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The Pittsburgh native, who died Friday of a drug overdose at 26, developed into a wondrous rapper through a constant process of improvement that was never without its growing pains. His story has been one of resolve, of stumbling and rising and trying to stand taller than before. People recognized in him that search for the truest version of himself. It’s what makes his passing particularly devastating.
Born Malcolm McCormick on January 19, 1992 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Miller was an indie rap success story from the start. He turned a deal with a rising local rap label, Rostrum Records, and a co-sign from Wiz Khalifa into five consecutive Top 5 debuts on the album chart. His evolution into an accomplished musician, producer (under the name Larry Fisherman), and rap mentor was nothing short of inspiring.
Miller’s fourth mixtape, 2010’s K.I.D.S. (Kickin’ Incredibly Dope Shit), was pure frat-rap juvenilia. It became the cornerstone of his indie empire and induced hand-wringing from rap fanatics. (Some of it was warranted on the basis of privilege and budding talent yet to bloom, some of it harsher than necessary in response to the zeitgeist, then a booming white rapper industrialcomplex.) Looking back on those songs now, they seem harmless enough: nostalgic party favors from a teenager still figuring out what he was doing.
Mac’s success didn’t wait for him to find out who he was. He continued to dominate rap’s blog era with his next mixtape, Best Day Ever, and the most popular song of his career, “Donald Trump.” When Miller feuded with Trump over who deserved credit for the song’s YouTube views, he wrote off Trump’s claim by saying the track could have easily been about Bill Gates—an unwittingly damning indictment of how generic his songs were back then. By the time he released his debut album, 2011’s Blue Slide Park, Miller had built a cult following: he had the first independently distributed album to hit No. 1 in 16 years. Pitchfork infamously gave it a 1.0.
The conflicting critical and commercial responses signaled a crossroads for Mac Miller, in more ways than one. Scathing criticism, in part, turned a teenaged Mac toward drug use, specifically lean. “You’re 19, you’re so excited to put out your first album, you put it out—and no one has any respect for you or for what you did,” he told Complex in his 2013 cover story. By then, he’d already set out to snatch his respect through sheer force of will. The 2012 stopgap release Macadelic ushered stranger sounds. From that point on, Miller became harder to define and impossible to pin down. He became much better at rapping, too, abandoning the rudimentary mechanics of his early stuff for the easygoing technicality of his indie peers. Mac was always having fun in his raps but now he was fun to listen to. He started drifting through the oddball beats of Flying Lotus and Clams Casino, striking up friendships with ScHoolboy Q, Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples, and Da$h.
At first this seemed like a shrewd strategy for him: become cool by association. But the further down the rabbit hole Miller went, it became clear that he was there to offer something to the music he loved. “People just started getting how real it was to me,” he said in Fader’s mini-doc, Stopped Making Excuses. The most savvy summation of his trajectory from kid rapper taken lightly to indie success story to respected artist can be found on “Here We Go,” from his brutally honest 2014 mixtape Faces: “Cocaine ether creates a strange creature/They wasn’t hearing me ‘til I fucked with a Brainfeeder/I’m still playing it out the same speakers/I did it all without a Drake feature!” He “did it all without a Jay feature,” too, though Hov eventually gave his approval. “Black people really magic,” he tweeted in 2017. “Mac Miller nice too though.”
Despite a largely unwavering fan base, a creative resurgence, and the admiration of his peers, Miller struggled with addiction throughout his career. He said he “was not on planet Earth” when he made the druggy Faces and sought serious help from producer Rick Rubin. He credited Rubin with helping him detox and encouraging him to “get his life together” in 2015. When Rolling Stone’s Brian Hiatt asked what he learned through this process, Miller’s answer seemed to echo his new approach to songwriting: “Just being still, and how important it is to be able to quiet your mind and be honest with yourself.”
Listening to Miller’s final album, last month’s Swimming, feels like following a restless rapper as he chases stillness. “I just need a way out of my head/I’ll do anything for a way out of my head,” he sang on “Come Back to Earth.” His music got more and more personal throughout his career, leading him to face addiction and mortality in a way that felt accessible, hackable even. Miller was a bigger star than many of his more lauded rap friends but there was always something about him that remained industrious and blue collar, perhaps something in his Steel City roots.
Though his songs reached many, Miller’s legacy may reveal itself more in those he reached personally. He was a noted friend of the indie rap set, treating the home studio in his L.A. mansion as a community space of sorts. Chance the Rapper tweeted that he met Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples through Miller, and many others shared similar stories. Miller also made the Internet his live band during the 2013 Space Migration Tour, and he helped introduce just about every young rapper he came in contact with to a bigger audience: Chance, YG, Joey Bada$$, Rapsody, the Cool Kids, Earl, GoldLink, Action Bronson, Vince, Meek Mill, Tory Lanez, Casey Veggies, EarthGang, Pac Div, J.I.D., and more. Miller always seemed to find a way to be in close proximity to the artists he loved, either bigging them up and putting them on. Watch any exchange between Mac and Vince or Q or the Internet and you’ll see a person who makes everyone around him feel at ease.
There’s something aspirational about the Mac Miller Model: investing the resources afforded by an early breakthrough back into the community while exploring the depths of your own creativity (instead of skating by on privileged success). “You need good soil for something to grow,” he once told XXL. He was speaking in the context of Rubin nurturing him back to health, but it’s just as telling about Mac’s mentality. In his greatest act of betterment, Mac Miller planted and watered and cultivated others’ rap careers so that we all could reap the rewards.