Mac Miller released "Self-Care" on this day, two years ago. Today, we dissect the importance of this song.
Throughout his career, and by extension life, Mac oscillated between different states of mind; sometimes depressed and sometimes optimistic, these moods were reflected directly in his music. This isn’t a characteristic that is unique to him, we all feel differently depending on the day, depending on the clouds in the sky, depending on the social circumstances that surround us. But we don’t all lay these emotions bare in a soundtrack, one that encapsulates the exact dichotomy of these opposing moments in time.
From the cheery I Love Life, Thank You, was born the experimental drug use that gave us Macadelic; from the drug-addled Faces was born the upbeat and positive GO:OD AM; from the trippy, distorted Run On Sentences Vol. 2 was born the serene and humble ode to women, The Divine Feminine.
Following the release of The Divine Feminine in 2016, Mac took a brief hiatus, without dropping another album until 2018’s Swimming, which would become his final release before his death. Despite no musical piece between the two projects, Mac’s mind was definitely in a different place post-break-up with Ariana Grande; and that same month, earning a DUI. It is these little pieces, the fragments of Mac that were visible to the public at the time, that painted a picture of someone who appeared to be struggling. He kept a low profile, opting out of social media and the interactions therein, as he later explained to Zane Lowe right before Swimming arrived. This was for the benefit of a clear mind and the space that brings. Social media is at once ego stroking and destroying, as Mac himself said. “How am I even gunna have room for that?”, he asked, referencing the constant weight on his shoulders, that comes from reading everyone else’s thoughts and emotions about him.
Mac Miller at his "Swimming" album listening party, 2018 - Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images
“When I put The Divine Feminine out, that was the first time I had a clear head in 10 years,” Mac stated in this same interview. “I lived a certain life for 10 years and faced almost no real consequence at all. I had no version of the story that didn’t end up with me being fine.”
It’s chilling, foreboding and altogether upsetting, when you reflect back on any of the multiple statements Mac made about death, drugs or both . In the 2016 documentary with The Fader, Mac made it clear that he did not want to die as a result of his drug intake: “I’d rather be the corny white rapper than the drugged-out mess that can’t even get out of his house. You don’t go down in history because you overdosed." A year prior, he echoed this sentiment similarly in an interview with Billboard, where he referred to the final song on Faces: “‘Grand Finale’ was supposed to be the last song I made on earth. I don’t feel that way as much anymore.”
This see-saw of thoughts and actions; drifting from wanting to do drugs to wanting to be sober, is genuine in it’s humanity. It is a reflection of Mac Miller’s life, much in the same way each album he released is also a study on the current stop in his timeline. Mac’s nature was honest, whether the honesty was wrapped up in drugs or not, it was authentic in its intention. Even when Mac would hit his lows, he would do his best to pick up the pieces, and put himself back together. But, he did not shy away from the lows, he invited them in, and perhaps even reveled in them for a time being, which allowed him to create some of the music he did. In the aforementioned Fader documentary, Mac says something that speaks directly to his catalogue of music and him as a person: “I wanna be positive, as a human being and through music, but I also wanna have low points. It’s like an essential, man, there're moments and they get dark. Because nothing is all good.”
So, following his break-up with Ariana and his DUI-- this was a dark moment. Yet, as far as we could tell, he was getting himself out from under this bleakness when he released the song “Self-Care” on July 13, 2018, a month ahead of Swimming. Since Mac had been off of social media, this was essentially his way of letting us all know where his mind was at right now, that he was okay: “You get the itch to tell people, ‘don’t worry I’m okay’, ‘don’t worry I’m okay’,” he said in his Zane interview.
A memorial for Mac Miller at Fairfax and Melrose - Katharine Lotze/Getty Images
Despite his death, and the idea that, okay, maybe he wasn’t giving his body and mind as much self-care as he truly should have-- we need to remember “Self-Care.” It is perhaps one of Mac’s most important songs, in its simple concept. Despite his death, we can find solace in “Self-Care,” and surely, this is what Mac wanted. Despite his death, the message that’s tangled up into “Self-Care” is still profound.
The comfort we find in “Self-Care” isn’t just within the lyrics, but the production, too. Watery synths are cleansing for the mind, while Mac’s flow, wobbling in a few different directions, mimics this idea. The second half of “Self Care” takes us into “Oblivion,” a firmer, but still groovy end to the record that seems to stabilize the listener following the mind-purifying first half.
Mac confirms it’s that time again, a time of reflection and changing states of mind: “Yeah, I been reading them signs /I been losin' my, I been losin' my, I been losin' my mind,” before later confirming he’s had a change of perspective:
“Didn't know what I was missing, now I see a lil' different I was, thinking too much, got stuck in oblivion.”
In the music video, Mac finds himself in a wooden box, with nothing but a knife and a cigarette. Perhaps a reflection of his own self-isolation prior to the album, a concerted effort to heal himself-- but he leaves us with a disquieting feeling by the time the music video ends and he’s carved “memento mori” (“remember death”) into his coffin.
It doesn’t end like that, though. He begins to punch the box, pushing for his own release. When he finally breaks through, we see his head slowly emerging from a pile of dirt, at the same time as the song wanders into “Oblivion.” We think, then, he’s found his freedom, his release-- but as soon as he’s on his feet, atop the pile of dirt, an explosion topples him right back over.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but at its most basic, we can look at this collection of scenes, intertwined with the song itself, as a reflection of personal struggles-- Mac’s own, or otherwise-- the whole world can relate. We cannot let these personal struggles consume us whole, bury us, we need to try, try to fight them. Even in that instance, that we do overcome and break out of our own “wooden box,” we may face yet another new, unknown obstacle. But, we need these obstacles, we need the lows just as much as we need life’s highs. Without the lows, how would we even be able to identify the highs? The contrast is necessary, otherwise, we are in a state of neutrality (and what would life be, like that?).
Mac understood this so well, and it seemed to envelope his personal understanding of what ‘self-care’ means. At a surface level, we might think self-care is a spa-day or meditation. But it’s more than just that, if we’ve learned anything not only from Mac’s music but the way he lived his life. Taking care of one’s self is a forward motion, a constant pursuit of life’s ups and downs, even when crestfallen. This is self-care from a bird’s eye view rather than the type of self-care that might be wrapped up in minute day-to-day details, such as the spa day, taking fifteen minutes to read a book, or meditation. However moving forward in life-- evolving, growing, as it were, this is taking care of one’s being beyond just a physical nature or any immediate emotional gain. While Mac Miller’s journey may have been cut short in a haphazard but non-self-imposed way, “Self-Care” serves as an important reminder that Mac, at his core, was someone who wanted to do better, and be better, as a human.