By Chris Troop
Throughout the month of September 2018, I have had countless conversations that have started with something along the lines of, Where were you when Mac Miller died? Miller has felt like the first musician that I (and many of my friends) had the experience of “losing” – Bowie and Lou Reed were taken early, but they both had their time in the sun, and XXXtentacion’s outstanding domestic abuse charges, despite the appallingly young age at which he was killed, will (and should) continue to tar his legacy.
The most haunting memory I have surrounding Miller’s death actually came the morning before he passed away. Slightly hungover and charged with touring a friend of mine around Philadelphia, I remember grumpily scrolling through my Twitter feed while standing in line for a much-needed coffee. Eventually I landed on the unpunctuated, unpolished:
A small smile ran across my face. I slid my phone into my jeans and suddenly, that coffee didn’t seem so urgent. Less than 24 hours later, I heard the news of the overdose while sharing a taxi. All I could think about was Miller writing this tweet – a blurt of sincere, heartwarming excited-ness – and I did not know what to say. The other occupant of the car felt the weight of the moment so viscerally he opened his door and got out at a stoplight.
While his death did affect me, in the grand scheme of things, I am a recent Mac Miller fan. I enjoyed the expansive The Divine Feminine and have subsequently worked my way backwards through his body of work, with Faces being the standout. I became infatuated with his omnipresent earnestness, and even on the mixtapes I didn’t especially enjoy, it was utterly apparent that Miller thoroughly dug each of his own musical phases. It’s rare to hear an artist so genuinely energised about the music they make, and Swimming continued to embody Miller’s fervor in this way. My grief comes from the fact that Miller seemed like an individual with unbelievable talent on the cusp of something truly great, cut down just before his ascendancy. It would be disingenuous of me to claim some longstanding attachment to Miller, though.
The other person in the taxi that day was my friend Ethan. Ethan grew up as an ardent hip hop fan in upstate New York, in and around Saratoga Springs, and has been listening to Miller since the age of 13. Our first forays into taste are largely not dictated by ourselves. First, you listen to what your parents like, and once that influence wears off, you consume what others are listening to. It is only then that people tend to carve out a listener’s identity for themselves through exploration. Along with the fledgling Odd Future and A$AP Mob, Ethan stumbled across Mac Miller, a white guy from Pittsburgh with an infectious style and obvious talent who produced all of his own music. An aspiring hip hop producer himself, to this point there had been considerable distance between Ethan and his heroes. The Drakes, Eminems and Kanyes of this world had an invincibility to them – an unrelatable, alienating poise that Miller was still learning on the job. If commercial success creates a divide, Miller very much felt like he hadn’t crossed it and stood on the same side as Ethan.
Despite the fact that I see him every day, I avoided talking to Ethan about Miller for a while until last week, where we finally sat down. I hadn’t interviewed a close friend before and I was worried that asking questions may make for a forced or insensitive conversation on a topic clearly dear to Ethan’s heart. My worries were totally misplaced. Mirroring Miller’s trademark sincerity, Ethan talked about him like an old friend, referring to him as “Mac” without exception. We played Faces on my speaker in the background, and throughout our hour-long conversation Ethan would regularly stop mid-sentence simply to hear a verse out. What struck me most evidently about Ethan’s relationship with Mac is that Ethan is by no means an unquestioning stan. In fact, much like any dynamic, real relationship, Ethan’s attitudes towards Miller’s music have varied, waxing and waning from project to project and as both he and his hero got older. He even confessed that at some points he would have actively espoused the view that he “hated Mac Miller.” At this moment, I remember tilting my head up from my notepad and noticing Ethan staring at the floor. He then said:
“The thing was that there was always going to be new music… I can’t believe we won’t ever have that again.”
That was when I understood. Ultimately, Mac Miller represents what we hope for ourselves ‒ that there will always be the next thing, however bad things are now. He proved that we can be young and make something as braggadocious and boyish as Blue Slide Park, but develop, grow and eventually create the thoughtful and distinctly grown-up Watching Movies With The Sound Off. He gave hope to those who got all they ever wanted from life (The Divine Feminine) but then lost it. Whether it was tabloid headlines, perceptions about his artistry, or his personal life, he refused to drown.
Many have expressed their grief by talking about “Mac” as if he was, someday, going to create a classic. That it was only a matter before of time before we received a single career-defining, monolith of an album that left no one in doubt of his legacy. They’re missing the point. Miller’s forward-thinking zest for life, expressed through that gnarled grin, was exactly what made him so compelling. To Ethan and many just like him, Miller provided a constant. A protagonist, who despite his faults, was easy to root for due to his eternal drive to better himself and his music.
And this is why losing him hurts so much. With Miller, we don’t only lose a beloved musician and personality whose influence extends to every corner of hip hop, we also lose a considerable amount of hope. We lose a ready example of someone defined by dynamism, who kept growing and learning – who as he said himself, “never ran out of Jet Fuel.”
That tweet will haunt me for some time. Sitting at home in LA, fresh from recording Swimming, instead of basking in the glory of his new album, Miller was only thinking about the next thing.