How Mac Miller galvanized not only fans but critics alike in his "Watching Movies with the Sound Off" era and beyond.
I remember when I first heard about Mac Miller. It was during the infamous 2009-2010 blog era. This was a time when new artist discovery was moving towards the internet, but we hadn’t fully transitioned into the streaming service era. We were relying less on publications and influencers, and more on some random person’s blogspot(.com) to share the latest discoveries of a local artist, or else, we would simply go to a mixtape site (like this one) to discover new artists. Mac Miller was among this generation of blogosphere artists. He was a young teen with a fresh mixtape to tout, I’m probably thinking about K.I.D.S. This is a very round-about way of saying, when I first heard Mac Miller, I thought nothing of him. I wasn’t a fan, but I wasn’t not a fan. I wasn’t a hater, but I wasn’t enamored either. Like many people, I simply thought he was corny, and I shrugged off his musical pursuits. Things changed, though.
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Mac Miller’s turning point for a lot of his fans-- the late-to-the-party fans, including myself-- was during the Watching Movies with the Sound Off era. This was the album that found the critics slowly but surely coming around to Mac, marking his about-face from a critical pariah to a critical darling; that’s actually quite the feat if you think about it. Watching Movies with the Sound Off gave us a grown up Mac Miller, or perhaps more accurately, a Mac Miller who was in the processofgrowing up. He was still only 21 at the time.
As Mac Miller grew up before our eyes, from a 15-year old kid, to a 26-year old adult, so did his sound and his fans. Mac Miller is one of the few artists where, if you look at his discography, you’ll see the delineation-- leaps and bounds from album to album-- whether that be sonically, lyrically, mentally, spiritually. Typically, it was all of these elements, and that’s what made Mac’s growth so real. It wasn’t just a change of sound, or an added depth to his lyrics, it was the intersection of all these factors that enabled Mac to elevate to new artistic heights. It’s one of the reasons that would eventually draw me to him, the simple fact that he kept evolving.
One clear step in this evolution, right before WMWTSO, was his mixtape Macadelic. Mac turned his penchant for vanilla frat-boy-like anthems to something a bit more trippy, a bit more drugged out. He was slowly but surely washing away an image of cleanliness in exchange for one that was a bit more messy, a bit less put-together. Although, on the face of it, that may not sound like evolution per se-- but it was this foray that allowed the scope of his sound and the scope of his lyrics to widen. He was able to experiment. Part of this experimentation involved Mac dipping his toe into the production pool under the alias Larry Fisherman. Larry Fisherman appeared on WMWTSO as well as the mixtape that would follow Macadelic, giving Mac another outlet for his constant pursuit of creative growth.
“Thoughts from the Balcony,” off Macadelic, is evidence of Mac’s introspection, a direct consequence of growth, or perhaps, a propeller for growth. It’s this type of record that found Mac reflecting on his fame thus far, and where he might go from here. “All we got is memories, so what the fuck is time?” he asks. This idea of time, the lack thereof, and what in the world to do with it, became a recurring theme in Mac’s music.
“Thoughts from the Balcony” serves as a good jumping off point, to dive into the ambitious WMWTSO. Watching Movies was an intentional side-step of radio and the typical commercial route that an up-and-coming artist would aim for. Blue Slide Park established Mac’s mainstream, youth-approved appeal, but fell short of critical praise, despite its accomplishment as the first independent album to top the Billboard chart in almost twenty years. WMWTSO would harness a new approach that Mac was building throughout the projects that preceded it, including Macadelic.
At the time of Watching Movies' release, Rostrum Records president Benjy Grinberg iterated how radio wasn’t the focus, and they weren’t even sending any songs out to the radio. This idea was then affirmed in the chosen singles, like the Flying Lotus-produced “S.D.S”-- not exactly a radio-friendly record, with it’s digitally frantic production, purposefully messy structure, and overall lack of melody. Mac echoed this idea himself, saying, “The first album went number one, and I thought for a while that that’s what I have to aim for the second one, but I realized that it doesn’t matter. Each album is its own story.”
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The story of WMWTSO was fueled by Mac’s move from his native Pittsburgh to L.A., and the friends he would make there-- namely, the Top Dawg crew, Odd Future affiliates, among other indie artists at the time. They would not only offer collaborations for Watching Movies, which in and of itself helped Mac reach new audiences, they would become frequent, like-minded collaborators who were able to feed off each other’s creative visions. Drugs would become another influence in Mac’s musical growth, albeit, a double edged sword-- of course, it is drugs that would ultimately end Mac’s life all too soon. Drugs also seemed to open up his vision and allowed him to explore new depths.
Mac allowed introspection to consume him whole on Watching Movies, the next step forward after delivering records like "Thoughts from the Balcony." He explained in an interview with Vice at the time, “A lot of it comes from inside myself, you know. It was a lot of shutting out the rest of the world and finding the inspiration inside of myself. It was healthy and cleansing. Macadelic dealt a lot with my old girlfriend and a lot of it was driven by my relationship at that time. But with this record, I removed everything in my life. I had to sit there and do some soul searching.”
Introspection is often a cathartic process in its own right. Still, Mac wasn’t able to get everything off his chest using his mouthpiece-- “Red Dot Music” became a fast stand-out on the album, not only for it’s closing spoken word outro from Loaded Lux. But, it was in this outro that Mac laid himself bare-- he put forth the perspective that the general hip-hop public had of him, astute and self-aware. “You're a bully's best day ever with them Nike's on your feet / Coming through Blue Slide Park I'm gon' rob this chump / On a party on Fifth Ave like he Donald Trump / Nigga, give me that shit! / I liked you better when you was Easy Mac with the cheesy raps – who the fuck is Mac Miller?” Loaded Lux asks.
It’s a question Mac answered throughout the album, and it’s one he continued to answer with each new album. Mac gave more and more of himself to the music, and by extension to the fans, with each new album release.