Right now, Mac Miller (the nom de guerre of Pittsburgh native Malcolm McCormick) is one of the most interesting rappers around. Paradoxically, this is at least partly due to the fact that his early releases weren’t really “interesting” at all: little of Mac Miller’s breakout K.I.D.S. mixtape (or other comparable fare) suggested that he would ever leave the pop-rap territory he shared with artists such as Wiz Khalifa and Asher Roth. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing,(I genuinely consider K.I.D.S. to be a low-key masterpiece)but it seemed like Mac Miller just wasn’t interested in pursuing more risky, ambitious projects. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case, and his evolution has been fascinating to follow.
Things began to change for McCormick after the release of his debut album, Blue Slide Park. Experimentation with drugs (a bout with a promethazine habit in 2013) and personal troubles, including the death of a close friend, led him to start making more nuanced, exploratory and introspective music. I consider last year’s Watching Movies With The Sound Off as a kind of rebirth; it’s a weird, warped and occasionally outright dark album, and ultimately one that supplants the carefree youth behind K.I.D.S. with someone more troubled and, indeed, interesting. In recent months, he has continued to develop, releasing a string of eccentric side projects. Delusional Thomas, an EP that features Mac Miller rapping as Thomas, a perverse and childlike alter ego, came out at the end of last year; Live From Space, a live album made in collaboration with Odd Future’s The Internet, dropped a few months ago; and last Sunday, without much fanfare, Mac Miller unveiled Faces, his fourteenth mixtape and the latest milestone in his musical odyssey.
True to form (mixtapes typically function more as a loose collection of songs than as a cohesive whole), there is a deliberate informality to Faces; McCormick recently tweeted that he wants the tape to be like a “sentence” or direct communication, with “nobody in between…nobody telling me the songs that are good or bad or big or small.” It’s an admirable idea that allows for some indulgences. At 24 tracks, the tape runs a little too long: if it’s a sentence, it’s a rambling one.
Still, there is a lot to like about the project. Aesthetically, Faces makes perfect sense in the context of Mac Miller’s canon: it’s a synthesis of the jazz-influenced instrumentation of Live From Space and the lyrical content he has pursued since Watching Movies. At its best, the combination works seamlessly. Mac Miller’s forte has always been laid-back jams; most of the tracks on Faces are the kind best appreciated on summer days, driving back from the beach or walking aimlessly around town. This isn’t party music; there is a sense of sunny melancholy to Faces. It’s Mac in a pensive mode.
As with Watching Movies, the lyrics from Faces deal with the paradox of material success coupled with perceived personal failure. “Here We Go,” the closest thing Faces has to a traditional boast track (think “Juicy”), starts off with “Polo pajamas, I think I made it/I showed my mom my first million, she damn near fainted,” but takes a sharp left turn shortly thereafter: “I’m the hardest-working person in the universe/Temptation to the church of Lucifer.” On “Happy Birthday,” a party in Mac’s honor leads him to reflect on his own feelings of alienation and paranoia.
Death looms large in his mind. Mac Miller continually revisits the circumstances of his own demise, whether it be the aftermath (on the aptly named “Funeral”) or the cause; he talks through suicide on “Rain” in unflinching detail, from the brand of his gun to the gory residue he leaves behind. Is McCormick truly suicidal? Who is to say? For my part, I think he is treating the subject more as a thought experiment, probing the concept of death for insight into life.
The problems with Faces are the same ones that have dogged Mac Miller throughout his career. He has never been a technical rapper, and his drawling rasp, while genial enough, is prone to slipping into monotone. Simply put, there are some snoozers on the mix-tape. The jazzy production ranges from compelling to lackluster, and it seems like the dullest instrumentals inspire dull lyricism; the results (as with “Malibu,” “What Do You Do” and “Wedding”) tend to be forgettable. Conversely, better production pushes Mac Miller to write more compelling lyrics, and several talented guests don’t hurt either: songs like “Rain” and “New Faces, v. 2” (which feature excellent verses by Vince Staples and Earl Sweatshirt, respectively) represent some of Mac’s stronger lyrical efforts.
“Diablo,” one of the better songs on Faces, seems to represent on a small scale my general feelings towards this tape. Several months ago, Mac Miller posted a rough cut of the track onto SoundCloud, and I fell in love with its murky, eerie vibe. But the final cut loses something in translation. Mac Miller reworked the instrumental for rerelease, and his additions, including an incongruous saxophone riff during the hook, end up making the track feel overblown. “Diablo,” like Faces in general, has a good core; ultimately, though, it suffers from too much dead weight.