Music

Mac Miller’s ‘Circles’ and the Ethics of Posthumous Albums

Mac Miller’s sixth and final album, Circles, is full of unguarded lyrics, typical of an artist who looked increasingly inwards as his career progressed, but listening through it for the first time there was one that particularly struck me. In the final few lines of ‘Once a day’, a beautiful, remarkably candid dive into his struggles with mental illness that closes the album, Miller sings that ‘Once a day I try/but I can’t find a single word’. It’s a chilling, immensely moving line that is almost ironic considering how vividly he depicts the loneliness of depression and heartbreak in the 11 tracks that precede it.

Written before Miller’s death in 2018 and released over a year later, Circles is a truly beautiful album, a reflective piece dripping with mood and atmosphere from the ethereal synths of ‘I Can’t See’, to the fusion of distorted guitar and Miller’s bluesy mumble on the standout ‘Surf’. It’s also far from being without hope, or humour; the chorus of ‘Surf’ constantly circles back to the lyric ‘there’s water in the flowers, let’s grow’, and on ‘Good News’ Miller raps about how he’s ‘spent the whole day in my head/doing spring cleaning’. Yet listening to the more poignant lines from Circles (‘there’s a whole lot more for me/waiting on the other side’), I was unable to avoid subconsciously placing them in the context of his passing.

In some ways that’s not surprising. The culture around posthumous albums has changed over the last few decades. Where once record labels and studios would pump out albums featuring unreleased studio recordings, canned songs and covers, now the posthumous album is increasingly portrayed as an artistic statement- a final goodbye to fans, a last insight into an artist’s mind and a way to cement their legacy. This is not always a good thing. XXXtencion’s Bad Vibes Forever and Skins harnessed this sense of mysticism and idolisation to twist the memory of a figure perhaps best forgotten. Legitimised by contributions from Kanye West and Lil Wayne, the misplaced hysteria surrounding XXXtencion was encouraged by a marketing campaign determined to frame the rapper as a tortured genius taken before his time, as opposed to a troubled figure with a history of violence and domestic abuse.

The hype worked – Skins debuted at the top of the Billboard 200. The myth and sentimentality that got it there lingers around many posthumous albums, inevitably making them powerful commercial draws. Tupac’s The Don Killuminati went straight to No.1 after he was shot four times in Las Vegas in 1996, and his rival The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life after Death repeated the feat a year later. Subsequently, Tupac has released more albums dead than alive. In light of the commercial motivations behind a lot of posthumous releases, how can we not be sceptical of releases such as the two new David Bowie records coming out this year? Whilst diehard fans may appreciate the new material, which is apparently a mix of unreleased versions of songs recorded in the 90s and live sessions, it’s difficult to see much of a reason for them beyond the fact that after Bowie’s death in 2016, sales of his albums rose by more than 5000% in the US (plus, they are unlikely to provide a more fitting goodbye to the great man than his brilliant 2016 release Blackstar).        

Most posthumous albums walk this thin line between maintaining artistic integrity and maximising profits, and few do it successfully. The glut of material released in the decades after Jimi Hendrix’s death is perhaps the most famous example of how not to get it right – the decision to overdub surviving tapes with additional parts by studio musicians was viciously attacked by fans and led to a 20-year legal battle between Hendrix’s family and the record label. At times, the commercialism behind the handling of artists catalogues can be astonishingly blatant, with Sony Music’s decision to raise the cost of Whitney Houston’s greatest hits in the wake of her death being the most egregious and heavily criticised example. Perhaps the most curious form of posthumous content, however, is the recent trend for ‘hologram tours.’ The unsettling, slightly dystopian idea of resurrecting dead stars and sending them on astonishingly lucrative tours, presumably until the end of time, is a fairly recent development, but it’s becoming increasingly common. Tupac was the first to be brought back, enhancing his reputation as the busiest dead person since Jesus with a ghostly appearance alongside Dr Dre and Snoop Dog at Coachella in 2012. Since then, the ‘Rock’n’Roll dream tour’ has paired holograms of 60s rock-and-roll stalwarts Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly, and similar runs are being planned for intangible doppelgangers of Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse.        

The ethics of these tours are extremely questionable. Based on agreements between the artist’s estate and record labels or tour promoters, they’ve been dubbed ‘ghost slavery’ by some, and their growing popularity raises the spectre (literally) of stars being resurrected via hologram without their consent- as almost happened with Prince, whose holographic appearance at the 2018 Superbowl was scrapped after it emerged he’d previously described them as ‘demonic’. The debate over whether it is acceptable to use an artist’s likeness in this way is part of a larger tug-of-war within the industry between artists and the companies that own their back catalogues and marketing rights. In this sense, the nascent industry of hologram tours is arguably a particularly creepy by-product of the commodification of musicians and artists.

Despite this somewhat fraught environment, it is possible to do a posthumous release well, and I believe Circles is proof of this. What is striking about the album is how it feels like a coherent artistic vision, not just in terms of sticking to what made Mac Miller great but also by showing his musical evolution. Circles is a long way from a traditional rap album, and even further from Miller’s earliest releases, mixing the jazz and funk elements explored in its predecessor Swimming with John Lennon-esque piano balladry, and it wears its contrarian stripes proudly through a cover of bluesman Arthur Lee’s ‘Everybody’s Gotta Live’, an admirably rogue choice. Miller’s wordplay is scintillatingly sharp, and lines like ‘you throw me off my high horse/I’ll probably fall to my death’ betray a hint of playfulness remarkable for such a sad album. That it is so coherent is impressive, considering it was put together by producer Jon Brion, who worked with Miller before his death and finished Circles based on ‘his time and conversations’ with the rapper. Brion has spoken movingly in interviews about how hard it was to finish ‘Circles’ in the wake of Miller’s death, with the two having grown close, and the meticulous production of the album perfectly reflects this.

One of my favourite albums of last year was a posthumous album; Leonard Cohen’s Thanks for the Dance, released three years after Cohen died and the final word on a 50-year career. Whilst listening to and reading about Circles, I thought a lot about Dance – musically the two albums are in no way alike, but they are in some ways strangely similar. Dance was put together by Cohen’s son Adam, from a series of songs written before he died that ranged from nearly complete to barely sketched; for the final track, ‘Hummingbird’, he tracked down a recording of a poem Cohen had recited during a press conference and set it to music. Yet like Circles, it sounds incredibly seamless and vital, confronting old age and mortality with the same openness and poignancy that Miller harnesses in his dissection of mental illness and heartbreak, and likewise ending with a final line that serves as a fitting coda; ‘Listen to the Hummingbird/don’t listen to me’.

Adam Cohen described the making of ‘Thanks for the Dance’ as a part of his healing process (‘He’d asked me to complete these works, which we’d begun together, and that’s what I was doing’), and Jon Brian has similarly described his finishing of Circles at the request of Miller’s family as an equally emotionally significant form of ‘collaboration’. Perhaps that’s the value of a posthumous album, and the key to making a good one; something which allows family, friends, and fans to work through the loss that comes with the death of anyone who gave such meaning to their lives, if only through hearing their voice one last time.