Life is a highway and all that, but I can honestly say I never expected it to bring me to an intimate Chicago rooftop where I’d listen to Mac Miller’s most sexually graphic album in the presence of his parents. Lovely people, don’t get me wrong, it was great! Still, I kept glancing peripherally their way as Miller presented his fourth and best album, The Divine Feminine, at a late July listening session during Lollapalooza weekend. He chain-smoked Newports in the sunshine and rap-sung along to its 10 tracks, and I waited for shit to get weird as irrepressibly horny lines built up over comfy jazz riffs — “I just eat pussy, other people need food” being merely the tip of the iceberg.
Weirdly enough, it never got weird. Afterward, I briefly chatted with Miller’s folks, who seemed more overcome with pride for their son than even he was. Because even though The Divine Feminine (officially released last Friday) screams sex, it’s not really about that, ultimately. Before pressing “play” at the listening session, Miller explained that love was the thing he felt least capable of expressing clearly in his music. The radiance of real love gives warmth to the project, making it feel more lived-in than even his most personal early work. But the title, and the reason for this project’s existence, extends beyond romantic love. The Divine Feminine is about learning from women — be it Miller’s soulmate, his grandmother, or an indescribable but distinctly feminine universal energy. A poignant outro from said grandmother doesn’t feel out of place bookending a project that began with a flirty intro from said soulmate.
Alternately, we can kick back and enjoy the concept album about Ariana Grande we never knew we needed; the pop superstar and longtime friend/collaborator of Miller’s confirmed last week on Ellen that the two are officially a thing. Usually this would be around the point at which a rapper begins a lengthy divorce from reality, but the most interesting thing about Miller’s career is how it’s seemed to evolve in reverse. 2011’s Blue Slide Park quickly became the first indie debut album to top the Billboard 200 this century, but to say Miller’s artistic credibility was in question is putting it mildly. In the five years since, though — and particularly as of last year’s GOOD AM, a tight, honest album about trying to be a decent person — Miller has fought for every bit of his relatively recent critical acclaim, refining his production and relaxing his flow. It’s not out of the question to call him the most improved mainstream rapper of the past few years. It’s nice to hear Miller in love with the universe (and with Grande) on The Divine Feminine, but I’m most impressed by how natural it all feels: the sigh of relief as you ease into your place in the world.
There’s a vibe that seems to be resonating especially deeply this year, from Chance’s Coloring Book to Anderson Paak’s Malibu to Kaytranada’s 99.9% to Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, and it’s here too. It’s jazz and gospel influences, but it’s also a feeling: a pervasive, contagious warmth that conveys an unconditional love of the world, one that doesn’t discount its darkness but seeks to shed light all the same. Ultralight beam music, in short. The Divine Feminine has that same ambling jazz production, with assistance from Robert Glasper and Juilliard music students, along with .Paak, Kendrick Lamar, Cee Lo Green, and more. Lead single “Dang!,” featuring Paak, builds calm momentum at a stepper’s pace — the kind of midtempo groove I picture old folks in church clothes gliding to in a banquet hall. Instead of trying to out-rap the beat, Miller lets himself get caught up in it, deftly tripping through another late-night argument. Every song here is a love song, but none describe a perfect love, or an easy one. But that part doesn’t really matter: As Miller’s grandma describes in the outro, real love is a process that takes time, learning day by day from the divine mysteries of another person. And so on The Divine Feminine, lines about binge-watching The Sopranos feel as essential as broad-sweeping claims about soulmate status, and lines like “I open your legs and go straight for your heart” don’t read as unbearably cheesy. Or maybe they are unbearably cheesy, but fuck it, because that’s what love is.
Despite the meticulously curated guest roster, I can’t help but think the biggest musical influence on The Divine Feminine is Grande herself. The first time I ever loved a song with a Mac Miller verse was “The Way,” a ’90s-inspired bop off of Grande’s 2013 debut album; the duo’s chemistry was apparent from the jump. They’ve worked together since, but “My Favorite Part” is their first official collab as a couple, and it’s explicitly arranged like an Ariana Grande song, with a scene-stealing bridge before the couple come together for a romantic joint hook. Grande’s fingerprints appear throughout the rest of the album, too — hers is the first voice we hear on opening track “Congratulations” — but I have to believe that her and Miller’s years of collaborative work have influenced the way he approaches the album’s many collaborations. There’s a seamlessness between every person involved here — Lamar and Miller’s voices interspersing on “God Is Fair, Sexy Nasty,” Njomza’s backup vocals completing Miller’s on “Planet God Damn” — that feels truer to the concept of The Divine Feminine than even the album’s sexiest parts.
And so it felt right when Miller tweeted a screenshot of a phone note at 1 a.m. on the day of the album’s release last week: “It’s a full moon tonight and I can’t help but feel like the universe is smiling at me, finally. I am in a hotel room surrounded by people who came into my life at different times for different reasons. Here we sit just to be present and share this feeling together. It is a feeling that I have waited my whole life to feel. I don’t know exactly what the words are to describe this feeling, but it has arrived nonetheless.” The Divine Feminine feels like that.