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Mac Miller Achieved It All — But At What Cost?

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How Mac Miller's Lyrics Made Him Successful But Also Undermined His Mental Health And Led To His Death

I’m sitting down in my office after a week-long binge of Mac Miller’s discography.

I’ve heard it all before, but it’s even better now. His wordplay and experimental production style had an incredible impact on my own work as an Emcee, and it really sucks that he’s gone.

I mirror the sentiments of many, he was gone way before his time and was turning another incredible corner as an artist. In an Instagram tribute post to Mac, John Mayer wrote, “This was going to be Mac Miller’s year. He made a quantum leap in his music. That’s incredibly hard to do, to evolve and get better and more focused while your career is already underway. You don’t get there without a lot of work, and Mac had put the work in.”


This was going to be Mac Miller’s year. He made a quantum leap in his music. That’s incredibly hard to do, to evolve and get better and more focused while your career is already underway. You don’t get there without a lot of work, and Mac had put the work in. I didn’t expect to play on his album the day he played some songs for me at his house, but when I heard “Small Worlds,” I gave it a short, chirpy little “yup,” which is the highest praise I can give a track. It means we don’t need to say another word, it’s going down. I grabbed the nearest guitar in the room and within a couple of hours we had finished a tune that made me so incredibly happy to have a part in, not to mention we established a nice little friendship. He was so funny I just kind of stopped typing “LOL” back in our texts. Mac was, to me, on permanent LOL status. I gave him whatever guidance I thought I had the right to, having been through the press ringer in the past and wanting him to understand that none of that noise could ever really take a bite out of the music he was about to put out. The last time I saw him, he was playing Hotel Cafe’ in Los Angeles for a crowd of 100 people. He was nervous, and honest about it with the audience. I thought that was so endearing, especially seeing as he would go on to play one of the best sets I’d seen in a very long time. His band was unreal. You gotta know that if you weren’t familiar with Mac Miller, you were about to be, whether you would have seen him at a festival, or a friend was going to catch a show and tell everyone they knew about it (like I did.) Mac put in the work. He made his best album and formed the band that was weeks away from becoming a breakout live sensation. Believe me when I say that. I send my love and support to everyone who knew him better, because what relative little I did, I just adored.

A post shared by John Mayer  (@johnmayer) on Sep 8, 2018 at 5:32pm PDT

This evolution is undeniable. Mac’s growth from a “Candy” or “Frat-boy” rapper to an avant-garde producer and eloquent lyricist was nothing short of amazing.

This article, however, isn’t about how dope of a lyricist Mac was, or how his rise in hip-hop was more about his skill than connections (evidenced by Mac’s braggadocious line on the FACES mixtape, “I ain’t perfect, but they ain’t either. I did it all without a Drake feature!”).

Instead, I want to focus on a particular quality or skill that Mac cultivated overtime, a skill that enabled him to earn massive respect in the hip hop community. Mac Miller had perfected his ability to be emotionally vulnerable.

RELATED: Mac Miller Cause Of Death Revealed In Toxicology Report

Historically, hip-hop lyric writing has been about discussing emotional experiences and sharing personal narratives. This is why I’ve used hip-hop in my work as a counselor. It is nearly impossible to create songs that have no emotional content, so it became the perfect platform to assist students in exploring their emotions.

However, something that I have always been told as a counselor was “never break students down if you can’t build them back up.” In my work, I’ve taken this to mean that while unearthing emotions is important, being able to then process or cope with them is essential. I don’t know if Mac ever accomplished that second step.

In that same post from John Mayer, he goes on to say, “The last time I saw him [Mac], he was playing Hotel Cafe’ in Los Angeles for a crowd of 100 people. He was nervous, and honest about it with the audience. I thought that was so endearing, especially seeing as he would go on to play one of the best sets I’d seen in a very long time.” 

Mac’s evolution in this sense was marked by the perfection of his ability to be honest or raw for his listeners. I am so thankful for his expressiveness because I was able to relate to his relationship struggles and loneliness as a fan.

As a fan of hip-hop, I search for lyrics and stories full of emotion. I had high expectations for Mac to talk about emotions I related to. I feel like a prerequisite to Mac’s ascension in the musical world was developing the ability to create raw emotional content. It was this very same rawness which ended up breaking him.

Mac was quite successful. He was actually reported to have a $9 million net worth at age 26, but at what cost?

A detailed listen to Mac’s music might actually illuminate that amidst commercial success, and a fanbase that felt emotionally fulfilled as a result of listening to his music, he was quite lonely and/or felt mis-sold on what success actually felt like — “You never told me being rich was so lonely. Nobody know me, oh well. Hard to complain from this five-star hotel.”

In a conversation with HOT 97s Peter Rosenberg Mac talks in depth about his intentions with his music.

Mac said “All these trials and tribulations aren’t different than anybody else, but like I let everyone into all of them…that’s my thing. I can’t lie about what I’m doing.” It’s clear that Mac had been working on his ability to be emotionally raw as an artist for his fans.

He then says, “if I have this interview and I’m super depressed, I’m going to talk to you about how fucked up I am. Creatively I want that to mirror my all over humanbeingness.” Mac ensured that his honest thoughts and feelings were communicated through his music, and we connected with him. He spoke to trials and tribulations we all feel, but don’t often have the words to communicate. Listening to him, was our solitude.

RELATED: Was Mac Miller Murdered? New Details About The Theory Someone Slipped Something Into His Drink The Night He Died

But this is a big responsibility to bear. While using lyrics to express emotion is cathartic, rappers have still struggled with significant mental health concerns.

Famously, Kid Cudi checked himself into rehab to deal with his depression and suicidal urges, saying that music alone wasn’t enough to cope. This decision wasn’t an easy one for Cudi, who published a Facebook post the day after entering rehab.

“It’s been difficult for me to find the words to what I’m about to share with you because I feel ashamed. Ashamed to be a leader and hero to so many while admitting I’ve been living a lie. It took me a while to get to this place of commitment, but it is something I have to do for myself, my family, my best friend/daughter and all of you, my fans.” 

Kid Cudi’s 2009 album was deeply emotional, and we loved him for it. But it came with the burden of him feeling “ashamed” about addressing his own mental health. Understand this, as an artist, he is helping fix us, but felt so bad about letting us down by trying to fix himself that he was willing to prioritize our needs over his own.

Is Mac dissimilar to this? In an interview with Rolling Stone, Mac Miller felt the need to tell us that he was OK, leading many of us to believe we didn’t need to worry about him. The actual article title was “Mac Miller Wants You To Know He’s OK.”

However, Mac’s fifth studio album, Swimming, was released on the same day as the Rolling Stone article (August 3rd, 2018) and contained lyrics like “I’m just looking for a way out of my head,” and “Tell myself to hold on/I can feel my fingers slipping/In a motherfucking instant I’ll be gone.”

Was he actually OK, or did he also feel that burden of letting us down? One month after the Rolling Stone interview was released, Mac died of an alleged overdose.

What is clear here is that Cudi and Mac have been able to build authentic relationships with their listeners by expressing their truths. While we love them for this, we have to pay attention to the burden it causes.

Often we think that just expressing emotion is enough to heal. Jay Z talks about this on his newest album, 4:44, when he raps “you can’t heal what you never reveal.” Learning to be open and honest about one’s struggles is definitely the first step in healing. But we can’t fully heal if we don’t learn to process those difficult thoughts and feelings. This is often done through therapy, and is what separates Mac from Jay and Cudi.

Cudi’s decision to get counseling services along with his music-making has helped both stabilize him and enable him to become an advocate for dealing with issues of our mental health. Jay-Z has also talked about his experience with therapy to normalize it. In the cases of Jay and Cudi, music functioned as their initial platform to emote and explore their difficult life experiences. But it was therapy that allowed them to process the emotions that they so beautifully described in their music.

But in the case of Mac Miller, drug use appeared to be his chief mechanism for facing his unearthed thoughts and feelings.

He received support from his friends and family, Ariana Grande, in particular, being a big supporter of his sobriety and overall well-being. But unfortunately, drug use was Mac’s Achilles heel, leaving him dead from an alleged overdose. 

Historically, commercialized forms of hip-hop have been critiqued for promoting drug use or risk-taking behavior. Many are of the opinion that the music industry both condones drug use and profits off it, limiting music industry leaders' interests in minimizing its presence.

Admissions of his drug use, and fear for his own life, are littered throughout Mac Miller’s discography. One of which includes a lyric about the 27 Club, or collection of artists who lost their lives at the age of 27 (Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, etc.), Mac raps, “To everyone who sell me drugs, don’t mix it with that bullshit. I’m hoping not to join the 27 Club. Just want the coke dealer house with the velvet rug.” Music critics have highlighted tons of other lyrics just like this one.

To me, it’s not an issue of whether or not we knew Mac was struggling with his emotions. That’s what we loved him for.

But it would have been great if he was able to process them differently. Mac helped us escape, but we didn’t have an assurance that he could cope with the emotions he dug up for us. To me, nothing more eerily speaks to this than a quote off his song “2009” where he sang “I was diggin’ me a hole big enough to bury my soul. Weight of the world, I gotta carry my own. My own, with these songs I can carry you home. I’m right here when you scared and alone.” 

It is my hope that with the growth of hip-hop, comes sustainable approaches to be vulnerable, and to process. Thank you for everything, Mac.

RELATED: New Details About Mac Miller's Death, Funeral And The Party At His House Police Are Still Investigating

Ian P. Levy, EdD is an Assistant Professor at Manhattan College, researching the effectiveness of hip-hop therapy to support urban youth’s development of emotional coping skills. Read more of his writing on Medium.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.