The accomplishment of doing it with “no features” has been elevated into a badge of honor. A declaration of independence, fueled by a simple, internal bout of affirmation: I don’t need help to thrive. When soundly executed, a testament to an individual’s artistic merit. On that note, Mac Miller’s Swimming is a solitary affair. It would be a mistake to call it lonely, if only for the negative connotations imbued within the word. Yet there is something isolated about Mac’s latest project. In keeping with the title’s aquatic imagery, picture the timeless metaphor of man as island. Cut off from the world and left to suffer beneath the crushing weight of self-decay. In Mac’s case, however, his island lies firmly within swimming distance of civilization; on a clear night, his view is nothing short of sublime.
It feels unwise to anchor this review around those loved and lost. To do so feels like a disservice to Mac’s artistry. Unfortunately, those coming to Swimming informed of historical context will likely color their interpretation accordingly. Reflections on music therapy swirl and ripple throughout a surface listen; what better way to expel one’s devils than to bear soul on wax? Again, Mac’s prior history rears its head. The man has battled his fair share of demons, culminating in a recent DUI which might have ended differently in a darker universe. In that sense, many have already spoken at length about Swimming as an affirmation: I’m okay, thanks for asking.
Whatever else it may be, Swimming is the most personal project of his young career, though perhaps not his crowning achievement; such prestigious honors still belong to Watching Movies With The Sound Off or Faces, by my estimation. Yet the album is, quite clearly, Mac Miller in his purest form. No longer looking to contemporaries for guidance, or tormented by the murderous summons and dead-eyed reflection of Delusional Thomas, Mac has allowed himself room to float in the tranquil waters guilt-free. Gone are the moments of asserting lyrical dominance, the “100 Grandkids” and “Watching Movies” of his varied canon.In short, he has lowered the sword he once raised after Kendrick summoned him by name on “Control.”
This time around, Mac is speaking with his indoor voice. His indoor voice with sleeping guests upstairs, at that. Calm, almost conversational, Mac has ushered out the miscreants and ne’er do wells from his fabled home-studio. What followed was an act of spring cleaning the likes Casa de Miller has never seen. We’ve long understood “water” to be a metaphor for cleansing, and Mac has not attempted to reinvent timeless archetypes. Instead, he uses them confidently, mirroring the production accordingly. Sparse arrangements seldom crowd his vocals; synthesizers often appear washed out in reverb, mixed to simulate the phenomenon of being adrift.
Despite Mac’s welcoming tone, inoffensive lyricism, and aurally pleasing production, Swimming is not exactly an accessible album. Several songs span well over four minutes, with a decent chunk hovering around the six minute runtime. Such extensive offerings suggest a more cerebral experience than initially expected. Remember that any meaningful conversation requires attention to detail; Swimming is not an album for the party, but rather the midnight cruise. Listeners are expected to lose themselves in the opening movement of “2009,” classically inspired with a lush string and piano arrangement. Those willing to take the plunge are rewarded with Mac at his finest, taking to an innocent loop with a storyteller’s confidence. “I don’t have it all but that’s alright with me,” raps Mac, coyly sliding through with the album’s primary thesis.
As for the songs, they largely operate within the same sonic scope; live instrumentation, evocative of previous collaborator Anderson .Paak, is the primary method of communication. Single “What’s The Use?” finds Mac spitting laid-back rhymes over one of the year’s most vibrant basslines. The lovely simplicity of highlight “Dunno” brings forth a lively synth loop, evoking whimsical imagery of budding love or inanimate objects suddenly being gifted the ability to walk. Mac’s musical aptitude has always been one of his major appeals, and as a result, the production feels like his own personal playground. Little flourishes and licks are constant reminders of Miller’s under-appreciated ear.
Though Swimming may feel like the quintessential project for Miller’s day one fans, it’s not without a few shortcomings. Gone are the moments of mischief and cartoonish braggadocio. Likewise for that darker, hallucinogenic sound, which Mac has previously flirted with on occasion. Granted, it’s far superior for Mac to be in a healthy state of mind, though some of his endearing moxie seems to have evaporated in the process. Yet one must always remember the immortal wisdom of Shawn Carter: you want his old shit, buy his old albums. For those who have stood by Mac’s side throughout the tumultuous ride, Swimming will be more than enough. For the casual fan, however, it may prove too deep a commitment for anything beyond a toe-dip.
One thing is for certain. Mac Miller is in a healthy place. For that reason, Swimming has value on a purely psychological perspective; few albums in recent memory have given such honest insight into a creator’s mind. Like any good conversation, Swimming is likely at its best after the fact, when the nuances and cadential shifts have had time to resonate. In the meantime, Mac Miller will be posted on his island, eyes shifting from rising tide to flickering city lights, free to set his course wherever he deems appropriate.