Posthumous releases are a recurring theme sweeping across the modern hip hop genre. At this point in the industry, the premature death of popular young artists is a guarantee of a forthcoming collection of half-baked, reanimated and would-be tracks put to a beat. With subpar albums released under Lil Peep and XXXTentacion’s names as transparently greedy, one would not be faulted for worrying a forthcoming album of recordings from Malcolm McCormick, known professionally as Mac Miller, would be little more than a feast of scraps paraded by his label.
Fortunately, this is not the case.
Spearheaded by Jon Brion, who worked intimately with Miller on the album before his passing, the album feels remarkably full of life. Miller glides over the lo-fi, soulful production, emoting backhandedly on his disillusionment with life and the people around him. Though there isn’t a defined arc to the flow of the songs – one could really arrange this set of tracks in any way without truly fouling it up – the casual and hypnotic delivery of Miller’s words diffuses into the air alongside the tasteful and cautious luxury of Brion’s production. At times, the songs feel akin to the music playing as the credits roll for a movie we didn’t get to see more than a few scattered scenes of. The album isn’t staunchly somber, but it also isn’t exactly a celebration of life. Eerily, because Miller couldn’t have known it during the writing and recording, “Circles” is the sound of a man laid to rest.
The tracklist opens cold with the eponymous “Circles,” which, like many songs on the album, almost as if it was recorded underwater, which is fitting for an album that serves largely as a sequel and companion piece to Miller’s 2018 album “Swimming.” It’s a somewhat mired opening, likening the pointlessness of his own efforts of change to drawing circles. Things pick up instrumentally on the next track, “Complicated,” but the spirit of disenchantment carries on into his lyrics with statements such as “I’m way too young to be getting old” and a bit of understated ire at the complexity he feels surrounded by – two sentiments which his passing casts a tinge of tragic irony.
“Good News” and “Everybody” push “Circle’s” sense of cosmic self-awareness to an uncanny level, both discussing the fleeting nature of life and just how taxing Mac felt it was to carry on from day to day. The former was chosen to be the lead single of the album, and perhaps rightfully so. It was an excellent sample of what the album had coming instrumentally and in atmosphere. With the line “there’s a lot more waiting for me on the other side” alone, it’s a solemn track that haunts the listener. The Arthur Lee cover “Everybody” comes across as equally mortal, a feeling which can just as easily be attributed to Miller’s desperate vocal delivery as it can to the morbid nature of the lyrics.
Graciously, the album doesn’t stay in this pocket for its entirety. “Blue World” has seemingly endless bounce to it, with Miller sounding the most on his feet of any track on “Circles.” “Hand Me Downs” is not only a soft-smile detour about a woman in Miller’s life who allows him to cope, but also features the sole guest vocal performance with Baro Sura giving a smooth hook, the mere addition of which lurches the listener out of the stunning sense of isolation the album maintains until this point. “That’s On Me” is as far into the indie-sphere – and as far from hip hop – as the album ventures, and for the most part it satisfies. “Surf,” fittingly, is as breezy as an evening on the beach, but like a few of the tracks offers little to hold onto once the instrumental fades.
“Circles” is by no means a masterpiece in the traditional sense. The minimal production is sometimes only as passable as one allows it to be. The layers of deep introspection are somewhat scattered. However, as an album constructed largely without Miller’s guidance and with only the work he left behind, it feels strikingly true to his spirit. With so much left unsaid at the time of his passing, the album’s willingness to let him take center stage enables it to be the kind of album fans can take to heart.