Oh no. What had I gotten myself into? The air was filled with the smell of Axe and cheap Vodka. A sea of white faces blinded my vision. Girls barely past their 16th birthday were falling out of their clothes and stumbling out of the men’s room laughing. Outside, a couple of teenagers were talking about how awful the police are. Next to me a frat boy was rocking a Troy Polamalu jersey and pumping his fist in the air in anticipation, while a girl on my right was so worried about lighting up inside, she decided to crouch below her chair so security wouldn’t see her. I took a deep breath and sunk deeper in my seat. I was at a Mac Miller concert.
If you had told me a year ago that I would be going to a Mac Miller show, I would have thrown my Wu-Tang CD’s at you. I hated Mac Miller. He was a pedestrian white kid from Pittsburgh, with rhymes you’d find in Youtube comments or a Reddit thread, riding on his snow white fan base to massive success by reappropriating golden age Rap tunes with a splattering of white-out. He was an artist selling out the genre to soundtrack beer pong tournaments for people whose previous favorite rap song was “I Love College.”
I wasn’t the only person who was annoyed by his great leap to success. After a string of crazy successful mixtapes, his debut album Blue Slide Park became the first independent rap album to hit #1 on the charts. But that seemed to be his only victory. Perhaps sensing an easy target, critics and would-be critics piled on the disdain. The album was universally panned by the music community, famously getting a 1 out of 10 at Pitchfork. Lord Finesse, the golden age producer who’s “Hip 2 Da Game” beat was taken by Mac for his first big hit “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza,” sued Mac for millions of dollars in a landmark sampling lawsuit that could prove to end the renaissance of production that the internet has opened up. That was followed by threats by Donald Trump, who also was not seeing any money from another Mac Miller hit “Donald Trump” (Trump really needs to sue 20 year olds to keep his fortune?). So Mac Miller did what any famous artist does when he encounters turmoil: he moved to L.A. and developed a drug problem.
His new album Watching Moves With The Sound Off represents this new mindset. Mac has engulfed himself in the LA scene, collaborating with Black Hippy and Odd Future members extensively and letting their energy and skills rub off on him. The album eschews any mainstream radio grabs. Instead it’s a murderer’s row of great collaborators. Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Action Bronson, Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler The Creator, and JAY FREAKIN ELECTRONICA all show up, and the beats are provided by Flying Lotus, Clams Casino, Chuck Inglish, Pharrell, Alchemist, Tyler, and Diplo. That list alone makes Watching Movies worth a listen.
It turns out that Mac Miller goes way beyond his features. It turns out that being best friends with Schoolboy Q goes a long way in helping you learn how to rap. Watching Movies is a very strong, front to back listen. The album is much more of a college soundtrack than his previous frat rap; it’s the sound of toweling up a dorm room door to burn down some doobies, the wide eyed stare of seeing sorority girls tan on the quad for the first time, the exhaustion and exhilaration of pulling an all-nighter working on a paper with friends. The beats gurgle on the edge of consciousness, glowing with every stoned epiphany and sinking with dead eyed wordplay. There’s a lot of pseudo-depth by Mac Miller here, following his artistic visions, facing an identity crisis etc etc…but it’s all made palatable by a knowing sense of humor he has about himself. The album is following in the footsteps of his peers. He’s not as good as his guests, but he’s good enough to not be completely outshined on the tracks. He tries to rap like his buddy Earl Sweatshirt, stacking internal rhymes together. He plays around with effects and flows to make him sound…less lame. But the real success is in his production. Under the moniker Larry Fisherman, Mac has been producing for a lot of different rappers and he handles about half of the album. He’s still channeling his influences, there’s the ethereal vocal samples of Clams Casino and the hollow Cool Kids knock of Chuck Inglish, but he’s doing great imitations and they bring the best out of himself and his guests. Released the same day as J. Cole and Kanye’s releases, Mac Miller turns out to be the dark horse leading the pack.