By Jack Hervela
Around 13 minutes into his NPR Tiny Desk concert, Malcolm McCormick, most famously identifiable as recording artist Mac Miller, grew insular. His voice anxious, eyes uneasy, he maintained composure as he began song three of his three-song set.
“2009,” a harmonious mix of strings, eloquent piano and introspective yet relieving lyrics began. Orchestrated by Miller’s trembling legs and clenched fist, the song grew ever stronger.
For fans, seeing Mac so confident was refreshing after a tumultuous year involving his split from Ariana Grande, a DUI not long after, and the ever present mental health issues and drug addiction Miller so fancifully danced with in past years.
One month past the NPR concert, Miller died from an apparent overdose on Sept. 7. He was 26, little over a month removed from his 5th album release, one day away from starting the album’s subsequent tour.
Upon hearing the news from a co-worker, I could not help but take a few minutes outside. The emotion was not of sadness, rather an upset confusion on many levels. How could someone so young be gone? Someone who offered so much and took little, a figure of solitude and escape for many including myself.
As much as I tried to be sad and cry over his passing, it became clear Miller had much more to celebrate than negatives aspects to dwell on.
Since the release of his first mixtape to being 19 with his first album independently topping the Billboard charts in 2011, Miller has been an enigma to hip-hop.
A white boy from Pittsburgh with the charisma of a child yet the rhymes, experience and taste of people twice his age.
Miller went on to release a string of mixtapes and albums throughout the early 2010s, each more avant-garde, expressive and emotional. The progression played out as a man growing up, so sure in himself yet not of himself. Within his growth, I found myself relating more as each year passed.
Albeit a growing fanbase, explosive sales and experiences reserved for much classier people, Miller’s vices suffocated him into submission time and again.
2014 became his salvation. Miller released his mixtape, “Faces” a breezy jazz-rap collection, sparing on instrumental yet haunting with content. The mixtape played out as his supposed final, the song “Grand Finale” an indelible eulogy to his soon-to-be dead self.
Whatever his true intention, “Faces” featured Miller’s closest friends of the new “blog” generation (Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, Vince Staples) of rap and became a victory lap as they all came into their own commercially and artistically around this time.
In the years following, Miller released two incredibly joyous and individualistic albums. 2016’s “Divine Feminine” revolved around romance with soaring ballads of puppy love to deeply explicit moments of intimacy – a far cry from where he began.
His last album, “Swimming,” was the least concerning yet. Miller preached freedom with an airy sense of his new chapter beginning. Then, an evil which gripped Miller, frightened myself and worried fans for years took control in his final hours.
His impact was meteoric on an industry, let alone a generation. Yet, his death felt void of emotion. It was the first time in eight years Miller actually seemed, not acted, his age.
Listening to Miller’s discography in the days following, I was reminded of the hope, motivation, and emotions found in his journey.
If only to shatter an illusion of safety and immortality even more, I found myself outside work again two days later, on the phone praying to any God what I was hearing was false.
Austin, a best-friend since childhood, one forever immortalized on my chest in a Roman numeral VIII tattoo my mother disapproves of, had died in a car accident early that morning.
Racing home in search of friends and answers, I found myself reliving moments forgotten in adolescence with Austin through Miller.
Not two weeks before had I visited Austin and three other friends in East Lansing. He had just begun school at MSU, leaving our hometown for the first time. The last morning I saw Austin we listened to “Swimming.”
Upon reaching “2009” we were each singing along and joking about how long of lives we still had to pursue our dreams; unaware of what storms were ahead.
Seeing an idol go at 26 can evoke sadness at what could have been, and anger over the reality that they will never make another song.
Watching your 19-year-old friend’s remains vanish under delicately placed layers of dirt, far removed from heaven, holds enough weight to question why anyone would dare mourn the passing of Miller; let alone give any energy towards an activity not vested in the pursuit of living so fully death retreats into the darkest corner of oblivion until you crawl bloody, bruised, and fully alive at 95, the sole decider of death.
Still, Miller provided the soundtrack for mourning.
As the week progressed I again found hope, motivation, and now buried emotions within those five albums.
Much like losing a best friend, losing Miller meant losing innocence, childhood and what was. For all those he touched while here, there will always be those to stumble upon his music years from now.
As Miller put so simply in “2009,” “A life ain’t a life till you live it.”