Doc Zeus didn’t mean to cause you pain.
Mac Miller coasted into rap as a critically-reviled outsider—a doofus stoner white kid who built a loyal fan base of mostly white, always stoned, teen suburbanites. He enjoyed a shocking amount of commercial success for a niche indie rapper; the video for “Kool-Aid and Frozen Pizza” alone racked up millions of views on Youtube. But (in case you couldn’t tell from the last sentence) his was a niche that ran parallel to the rest of hip-hop.
Miller might as well have shilled singer-songwriter mixtapes on the quad between freshman seminars, for all the resemblance he bore to even the most Clear Channeled-out black rappers of the time. Yet now, a half-decade later, he’s not only the (former) owner of every Los Angeles rapper’s favorite basement, but an artist taken seriously by the same critics and true-school fans who had previously written him off. How? Even more perplexingly, why?
Starting with 2013’s Watching Movies With The Sound Turned Off and continuing through last year’s Faces mixtape, the consensus began to turn in Miller’s favor. At first sheepishly, then enthusiastically, Mac began getting props for things like “songwriting” and “focus” and being “experimental.” In his defense, he showed marked improvement as a rapper, and promise as a producer. The DOOM comparisons were loudly and obviously overblown, but the dusty, glitchy beats and free-associative rhymes were at least a distinctive style.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Pittsburgh native has become a collaborator with (and seemingly friend to) nearly every prominent rapper in his tax bracket on the left coast. The mixtape with Vince Staples, the bromance with Earl—Miller’s momentum is such that his third album, GO:OD AM, might rightfully be considered one of the more anticipated rap albums of the year. But it might be telling that the comeback narrative that started brewing in 2013 persists. Will GO:OD AM finally silence the skeptics for good?
The biggest transgression of Mac’s music has always been its reliance in his lyrics on common rap tropes: money, marijuana, and an uncomfortable, scumbag charm. To this point, his work has showed only fleeting ability to transcend the tropes in meaningful ways or to synthesize them into something personal or incisive. The good news is that he’s searching. On Faces, there are moments where Miller is obviously circling something substantial. And while GO:OD AM is a definitely, almost defiantly competent affair, it ultimately fails to fully break the plane and achieve something new.
As a songwriter, Mac Miller’s identity—his slang, his diction, his subject matter—feels as if it owes less to his life experiences and more to the rappers that he’s a fan of. He’s a Pittsburgh native who over-enunciates southern slang words like “finna” with the same awkward drawl that Iggy Azalea pronounces “murda bizness.” If we’re being fair to Miller, he isn’t grating or offensive the way the Australian is, as he always sounds knowing, as if he’s in on the joke. And he is genuinely funny, like your buddy’s older brother who keeps cracking jokes when you’re three blunts deep. Yet the album’s songs often feel like templates, jumping from pattern to pattern, awaiting to be properly fleshed out with richer ideas.
On “100 Grandkids,” Miller goes from Jeezy-ian drug-selling metaphors (“I could sell snow to a ski slope”) to money talk (“I went pro, made profit/Now I keep some dead faces in my pocket”) to weed talk (“Gettin’ faded, I been stoned all week”) to Drake-esque sub-tweeting of ex-girlfriends (“You put the ho in honest baby, so complicated”) in the same sixteen bars, as if the goal of rap songwriting was to cram as much rap cliché as possible. It’s possible that throwing all the signifiers at the wall is an attempt to be subversive, but they never quite coalesce into a statement of their own.
Where most of this creative corner-cutting is innocuous, GO:OD AM’s lazy, taxing misogyny is bound to test your patience. Without moralizing, it’s hard to shake the sense that it only exists because popular rap music is supposed to have this quality. But while it does plague plenty of popular rap (and music at large), misogyny, like all destructive things, can serve artistic purpose. Think of Ghostface’s angry, spurned “Wildflower,” Doggystyle’s blue comedic tradition, or even the transgressive need to push the boundaries of good taste like UGK’s “Pregnant Pussy.”
In contrast, Mac’s objectification of women feels forced and disingenuous, where in “Bitches getting naked, we was selling E/ Bitches kissing bitches just like Ellen D” (“Rush Hour”), his use of “bitch” is the punchline in and of itself. It’s no more transgressive than the toddler who learns the word from overhearing a Too $hort record on his dad’s satellite radio. Don’t tell Mom. It’s “problematic.”
Despite these shortcomings as a songwriter, there are parts of GO:OD AM that demand attention. As a producer and as a curator of rap beats, Miller has developed an idiosyncratic and diverse sound that is now, finally, his own. His home studio was purported to be a cauldron for young talented musicians in the L.A. area—many of whom lend their talents here. Tyler, the Creator brings a gorgeous orchestral piano to the album’s opener, “Doors,” while producer Drew Byrd and acclaimed multi-genre musician Thundercat co-produce the jazzy notes of “Break The Law.” However you feel about the MC, there’s almost always something interesting lurking in the mix. There are more than a few jams on this record.
Great popular rap music can exist without straying from tropes Miller indulges, but you have to have the personality to sell it. GO:OD AM teeters on the brink of breaking through, but Mac doesn’t quite have the charisma to tread water where his pen fails him. His voice is too marginal, his delivery too affected to make it seem as if he’s forging his own lane as a vocalist. If there’s a lesson to be learned from GO:OD AM, it’s that you can’t sell a good story if your lead is thin.