Mac Miller's "The Divine Feminine" is (thus far) the peak of the most unexpected glo-up of the past five years.
If you had told me five years ago that one day, Mac Miller would be making expansive jazz-rap concept albums about dating one of the country's most talented and attractive pop stars, I would have either called you crazy or offed myself before I arrived in a future that held such a terrifying prospect. 2011 Mac was part of the post-"I Love College" frat rapper wave that also included Hoodie Allen, Sammy Adams, and Mike Stud, and even though he claimed that he "hate[d] college parties" at the time, his weed, booze, and girls-focused music fit right in with his more Greek Life-oriented contemporaries. He wasn't outright abhorrent in the way that modern-day Lil Dicky is, but in his early days, he was part of one of the most regrettable music scenes of this century. However, much like the guy responsible for the definitive frat rap anthem, Mac eventually grew up and out of his Kickin Incredibly Dope Shit phase.
Hoodie Allen moved onto pop music, Sammy Adams and Mike Stud are still touring college towns and seem to have never grown up, but Asher Roth quickly ditched the, "Here’s your song about weed, and here’s your girl song, and here’s your club banger" approach that he said he disliked about his early work, and did his own thing. His later projects haven't sold well or captured much of the media's attention, but at least they're honest and purposeful. As Max Goldberg wrote in his excellent guide to frat rap a couple of years ago, "it feels like Asher made a blueprint that Mac Miller not only followed but mastered," and since then, Mac's only gone further afield from his beginnings and gotten even better.
I'll admit that the first thing that got me to show an iota of respect towards Mac was a beat by one of my favorite producers, Flying Lotus, on his track "S.D.S." in 2013, and I still never thought I'd overcome my grudge. Then came Watching Movies With The Sound Off, which may have been a tad scatterbrained, but was at least interesting and had a handful of great tracks. Then Faces, despite its length, blew me away with its inventive tracks and collaborations with some of the finest minds in hip hop. Then GO:OD AM topped that! I still wouldn't say I'm head-over-heels about any of those projects, but the progression was undeniable. In the time it takes to get an undergrad degree, Mac Miller transformed from a Wiz Khalifa wannabe with an teaspoon-sized capacity for original thought to a songwriting and production wizard who's best friends with every forward-thinking musician in L.A. What's more, he kicked his drug problem along the way. You usually only see this degree of consistent evolution and maturation in artists who take two or three years between albums, but since Mac released I Love Life, Thank You almost exactly five years ago, each of his seven ensuing projects (not counting live albums or ones released under pseudonyms) has been better than the last.
The Divine Feminine fits right in line with Mac's existing trajectory, meaning that it's far and away his best album, and that it makes direct improvements on its predecessor. The problems that WMWTSO, Faces, and GO:OD AM all shared were their length and lack of focus, and even though the 53-minute TDF was originally an EP project that spiraled out into a full-length, its cohesiveness and relative brevity read as a wise response to the most common critiques Mac's received in years past. This would reflect poorly on the project if it felt uncomfortably cramped, but in actuality, the opposite's true. Songs are given room to breathe, often ebbing and flowing past the five-minute mark, and although I'm unwilling to calculate it, I'd bet that TDF has the least words-per-minute of any Mac project. Relaxed and confident, Mac comes through with an album that's just as much jazz and R&B as it is hip hop.
Much like Isaiah Rashad's recent Sun's Tirade, all of TDF's songs sound like they're part of the same body of work despite the fact that a wide array of producers, and an even wider array of session musicians, collaborated on them. GO:OD AM personnel I.D. Labs, Frank Dukes, DJ Dahi, and Thundercat return, and Mac also gets valuable assists from R&B killer JMSN, space funk master (and former Snoop Dogg collaborator) Dâm-Funk, jazz keyboardist Robert Glasper, and TDE mainstay Tae Beast. Although all the above have distinctive styles and knock around in different music scenes, throw all of them on a scatter plot based on genre, and TDF forms a pretty logical line of best fit. There's delicate piano riffs, tastefully subtle funk, languid jazz horns, in-the-pocket grooves, and minimal-but-hard modern rap drums, all wrapped in strings (courtesy of Juilliard students) to give things a more cinematic feel. As he showed on last year's great two-part banger "100 Grandkids," Mac is an expert at finding various grooves in the same melodic backdrop and letting songs evolve in a seemingly organic fashion, so no matter the genre him and his collaborators are playing with, everything's bound together by his deft rhythmic sensibility. Concept albums are usually best when the music matches the lyrics' attention to thematic consistency, and TDF achieves that with ease, its music overshadowing Mac's attempts at boiling down the idea of love into an album-length summary.
While he's undoubtedly had some explosive lyrical moments ("Diablo" and his verse on Riff Raff's "Aquaberry Dolphin" spring to mind), Mac's rapping has failed to capture my attention as much as his talent as a producer and collaborator. That holds true on TDF, which has its fair share of awkward lines ("I do you like a chore," "Your legs like a store, they open up and you got people in the aisle"), but again, this is the Mac Miller album with the least bars-per-second, so just by virtue of scarcity, his rapping is more bearable. Where he has noticeably improved is his singing, which is still ragged and a bit nasally, but is now inoffensive and even beautiful at times, such as the end of "Cinderella" or the harmonizing with Ariana Grande on "My Favorite Part." The latter even had Mac surprised at the result. "Our voices sound so nice together," he said recently in an interview, "You'd expect to hear us sing together and go, 'She makes him sound like an idiot.'" That self-deprecating sincerity makes Mac's clunkiness, as well as his lyrical and conceptual shortcomings, endearing, in a way that reminds me of two actors that are clearly among his favorites.
Robin Williams (sampled on "Soulmate") and Bill Murray (previously sampled on Faces' "It Just Doesn't Matter") began their careers as exuberant slapstick comedians, the former on '70s sitcom "Mork And Mindy," the latter on frat comedies "Meatballs" and "Caddyshack," but eventually grew into misty-eyed sad clowns equally adept at inciting laughter and tears. Having been through the tumult of drug addiction, Mac's gained some life experience and moved away from the happy-go-lucky weed raps of his youth. WMWTSO and Faces both dealt with the black comedy Williams and Murray are known for, with Mac laughing in the face of his demons, and even now that he's in a better headspace, some of that melancholic sense of mortality has followed him. When he's singing the parts of TDF that aren't explicitly happy or sex-focused, I can envision him looking at Grande like Murray looks at Scarlett Johansson in "Lost In Translation": enamored, longing, and just under the surface, a little sad. He's come a long way from his Best Day Ever, but it continues to seem like his best days are ahead of him.