Mac Miller’s ‘Swimming’: Best Songs on Five-Year Anniversary

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On Aug. 3, 2018, just weeks ahead of Mac Miller’s death on Sept. 7 at the age of 26, the rapper released his fifth studio album, “Swimming.”

Across its 13 tracks, Miller entered a new melodic era that permeated with vulnerable confessions and paid tribute to his jazzy influences. Looking back five years after its release, the album acts as a sort of admission of his spirit and an unrealized farewell. Built as the counterpart to its 2020 successor “Circles” (as in “Swimming” in “Circles”), the former peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, where it’s stayed for 235 weeks. “Swimming” became certified platinum in February 2021 — making it Miller’s first project to do so — and became double platinum in June 2023.

Rising to popularity in late 2010 for his “frat rap” sound, Miller’s debut album “Blue Slide Park” (2011) earned an infamous 1.0 rating from Pitchfork, driving the narrative that he was yet another rapper whose repertoire was defined by “lust[ing] after fame, money and women.” And while he rapped about “tryin’ to get a mansion” in the dawn of his career, Miller quickly came into his own.

He swapped out party beats about materialism and fame (“money what I’m bout / trying to get so much that I can’t keep count”) for personalized R&B tones that matched his evolving identity as an artist who swam against the ebb and flow of life through his work (“Gray skies are driftin’, not livin’ forever / They told me it only gets better”).

Each of Miller’s studio albums peeled back a new layer of his artistry. “Blue Slide Park” banked on the party rap sound that drew in his initial fanbase. “Watching Movies With the Sound Off” rid him of the empty-artist stereotype and introduced grave conversations about drug use. On “GO:OD AM,” a fully realized point of view cemented Miller’s presence in rap, and with “The Divine Feminine,” he created a romantic, erotic diary entry.

He publicly dealt with substance addiction — a theme discussed throughout his body of work. With “Swimming,” it seemed as though Miller had gained somewhat of a grasp on his addiction, in contrast to his 2014 mixtape “Faces,” in which he warned listeners of the temptations of “snowflakes fallin’ on expired debit cards.” 

“Swimming” signified a fresh start for Miller. While recognizing his past, it was sealed with a pact to do and be better (He declares he once “was drowning, but now I’m swimmin’,” in the opening track).

Miller’s tragic absence in the music industry has been amplified in the time after his death. With each year, the fervent glow of his passionate fanbase gets reignited on the anniversary of “Swimming.” It would go on to land Miller his first and only Grammy nomination for best rap album, but critical acclaim was never something the late rapper yearned for.

“Stop keeping score,” he wrote in a 2018 tweet. “Just keep swimming.”

Five years after its release, Variety lists eight tracks from “Swimming” that stand as the most moving from the album.

“Come Back to Earth”

The aura of “Swimming’s” opening track at first appears melancholic, but Miller’s lyrics reveal a pragmatic truth — he was confessing his demons. He reflects back on his past state (“drownin’”), to his present (“swimmin’”), with the essence of the album emulated in just one line. 

“In my own way, this feel like livin’ / Some alternate reality / And I was drownin’, but now I’m swimmin’ / Through stressful waters to relief”

“Hurt Feelings”

Miller addresses his relationship with fame, affirming that monetary value will never equate to eternal happiness. He raps about the upsides of his stardom (“whips that move mountains / new cribs, blue fountains”), however, he accepts that the industry is all but “just a game.” 

The most staggering lyrics come in the track’s chorus, an eerie prelude to the emptiness that Miller’s friends, family and fans feel in the wake of his death:

“Everything is different, I can’t complain / You don’t know what you missin’, shame on you / (Yeah, yeah, yeah) Shame on you (Yeah)” 

“Perfecto” 

“Perfecto” supports Miller’s concept of water that’s ever-present in “Swimming.” He’s mindful of his evolving ability to swim, a metaphor for his compulsion. He raspily raps over a relatively upbeat track, but his lyrics reveal the details of his inner conflict: that he’s often paralyzed with melancholy. Miller pronounces he’s neither drowning nor swimming, but “treadin’ water.”

“I’m treadin’ water, I swear / That if I drown, I don’t care / They callin’ for me from the shore, I need more”

“Self Care”

Standing as his highest-streamed track to date on Spotify, Miller addresses his faults (“that Mercedes drove me crazy, I was speedin’”) while contradictorily pledging that they’re remedied. He challenges the critique of those berating his life over an effortlessly catchy tone. Its music video depicts Miller buried alive in a coffin that he breaks himself out of — a metaphor depicting the reality that he solely relies on himself (and also an homage to “Kill Bill: Volume 2”).

“Tell them they can take that bullshit elsewhere (Yeah) / Self care, I’m treatin’ me right, yeah / Hell yeah, we gonna be alright (We gon’ be alright)”

“Wings”

Miller ushers an unparalleled sense of awareness in “Wings.” Like much of “Swimming,” he considers his mistakes and reveals that he “ain’t feelin’ broken no more,” while still admitting he’s uncertain if this will maintain in the future. Miller’s frame of consciousness is raw as he selflessly exposes himself through its lyrics.

“I’d put some money on forever, but I (Hey) / Don’t like to gamble on the weather, so I / Just watch while / The sun is shinin’, I can look at the horizon / The walls keep gettin’ wider, I just hope I never find ’em, I know”

“Jet Fuel” 

Here, Miller confesses the darkest elements of his psyche. He raps about his successes, their prices and his addiction, all in a way that defends not only his choices but his way of life. “Jet Fuel” may be the darkest track on the album, as he not only acknowledges his issues but, in a way, warrants them.

“And I ain’t callin’ it quits / You can build a wall with your bricks / While I keep talkin’ that shit, it’s like this (It’s like this) (Hmm) / Liquor still in my cup (My cup) / Get faded when I wake up (Wake up) / ‘Cause everything is too much (Too much)”

“2009”

The lyrics study the life Miller led since 2009, the year before he released his breakout “K.I.D.S.” mixtape. He touches on the hardships of depression, addiction, failed relationships and fame, all well promising that “nowadays all I do is shine, take a breath and ease my mind,” hinting at a positive bloom of his mental state. “2009” is one of the rawest reflections in Miller’s discography, one that feels like a tribute to his past, yet a vow to his future. 

“Yeah, they ask me what I’m smilin’ for / Well, because I’ve never been this high before / It’s like I never felt alive before / Mhmm, I’d rather have me peace of mind than war”

“So It Goes” 

Closing out the record, the instrumental outro draws Miller’s final curtain, “Just like a circle, I go back where I’m from.” The score reads as one last ballad, the culmination of a chapter no one knew was ending. In the final moments of the track, he promises that he’s “been out” and is now “back in town,” but here he fibs: Mac Miller never left. He’s eternally swimming, just through the breadth of his music.

“Well, everybody gather round / I’m still standin’, sit down / Whoa-oh/ And I know I been out (And I know I been out) / But now I’m back in town (But now I’m back in town), so I / Show you the ropes / So it goes, so it goes, so it goes”

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