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Words by Frances Capell / Photography by 13thWitness
Mac Miller is stepping out of the shadow of his younger self. Initially dubbed EZ Mac, the Pittsburgh, PA native released his first project, But My Mackin’ Ain’t Easy, at age 15. In the years that followed, Miller accumulated loads of hype through a series of fun-loving mixtapes and dropped his momentous studio debut, Blue Slide Park, on Rostrum in 2011. On it, he raps about things most newly wealthy suburban teenagers would: girls, staying up late, getting even more famous, and raking in even more cash. Though it was the first rap record on an indie label to top Billboard’s charts in well over a decade, the album was largely panned by critics, who condemned Miller to the tiresome category of “frat dude party anthems.” Blue Slide Park’s introspective follow-up, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, is miles away from its light-hearted, bombastic precursor. The expansive and revelatory album is punctuated by features from esteemed colleagues Earl Sweatshirt, Action Bronson and Ab-Soul. Even the elusive Jay Electronica supplies a verse. On one of the record’s raunchier efforts —
the knocking, Chuck Inglish-produced “Gees,” Miller spits alongside his homie, ScHoolboy Q, who’s hopped a red-eye flight for our expedition through one of Queens’ more picturesque spots on this gorgeous late spring day.
The sleepy ScHoolboy Q is the first to arrive at Forest Park — a lush, arboreal haven brimming with wild flowers and colossal oak trees. He power-naps behind the tinted windows of his black SUV. Soon, the scent of honeysuckles in the air mingles with weed smoke as he lumbers quietly between racks of clothes and the assortment of bucket hats laid out for the photo shoot. When the jovial (though admittedly hung-over) Miller shows up, Q transforms into the animated jokester his fans and friends adore. Spirits lift and the volume level increases exponentially as Miller hugs and high-fives Q and his entourage. Q busts out laughing when Miller tries on a red and blue trimmed straw hat that makes him look like he’s “collecting tickets at the fucking circus.” After he switches to a navy blue cap, Q quips: “Now you look like EZ Mac.”
We hop a fence and traverse down a gravelly slope to some nearby train tracks enclosed by graffiti-splashed walls and overgrown shrubs. Though there’s broken glass everywhere, Miller immediately kicks off his shoes and tightrope walks along a train rail. “The universe is on my side,” he vows. He strikes a serene lotus pose while Q cavorts around him with a rusty axe (go figure). Next, they place empty beer bottles along the tracks and struggle to shoot them with BB guns. “I don’t know how to work BB guns — only real guns,” Q laments. Miller wages that the first to succeed gets a thousand dollars, but neither of them hit their targets and the bottles are smashed to oblivion when a train suddenly bolts through. “Now I’m scared of trains for life,” admits a visibly shaken Miller.
Cops are dispatched to the outskirts of the park, likely summoned by a train conductor perplexed by the sight of two rappers with weapons scurrying out of his trajectory. Hiding out under the overpass until it’s safe to go back up, I ask the pair how they initially met.
“He was a White boy that was getting punked on in LA, and he needed some help,” says Q. Miller elaborates: “I was in the mall, and these dudes were pressing me. They said, like, ‘Yo, you weak, you trash,’ and shit. Then Q came up like, ‘Yo, spit 16 [bars]’, and he was like, ‘Okay, you nice.”
“And he got a pass,” Q recalls. “I was like, Man, this little White boy hard. I didn’t know it was him until I went to his big-ass crib, saw his house and all the homies was there. I put two and two together and I’m like, oh, that’s Mac Miller. That’s the little nigga from Pittsburgh.” The anecdote isn’t true, but it speaks volumes about the nature of their unlikely friendship: relentless ridicule derived from a solid foundation of mutual fondness and respect. If they’d met in middle school, they’d be two class clowns swapping lewd drawings in the detention hall. The duo actually met on the “Under the Influence of Music” tour with Miller’s label mate, Wiz Khalifa, in 2012. It was an experience that wasn’t entirely enjoyable for all parties involved. “That was wack because it was a higher scale than I was used to,” says Q. “I was used to five hundred- or one thousand-person venues. That was twenty thousand, thirty thousand. It was good for Mac and Wiz. For me, it was like, ‘Who is this violent, old-ass man that’s older than Wiz and Mac performing two hours before?’ They was looking at me like I was crazy, so I didn’t really like the tour, [but] I’m glad I went on it.”
Miller remembers one evening particularly well. “The highlight of your show was the one time I came out and handed you that blunt, that’s the craziest they went,” he reminds his buddy. “The crowd went crazy,” Q responds. “And I was like, ‘Hold up, they might be giving me some love.’ I forgot that he told me he was gonna come and throw a blunt on stage. As soon as he walked off stage it was over.” These days, the two hang out and make music whenever possible (they live ten minutes away from each other in LA). Miller’s home studio, The Sanctuary, is a favored destination among Black Hippy and Odd Future members, many of whom appear on Watching Movies with the Sound Off. Q may or may not have ever been to a frat party in his life, so I ask for his thoughts on Miller’s early work. “It was a little too young for me at the time, then his music matured more and more and progressed,” he says. “I got into Mac afterMacadelic. Now I can relate to his music more than I used to. Not saying his old shit was wack, I just couldn’t relate to it.”
Released in 2012, Miller’s Macadelic mixtape may be the missing link for those astonished by the contrast between the whimsical Blue Slide Park and the depth of his latest work. “I think everyone hears this crazy change, but they’re really just going from album to album,” he says. “Anyone that’s seen me making music this whole time knows that this is where it was headed. I would hope that I got better. I wouldn’t wanna stay the same.” In addition to verses about sipping lean (promethazine mixed with codeine) to escape reality, a habit he’s recently kicked, Macadelic’s lyrics delve into the plight of a young man struggling to find his identity amidst a world of excess and the inescapable glare of the spotlight. Sometimes I wonder who the fuck I am / So I’ve been looking in the mirror and it still don’t make no sense, he broods on “The Question.” On “Clarity,” he toys with the notion of being caught in a purgatory of sorts — a concept he returns to on Watching Movies with the Sound Off’s soul-searching opener, “The Star Room”: Still trapped inside my head / I kinda feel like it’s a purgatory. “If you think about everything, just the world around you, for too long and try to get to a conclusion, you kind of realize there’s no conclusion,” he says. “Spending all this time in your mind, [it’s] just kind of a standstill, but it’s good. You have your good days, you have your bad days, you’re just kind of centered. I like the idea of tossing around purgatory.” Perhaps because he’s having a very good day, it’s a much less bleak vision than his lyrics imply.
Before “The Star Room” concludes, Miller declares that if there’s a party in heaven, he’s gonna leave wasted. The track is a nice summation of the album altogether: sometimes he’s still the life of the party, but the 21-year-old rapper is also growing up. His personal evolution includes a new-found interest in spirituality. “I’m not like a born-again religious weirdo,” he clarifies when I bring it up. “I just feel like it’s such a big thing in the world.” Though he could likely give a seminar on the workings of the music industry, this statement shines a light on his youthful naiveté. “Religion is so powerful. I just wanna learn about it. I wanna take a voyage [and] go to all the religious meccas and feel the energy.” On the album’s penultimate, meditative jam, “Aquarium,” he contemplates this quest for a more meaningful existence: I know you hear me out there / Give me a sign though.
The record’s more vulnerable moments arrive when Miller addresses a certain female on the slow-burning, Clams Casino-produced “Youfouria” and the delicately sultry “Someone Like You.” “I think on ‘Someone Like You,’ the verses are about issues in my own head and the hook is about [how] when you’re with your girl, nothing matters, which is tight,” he says. “But then there’s a whole bunch of issues that come with that.” He grows a little distant when I ask about his recent split from the girl he dated for the majority of his musical career: “It’s still not really resolved. It’s still whatever.”
It’s hard to reconcile this side of Miller with the wild antics flaunted on his MTV reality show Mac Miller and the Most Dope Family. “What people don’t know is I’ve been a pretty mature individual for a while,” he remarks. “I have this thing where when I’m uncomfortable, like on the [TV] show — people don’t get it — they think that’s really me, but it’s kind of a defense mechanism. I’m being filmed all the time, so it’s easier to be a weirdo than to be myself.” A lascivious, braggadocio-spewing caricature of Miller plays a supporting role on Watching Movies with the Sound Off, perhaps most prominently on his bonkers track with Q, “Gees,” when he commands, “Suck my dick before I slap you with it.”
Between the album’s lecherous edges and soft spots, Miller shines as an intelligent and dexterous emcee. His game-changing lead single, “S.D.S.,” converted haters to fans, and he casually trades head-spinning verses with the elusive Jay Electronica on the hypnotic “Suplexes Inside of Complexes and Duplexes.” “I like to say that he sent me on a scavenger hunt to get the verse,” he says of the coveted guest spot. “I always say that he sent me an e-mail with 30 clues, and on the 30th clue I found the key to open the secret door. The Jay Electronica verse is the next Dan Brown book.”
When we pause for lunch, Miller slips back into goofball mode as he and Q commence one of their favorite pastimes: exchanging six-second video jabs on Vine. Q snaps one labeling Mac Vanilla Ice and Mac responds by comparing a shirtless Q to the far portlier Bizarre from D12. Later, I ask the pair to think up their dream collaborations for each other. “Mac and somebody else? Mac and Macklemore,” jokes Q. “Mac and Macklemore going in on a motherfuckin’ Mac attack. No hook, no nothing, just a Mac attack. Bars — 60 bars each.” Miller fires back: “Kendrick [and Q]. That’s all you need, baby.”