The Pittsburgh kid has grown up.
Mac Miller has matured into a sage rapper with lyrics to match his excellent beats in his first major studio album “GO:OD AM,” which dropped Sept. 18. It’s the rapper’s best work to date, as he mostly ditches the “frat rap” lyricism of sex, party and drugs for love and heartbreak.
The Pittsburgh native, who started as EZ Mac in his high school rap group The Ill Spoken, is now selling out Stage AE all by himself. Miller started rapping when he was 14 and dropped his first solo mixtape as Mac, “The Jukebox: Prelude to Class Clown,” in 2009. The Taylor Allderdice High School graduate then signed with Pittsburgh-based Rostrum Records when he turned 18, which had already signed fellow Pittsburgh rapper and Miller’s friend Wiz Khalifa.
Miller jumped into the scene at a young age, hitting number one on the charts with his independently released mixtape “Blue Slide Park” at 19 years old in November 2011. This was the first indie debut album to reach number one since 1995, but it got mixed reviews despite his large following. Pitchfork scored it a 1.0 out of 10, calling Miller “a crushingly bland, more intolerable version of Wiz Khalifa.”
Miller has had worse troubles, though. As recently as last summer, he was struggling with drug addiction in Los Angeles before moving to Brooklyn in August. Amidst his floundering in drugs and depression, the first words on his last mixtape, 2014’s “Faces,” are “I shoulda died already.”
Though critics praised his last official album, 2013’s “Watching Movies with the Sound Off,” “GO:OD AM” feels like Miller finally waking up from his bad dreams and addictions. It is the first true time that he has proven himself worthy of the fame he’s had for so long.
At 23, Miller is still on the younger end of his peers, and it’s difficult to listen to this record without drawing comparisons to Vince Staples, the 21-year-old west coast rapper who also released his first major studio album — the widely praised “Summertime ’06” — earlier this year.
Similarly to “GO:OD”, “Summertime” is an album about maturation. Where Staples raps about escaping the gangs and crime of poverty-stricken Los Angeles, Miller raps with a pain in his voice about letting his family down, alluding to his drug problems.
His album’s tracklist, though — at 17 songs — feels distracting. “Watching Movies with the Sound Off” was also a lengthy record, though Miller’s self-portrayal as a young philosophizer slipping into drug addiction feels less significant than his return from it. It’s worth wondering if trimming a couple songs off would have amplified the rapper’s welcome back party.
Over the 70-minute run time, Miller explores depression, substance abuse, sobriety and women, all in his attempt to grow and be a better man. The epitome of these attempts comes in the near eight-minute “Perfect Circle / God Speed,” where he contemplates his maturity, or lack thereof, and how his substance abuse could hurt his mother.
He mixes vulnerability with confidence as he points out “I’m only 23, but my mind is older and it’ll forever be.” He breaks down later imagining his mother’s reaction to hearing her son has died from an overdose.
The tracks’ order strategically represents the struggles of sobriety, alternating from songs about self-improvement to those about indulgence. It’s a tricky balance to maintain and some of the songs didn’t work, like “In The Bag” or “When in Rome,” whose lyrics are less introspective, serving as reminders of how Mac fell into the “frat rapper” label earlier in his career.
Luckily, there is enough wit and energy in successes like “100 Grandkids,” “Weekend” and “Ascension” that overshadow the record’s weaker tracks.
Miller’s always had an ear for beats, and on “GO:OD,” Miller worked with notable west coast producers like Tyler, the Creator and Flying Lotus, as well as some finely-selected guests. He went back and forth perfectly with Ab-Soul on “Two Matches,” and Miguel complements him beautifully on “Weekend.” However, the highlight feature will be Little Dragon wrapping up the album with a trippy verse on “The Festival,” the record’s dreamy finale.
While the album focuses on Miller’s personal growth, it also works as a sign of his career as well. Miller is no longer the kid who got famous quickly and worked to validate his platform. “GO:OD AM” is Miller’s artistic awakening — alive and not nearly ready to call it a night.