Mac Miller’s Circles reveals difficulties of posthumous albums

Jojo Wertheimer, Staff Writer

A month after releasing his new album Swimming in September 2018, rapper and producer Mac Miller died of a drug overdose at the age of 26, leaving his fans and the music industry reeling. Before his death, Malcolm McCormick, known as Mac Miller, had been working on a companion album to Swimming, called Circles. His family was left with an extremely difficult decision— what to do with Miller’s unfinished music. 

At the beginning of January, Miller’s family posted a note on his Instagram account introducing the album. “This is a complicated process that has no right answer. We simply know that it was important to Malcolm for the world to hear it,” his family writes

Posthumous albums are extremely complicated, as the artist can no longer make decisions about their own work. If the album of work is unfinished, the family or producer of the artist has to make decisions regarding the music that the artist themselves may not have made. 

“[I think] There’s not really one way to handle it. You gotta kind of know what the artist would have wanted with their music and I think when it comes to Mac, it’s exactly what he would have wanted, the way that they did it,” says senior Henry Garfin. “But his death was so sudden and unexpected, so you don’t want to prepare for like ‘oh what do you want to do with all your music when you die?’”

In the case of Miller, his family left the unfinished work in the hands of Jon Brion who had co-produced Swimming and started working on Circles with Miller. When finishing a posthumous album, producers have to balance respecting the work that has already been created while still finishing the album themselves. “I was trying to figure out the way to change it as little as possible,” Brion told a reporter in an interview with Vulture.

Before Miller’s death, both Swimming and Circles were meant to be a part of a three-album cycle, produced with the help of Brion. The first two albums are meant to complement and complete each other. “Swimming in Circles was the concept,” Miller’s family wrote on Instagram. 

“It’s a vibe, it’s different, but I mean it’s definitely one of the better post-death albums because I feel like he already had it pretty finished,” says sophomore Harrison Alexander. “When X made us his album, it was ‘finished,’ but it was bits and pieces. This is an actual work of art.” 

In the past few years, the music industry has suffered the loss of multiple influential artists, especially rappers. In June of 2018, rapper XXXTentacion passed away, followed by Miller in September and most recently, JuiceWrld in December of 2019. 

“X hit me the hardest just because he was the first one to go,” said Alexander. “There’s really no way to put it into words; it’s just like empty because you’re never going to hear that person’s [new] music again.” 

Although the artist themself cannot release any new music, their death does not mean the end of their presence as a musician. In some cases, the popularity of an artist skyrockets after they pass away. Only a day after his death, XXXTentacion’s song “Sad!” broke the record for any song played the most in one day, with 10.4 million streams on Spotify alone. The streaming of Mac Miller’s music increased by 970% after his death, according to Billboard

“A lot of people didn’t know who Mac Miller was, and a lot of people didn’t listen to his music, but it’s only until after he passed away that people are starting to listen,” says Alexander. “I know every time that a rapper dies, for instance, Juice Wrld, Mac Miller or XXX Tentacion, their songs chart, but why were they not getting that recognition when they were alive? They’re the same artist, they have the same mentality, but now that they’re gone, you’re gonna [listen?] Personally it doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Garfin shared Alexander’s ideas around the phenomenon of popularity growth after an artist’s death, but can also agree that the music is more important than the frustration of people jumping on the bandwagon. 

“When I thought about it more, if they’re listening to him because they’re enjoying his music, and if they’re enjoying his music, that’s all that you really want,” says Garfin. 

At the beginning of his career, Miller’s music was more rap focused. As his career progressed, he became more technically accomplished in producing his own music. In 2013, Miller released Watching Movies With The Sound Off, and his music began to evolve. Throughout his most recent albums, he rapped about his substance abuse issues and struggle with depression. 

“He changed a lot. His earlier music was much more hip-hop based; he didn’t rap that much in this album, it was more singing. It was like that in his album before that one, Swimming,” says Garfin. “[Circles] talks a lot about drugs and death which was clearly on his mind at the end of his life. It was very genuine.”

The authenticity of Miller’s music is something that sets him apart from other artists, and allows those who listen to his music to connect with him as a musician. 

“When people rap about insignificant things and material things it doesn’t really hit you in the chest the same. I guess I could hype up to it, but at the end of the day, if I can’t listen to your music and reflect… that’s what all Mac Miller’s music does for me; it allows me to get into a space where I can just think and reflect, and his family knows that,” says Alexander.