Mac Miller Never Stopped Trying to Improve His Craft

When Mac Miller called himself “the hardest-working person in the universe” on his 2014 mixtape Faces, you had good reason to believe him. For two years at that point, we’d been hearing near-mythical stories about star-studded, marathon sessions at “The Sanctuary,” the studio Miller built in his house after he moved from his native Pittsburgh to L.A. in 2012. Members and affiliates of Top Dawg Entertainment, Odd Future and Flying Lotus’ experimental Brainfeeder collective filtered in and out, with Mac as the constant. That period in his life sounds as thrilling as it does exhausting. While discussing unreleased material with Noisey in 2015, Mac explained, “There’s about nine projects. Thundercat and I made a band, and we did a full instrumental album in three days. I didn’t sleep for three days and just cycled in musicians. I would keep calling people so I never had to sleep…”

Although that Thundercat collab album never materialized, the Sanctuary sessions that were released between mid-2012 and 2014 stand as quite the resumé for Miller, who died Friday at the age of 26. In addition to Mac’s sophomore studio album, a jazz album under the alias of Larry Lovestein, a mixtape under the alias of Delusional Thomas, a beat tape under the alias of Larry Fisherman and Faces, Miller produced for his absurd rolodex of new friends. He made tracks with Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt, Sir Michael Rocks, Dash, Lil B, SZA and Riff Raff, as well as an entire full-length with frequent collaborator Vince Staples.

It’s hard to understate how surprising this all was at the time. Before 2012, Mac had been known primarily, if not exclusively, as a “frat rapper,” a term wielded derogatorily by critics to describe the wave of mostly white, mostly privileged, mostly terrible rappers to whom Asher Roth’s “I Love College” was a profound thesis statement. Articles like “A Guide to Understanding Frat Rap,” “Straight Outta Suburbia: A Beginner’s Guide to Frat Rap,” and “Mac Miller and Four Other Frat-Rappers You Should Know” all cited him as a core member of the “genre.” It may not have accurately described Mac, who always seemed much more reverent of rap history than say, Hoodie Allen, but it stuck. His 2011 debut album, Blue Slide Park, famously received a 1.0 Pitchfork review.

On the same Faces track that featured the “hardest-working person” line, Mac said, “They wasn’t hearin’ me ‘til I fucked with the Brainfeeder.” He wasn’t wrong: Stereogum’s Tom Breihan wrote that Miller was “threatening to become interesting” on “S.D.S,” and even SPIN’s Jordan Sargent, the author of that infamous Pitchfork review, proclaimed, “Mac Miller is Cool Now,” just over a year-and-a-half after Blue Slide Park’s release. (I also took part in this sudden reappraisal.)

But it wasn’t just Miller’s enble contacts list that was responsible for this unexpected critical about-face. It was unmistakably clear that this dude was devoting the vast majority of his waking life to improving his craft — to stepping up his bars, to improving as a singer, to becoming a beat wizard, to mastering multiple instruments, to writing increasingly complex music. This commitment never waned in the years since Mac left The Sanctuary behind, during which his prolificacy slightly tapered off, but the richness of his work grew exponentially. The death of a talented musician is a loss no matter what stage of their career they’re in, but Miller’s palpable drive adds another sad layer to his passing: He seemed to be just getting started.

Whatever your feelings are about Miller’s early work, or even his recent work, this commitment to his bettering his art was admirable and unquestionable. In a Vulture profile by Craig Jenkins that was published the day before Miller’s death, Miller noted some inspiration he’d recently taken from HBO’s new documentary The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling“He was always writing the words, ‘Just be Garry.’ ‘Just be Garry.’ And that shit struck a chord with me because that’s the goal, to get better and to try to make this shit the most of a reflection of who I am.”

You can see the fruit of Miller’s increased introspection on his last two albums, The Divine Feminine and Swimming. The former found him musing about the inner workings of love over languid jazz-funk, while the latter captured the rocky post-breakup aftermath with songs about “Hurt Feelings” and “Self Care.” But that drive for honesty manifested itself in other important ways as well. As a white man making his living in hip hop, Miller recognized the importance of checking his privilege and at times ceding ground to the black artists he counted as influences and peers. In a 2015 interview between him and Staples, he acknowledged that privilege with a level of frankness and self-reflection that few (if any) of his fellow frat rappers have ever demonstrated.

“I remember touring and doing shows, and I was the first rap show ever in all these colleges,” he said. “Six thousand kids, and I’m the first hip-hop show because I’m white-college-friendly. That was always a demon for me. It was hard to sit here and know that, because I was a white dude, I was able to sell easier and be more marketable.”

He echoed that sentiment in that Noisey interview from the same year, saying that he “wouldn’t feel right being up here without going through some type of getting there and gaining the respect of his] peers.” Clearly, in the wake of Jay-Z’s now-famous “... black people really magic . Mac Miller nice too though” tweet, Miller gained that respect.

Whether stepping up his piano chops or reckoning with his place in the world, Miller gave off the distinct impression of always trying to better himself as an artist. In recent years, he dove head-first into live instrumentation, posing himself almost as more of a bandleader than a rapper in Swimming sessions as well as his recent Tiny Desk Concert. As his final tweets revealed, he couldn’t wait to go on tour with Thundercat, up-and-coming rapper J.I.D., and a full band. What we know about plans for the Swimming tour offers a final snapshot of what he was all about: playing music with his friends, supporting young artists, and continuously trying to enrich his art.