miller. It was like slaughtering a shih-tzu; a particularly twee and yappy shitzu who becomes so annoying that you don't feel bad about digging in to it. I even suggested it was akin to the insufferable cast of Glee making a rap album. It also saw Mac rhyme "coffee shop" with "holocaust," which still endures as a high-point of torrid rhyming couplets.
Despite the critical lashings Blue Slide Park received, Mac Miller quickly went on to become a real-deal superstar. Today, his social media game dominates the outlets who took umbrage at his music. But despite his success, Blue Slide Park cast Mac Miller as a rapper I stopped having any interest in. He existed outside my sphere of interest. That is until earlier this year when he popped up on "21& Over," a song with boom-bap revivalist Statik Selektah and rugged punchline king Sean Price. I retweeted a link to the track, which somehow lead to Arthur Pitt, the vice-president of the Rostrum Records label Miller is signed to, asking myself and another blogger, "I just want to know who pays you boys for the years of slander thrown our way?" Banter ensued, which lead to an early listen to Miller's follow up album, Watching Movies With the Sound Off. And it's good. Really good. It sounds like the work of an entirely different rapper. It's as if we're finally getting to hear the real Mac Miller.
Whereas Blue Slide Park was embossed with a poppy and playful sheen, Watching Movies is strewn with static and distortion. It opens with a wave of slow-building scuzzy atmospheric effects which morph into the song "The Star Room." Mac talks about living inside his head, dwelling in purgatory, and dealing with demons. This endearingly eerie vibe continues through the excellently-sequenced first run of songs: "Avian" is hooked around a stripped-down piano motif and has Mac urging kids to embrace the world outside of their computer screens; "I'm Not Real" has him out-rhyming the lauded Earl Sweatshirt over an off-kilter beat. Then comes the Flying Lotus-produced "S.D.S." which offers up another woozy, static-sodden backdrop and Mac coining the bumptious brag, "I'm dope and I know/ My voice sound like it was a sample off of vinyl." It one of those calling card couplets. The rest of Watching Movies continues in a similar manner, with Mac Miller's music embracing more rugged and experimental tendencies. It winds up with another couple of highlights, the rambunctious team-up with Tyler, The Creator for "O.K." and the closing confessional "Claymation."
Mac Miller is in fine company when it comes to following up a successful first album by switching to a murkier vibe -- often after experiencing the inner workings of the music industry and the harsh glare of fame. Native Tongue compadres De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest both changed tact from debut albums defined by a youthful optimism to something more bitter (and brilliant) for their sophomore projects. MF Doom's first group, K.M.D., are a textbook example, with the positivity of Mr. Hood being usurped by the sarcastic Black Bastards. Watching Movies arrives on the same day as Kanye West's Yeezus and J. Cole's Born Sinner. Both albums also see their respective architects musing on reinvention, with Cole's opening words promising "It's way darker this time," and 'Ye apparently deciding that he's a god. There's a spoken-word short that appears midway through Watching Movies that makes this idea of change explicit. Once again, it's heralded by a snatch of static before a voice asks, "You was easy Mac with the cheesy raps/ Who the fuck is Mac Miller?" The skit labors the point a little, but the competing clash of the backlash and the success of Blue Slide Park has been vital in getting Mac Miller to this point in his career. He's taken a part of his journey that was looked on unfavorably and used the experience to create something that's likely to be received warmly.
Maybe I'm reading too much into the Mac Miller who appears on Watching Movies. Beyond lofty ideals of artistic reinvention and a rapper finding their true voice, he could have also simply penned the project after holing himself up in a room for a month, smoking too much weed and listening to a bunch of jazz records. Artistic intention is always a finicky conceit. What I am sure of though is that Watching Movies sounds like Mac Miller has made an honest record. He comes across as earnest; he gives the impression that he's writing songs that reflect where he is in life right now. And most times, that's all you can really ask of any artist.
Watching Movies With the Sound Off is out now on Rostrum Records.