Ten. Million. Dollars. That’s the number Mac Miller is rumoured to have netted from signing to Warner Bros last year. Now, with major record deals, there’s fine print and obligation and this whole idea that the deal is figurative—that the dollar amount is more an equity package than a cheque. Mac knows this. In 2011 he was the first modern rapper to swerve on signing to a major and come away with a win. His Blue Slide Park was the first independently released album to reach No. 1 on Billboard since Snoop-affiliated Tha Dogg Pound released Dogg Food in 1995, and it beckoned to a posterity of artists like Chance the Rapper that the independent route was a possibility.
Two years later he was back on his indie tip with Watching Movies With The Sound Off. In the first verse of the Earl Sweatshirt-produced first song, Star Room he’s rapping “haven’t signed to major label think I’m black balled” and “I’m from a city that hear and think a bunch of steel / So a hundred mills wouldn’t make me sign a fucking deal”. The rest of the album was, honestly, an opus.
I didn’t fuck with Blue Slide Park and you probably didn’t either. Asher Roth had poisoned the ground walked on by any young rapper comically flexing how nice they were in wacky videos. But, WMWTSO exhibited Mac Miller outside of those two dimensions. It relayed the nuances of revelling in the excess of early twenties life without crossing over into preachy platitudes. It was a critique of him as a MTV celebrity and drug addict that you could see as a hyperbolic reflection of your own medicated existence when you’re thinking, ‘yeah I like my job/relationship/these magazines I write for, so why the fuck can’t I remember the last time I was sober for 48 hours?’ Naturally, the album elevated his credibility. Released on Big Tuesday–the same day of Kanye’s and J Cole’s respective drops in July–WMWTSO bowed to the majors in unit sales, but more than competed in terms of profit margin. His new work had placed him among rap royalty, a position cemented by Kendrick Lamar’s unquestionable ‘Control’ verse that named Mac as one of his peers. Mac was the only independent artist on that list.
Come 2015 Mac Miller has flipped the script on independence. His new album, Good:AM is his first on a major label. Looking at the numbers, it seems obvious why he’s changed tact–the deal was worth seven million more than A$AP Rocky’s deal after Live.Love.A$AP and eight million more than what was offered to a post So Far Gone Drake. As I’m waiting on hold to speak with Mac Miller I have all this running through my head. I’ve read and seen interviews covering this topic to the extent that I don’t want to do the same, but after he picks up and introductions are made I had to ask him: “Dude, why?”
“I got billboards” comes his reply. I’m taking this at value, processing the response as deflection from a press-weary artist until, after a pause he follows with “In Pittsburgh”. A statement that outlines the freedom and lack of butt-play he’s afforded in his deal with Warner. Sure, there’s going to be a commercial push, but he gets to determine where its impact is felt most, and he’s decided it will be his hometown. Knowing that his last album artwork was done by his photographer mother and that his brother has been responsible for a large amount of imagery through his career I ask who designed the billboards, digging for an answer that showed his label’s creative input, but I get nothing. His brother, Miller McCormick is still the one responsible. “I keep it in the family” he says proudly.
On WMWTSO, and last year’s Faces, his family has featured lyrically too. On the prior, he raps about not having the nerve to pick up the phone when his dad calls, for fear of his father not recognising who he has become. On Faces track, ‘Friends’, he goes on to talk about family disapproval which is further hinted at in a Complex interview where his mother reveals she can’t listen to some of his music because it’s too hard. Good:AM however, is an album she will be able to listen to from start to finish. Its single, ‘Grandkids’, has him promising her grandkids to spoil and shrugging off his past, quipping “what’s a god without a little OD?”.
The album continues to paint a picture of a clear mind on the other side of the debauchery we all relish in our early twenties. “I’m far from sober” he notes. But now he’s in control. “I’m in a far more positive head space. I think it’s hard though—in my show last night, I had everyone raise their hands if they drank too much and everyone raised their hand. I asked people to raise their hands if they were completely sober and like four people raised their hands. So, the statistics aren’t really on the favour of the sober side, but I fucking tip my cap to anyone who can remain sober”. The shit thing about the public, I tell Mac, is that we don’t like a happy artist. We like our Cobains in anguish, and our Futures to be drug-riddled trappers fascinating us with the depths of humanity.
“I love when Future sings and you can hear his pain” he agrees, but he doesn’t feel sterilised by clarity. “I still have my moments of inner turmoil… But, being in a more positive mind state I can lock in on different emotions, like I can remember pain, I can get myself to feel angry” he explains. “You just have to be able to lock into an emotional space and live there for your duration of creating”. (Mac also assured me him and Future have material yet to come out).
Mac Miller is 23, which is an interesting time emotionally. You’re still young as fuck, but for most, it’s the first time in your life when you feel–however naively–’old’. You’ve past any semblance of childhood but you’re yet to consider yourself an adult. Mac seems to be just as confused when I ask him about growing up. “Fuck it man, I’m not gonna do it. I’m just gonna stay in my head. I’m 8 years old and I will be 8 years old as long as I can,” he says assuredly. But when I ask him if he feels grown, he falters. “Yeah. I feel grown. I feel I have responsibilities that I handle.” He stops to think before settling with sentiments that align with most of us at this age, “there’s a really mature side of me and there’s a really immature side of me.”
Of course, the premise of this interview, the only reason I’m speaking with Mac Miller, is because he’s coming to Australia. He’ll be coming through Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane in early January next year and sharing with us his new album, and a Justin Timberlake dance break-down that’s “not all the way sharp as it could be”. This is something one of his contemporaries wasn’t fortunate enough to do. Tyler the Creator famously cancelled his tour in Australia because of groups campaigning against his early lyrics. The issue of female portrayal in rap is a divisive one. It’s familiar debate about just how far one can take free speech, magnified by a genre that has been slow to eschew old habits. If rap had lyrical standards the same way jazz instrumentals do, “I fucked your bitch” would probably be one of them. On Good:AM Mac himself refers to women as bitches and sexual objects albeit with lines like “life’s a bitch I thought we’d put her in a cab by now” which is, like, OK or nah? I don’t know.
Mac weighs in on Tyler’s situation with a long “Ummm” before using him to explain his views. “I think with Tyler, the lyrics were really old, I also think that he’s creating a character. Sometimes the characters you create aren’t positive people. The same goes for movies and literature; no one’s banning Quentin Tarantino because he’s making violent movies–you just look at them like movies, and I think music should get that same [treatment]. Especially because that’s not what Tyler stands for. He stands for creativity and expressing yourself and being different, so I think that’s what should be taken into account: what does this artist stand for?”
Obvious even from my short chat with Mac Miller is that, to borrow from DJ Khaled, he’s changed. A lot. He’s moved coasts, gotten back with his long-time on-again-off-again girlfriend, controversially signed to a major, released a cathartic album, and is now a cat-owning morning person. Is he consciously trying to change his identity? “I try to reinvent myself a few times a week” he says nonchalantly, “I’m doing my best”.
Mac Miller will be touring Australia January 2–5, see details here.